Study: TV May Inhibit Babies' Language Development

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As most parents of small children will reluctantly admit, nothing can occupy a child quite like television. Unfortunately, the scientific evidence suggests that using the boob tube as a babysitter has its price: the more time babies spend sitting in front of the screen, the more their social, cognitive and language development may suffer. Recent studies show that TV-viewing tends to decrease babies' likelihood of learning new words, talking, playing and otherwise interacting with others.

A new study published Monday in the Archive of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine adds to that evidence while introducing an intriguing new perspective. Many studies have suggested that television impedes learning by inhibiting youngsters' ability to interact with others, and according to Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a University of Washington pediatrician, that effect may be compounded when parents get drawn into TV-watching too.

Christakis reports that when babies get caught up with what's playing on television, their parents are equally likely to get distracted, which limits their exchanges with their kids. It's a three-way interaction, with TV affecting both children and their parents, and the parents' detachment further impairing their children. For the first time, Christakis' group even quantified exactly the degree to which TV-viewing can cripple parent-child communication: for every hour a television was turned on, babies heard 770 fewer words from an adult, the new study found. Conversational exchanges between baby and parent dropped 15%, as did the overall number of vocalizations made by children.

To document each "vocal event," Christakis outfitted 329 babies and children, ages 2 months to 4 years, with pager-sized recorders on their chests that recorded every audible sound either the baby or any adult made over a 16-hour period. Each child wore the monitor for one randomly assigned day a month for up to two years. In addition, the recorder captured sound from a television whenever it was turned on within earshot of the baby. Specially designed software then coded all audible sounds made or heard when the TV was both on and off.

Christakis argues that regardless of what is playing on the screen — whether it's baby-friendly content or shows geared toward adults — television by nature is a passive medium that hampers rich social interaction. Even when parents and children interacted actively while watching TV together, the net effect of having it turned on, for a few minutes or hours, was a drop in vocalizations. On average, the study found, when the TV is switched on, youngsters spend more time in silence and solitude than they do in active social interaction. "At minimum, the findings should give parents pause," says Christakis, noting that in 30% of American households, the television is on most of the day, regardless of whether anyone is watching.

That's especially true when it comes to DVDs and videos marketed to enhance infant development; many claim to work by encouraging parents and babies to engage and interact with each other as they watch. But the new study shows the opposite effect: whatever the programming, the ultimate outcome of television noise is to inhibit verbal exchanges. In earlier work, Christakis also documented that baby DVDs and videos may even contribute to a drop in language acquisition in infants. That's partly why the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages television-watching for babies under 2.

One major weakness of the study, however, is that it fails to determine a specific association between programming content and infant development. Because the recorder documented only the sound of the television and not the content of what was playing, Christakis can't say for sure whether kid-targeted programming could actually lead the youngsters to vocalize, talk and interact with their parents more. "It is possible to put on the TV and really engage with a child verbally," says Christakis.

But given his previous findings on the issue, his hunch is that television probably isn't the ideal medium for promoting real interaction between parent and child. If it were, he argues, then the net effect of having the TV on, whether in the foreground or in the background as noise, would have been richer and would have led to more sustained exchanges and conversations.

Nothing, it seems, beats the most basic form of bonding — a good old-fashioned one-on-one powwow, even if you're only trading coos and gurgles.