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Toddlers Do Not Learn Words from Baby Videos


Toddlers Do Not Learn Words from Baby Videos

UC Riverside researchers find that children under age 2 do not learn new words from viewing videos.

(March 1, 2010)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Videos intended to help toddlers develop language skills do not help very young children learn new words, researchers at the University of California, Riverside have found.

In a study published online today in the journal Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, “Word Learning from Baby Videos,” the UCR researchers found no evidence that children age 12 to 24 months learned words from infant-focused DVDs. The study, “Influences of Digital Media on Very Young Children,” is funded with a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Researchers Rebekah A. Richert, assistant professor of psychology; graduate student Michael B. Robb; Jodi G. Fender, post-graduate researcher; and Ellen Wartella, distinguished professor of psychology, randomly placed an ethnically diverse pool of 96 children ages 12 months to 24 months and their primary caregivers into two groups.

One group was assigned to watch a baby DVD at home, and the other was not. Both groups, selected from communities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in Inland Southern California, visited the researchers’ lab at two-week intervals over a six-week period. The viewing group was instructed to watch the DVD five times in each two-week period between visits to the lab, but otherwise follow their normal routine. Researchers allowed parents to decide who, if anyone, would watch the DVD with their children. Parents were asked to record in a diary the dates and times when viewing occurred. The control group did not view the DVD and was instructed to follow normal home routines.

Because participants in the control group returned to the lab at the same intervals, all parents knew the specific words the researchers were tracking. Words on the videos were common objects or places such as table, chair, kitchen and bathroom.

At each visit the researchers measured knowledge of the specific words highlighted in the DVD in three ways: words understood, in which parents reported which words their children could understand out of a list of 30 words highlighted in the DVD; words said, in which parents identified which words their children could say out of the same 30 words; and picture identification, in which children were shown paired pictures of objects chosen from among the DVD-highlighted words and asked to point to a target word.

In lab viewing sessions attended by participants in both groups, children who spoke new words were most likely to do so either following parents’ use of the word or parents’ general talk about what was happening on the screen. Thus, in some cases, parents could use the DVD to teach their children new words.

“Because all parents knew which words were being tested, we expected any parental coaching effects to be the same in the DVD and no-DVD groups,” the researchers wrote. “Other than the general gains in word knowledge attributable to time and age, children who viewed the DVD at home over six weeks did not demonstrate new knowledge of the DVD-highlighted words.” There was no evidence that exposure to the DVD over six weeks helped or hindered children’s general language learning, they said.

Many cognitive factors play a role in learning from screens at this age, including children’s developing perceptual systems, their understanding of symbols and analogy, and their developing abilities to discriminate how much they should trust different sources of information, the researchers said. “Given that children under the age of 2 are developing all of these capabilities, we may not expect them to learn some kinds of content from a television screen.”

Parental interaction, not solitary viewing of baby videos, makes a difference in the acquisition of language skills, said Richert, the article’s lead author and co-principal investigator of the project. Wartella is the principal investigator for the grant.

Although some research suggests children younger than 2 will imitate characters on screen, it is probably not until age 2 ½ to 3 that children’s cognitive skills develop enough to experience educational benefits from screen media, she said. “By the time they get a little older, about 2.5-plus years, programs like ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Mr. Rogers’ do have great benefits, especially in homes in which parents don’t have as much free time to spend with their children, or children do not have access to many educational resources.”

Younger children may find screen media entertaining, but research shows there is no reason to expect them to learn anything specific, Richert said.

“Cognitive development still happens in the way it has for centuries. Infants learn through live social interaction,” she said.

Given that infant-directed media have become a nearly ubiquitous aspect of many infants’ lives, future research should continue to examine whether and how parents can use these DVDs effectively to teach their young children, the researchers concluded.

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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