Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Baby Bart? On American Idol?

Studies like this - or rather, articles like this - drive me crazy.

'Baby Einstein': a bright idea?

Infants shown such educational series end up with poorer vocabularies, study finds. Researcher says 'American Idol' is better.

By Amber Dance, Times Staff Writer
August 7, 2007

Parents hoping to raise baby Einsteins by using infant educational videos are actually creating baby Homer Simpsons, according to a new study released today.

(emphasis mine)

Studies never say shit like this, and while I realize that newspapers need to try to sell information/newspapers, they can do so while being scientifically accurate. First of all, the writer should have used "may be" rather than "are." (for reasons I'll go into in a bit) and "according to the results of a" rather than "according to a" because the way it's written now makes it sound like they are paraphrasing rather than interpreting the study. Also, the bit about American Idol needs to be crossed off. It's eye catching to be sure, but since the exact quote (found at the end of the article) is:
"I would rather babies watch 'American Idol' than these videos," Christakis said, explaining that there is at least a chance their parents would watch with them — which does have developmental benefits.

(emphasis mine)

it's misleading in the extreme. Headlines should not act like all the adorable newsboys in Newsies.

So, what does the study say? Well, the article has three whopping paragraphs about the actual study (about a third to a quarter of the total story):

For every hour a day that babies 8 to 16 months old were shown such popular series as "Brainy Baby" or "Baby Einstein," they knew six to eight fewer words than other children, the study found.

Christakis and his colleagues surveyed 1,000 parents in Washington and Minnesota and determined their babies' vocabularies using a set of 90 common baby words, including mommy, nose and choo-choo.

The researchers found that 32% of the babies were shown the videos, and 17% of those were shown them for more than an hour a day, according to the study in the Journal of Pediatrics.


Christakis said children whose parents read to them or told them stories had larger vocabularies.

Two things stand out.

First, that half the parents who showed their kids the videos had their kids watch them for more than an hour a day, which (I believe) goes against the instructions on the videos. It definitely goes against common sense. Considering how much time babies/toddlers spend sleeping and eating and how much time they need to spend talking to people and doing physical activity, doing anything other than these four things for more than an hour a day is generally not a good idea. It's not the positive act of watching the videos that's the problem, it's the negative act of not doing the talking and the moving around. So, as long as you make sure your baby/toddler spends a lot of time doing these things, there's really no reason to think that you are dumbing your baby down by popping in a video every once in while. And since the study didn't divide up kids who watched up to an hour and kids who watched more than an hour, it doesn't really tell us more than were already knew, or could have guessed.

Secondly, the way the last sentence is phrased suggests that there are two groups of parents, the ones who show their kids videos and the ones who talk and read to their kids. In reality, there are three, parents who show their kids videos, parents who talk and read to their kids, and parents who do both. (Well, four, there are also parents who do none of these things, but we don't need a study to tell us that this control group would have a lot of developmentally lagging children.)

This is why the "are" instead of a "may be" annoys the crap out of me. My niece and nephew have had both Baby Einstein videos and a crazy amount of books since day one. They've always been read to a lot and have only watched more than an hour of television a day on very rare occasions. I don't know if the Baby Einstein videos have helped or hurt them or neither, but they are most definitely not Homer Simpsons. And since having to sit with them while they watch videos and cartoons would have taken away one on my sister's breaks and made her more frazzled and worn out during the rest of the day, I very strongly disagree that watching American Idol or anything else with my sister would have been to anyone's benefit.

As I understand it, the Baby Einstein videos were not created to make babies smarter so much as they are meant to be media that is developmentally appropriate for babies and toddlers. In my opinion, the Baby Einstein videos are developmentally appropriate as long as you follow these three conditions:

1) no more than an hour a day (preferably less than an hour and not every day) - except on rare occasions.

2) stick to the ages recommended as much as possible (it's ok to bend the rules if your kid is above or below the curve and if your kid as become obsessed with a particular topic)

3) Repetition. Don't buy a bunch and show a new one each day, start with just one or two and show the same one for an entire week - or even month, if you are only showing them videos a couple times a week.

We've already discussed rule number 1. Rule number 2 is there because the concepts in the videos are broken down into age appropriate concepts and matched with age appropriate pacing and dialogue.

The article describes the videos as
The videos, which are designed to engage a baby's attention, hop from scene to scene with minimal dialogue and include mesmerizing images, like a lava lamp.

Which isn't really accurate. They do not "hop from scene to scene" - at least not compared to most TV/movies. They are very slow paced, with much fewer cuts per minute, and tend to include a lot of logical transitions. Seriously, minutes will go by at times without a cut*, which pretty much doesn't happen in regular TV unless you're watching a show by Joss Whedon or the like.

The minimal dialogue is good for the babies, who don't benefit from dialogue on screen the same way they benefit from the conversation around them.** The "dialogue" in the videos for babies is meant to act like a parent consistently pointing to a dog and saying "dog." They pretty much repeat a handful of vocabulary words at appropriate times. Which, no, does not work as well as having the child interact with others, but it is better than lots of dialogue on screen. The videos for older toddlers have more actual dialogue than what babies can follow on screen, and that's part of the reason why it's best to stick to the recommended ages.

Rule 3 is there to remind parents that kids need repetition in order for things to sink in. That's why the videos will repeat the same images and words over and over again. That's also why your kid will ask for the same book over and over again. One of the TV shows that has been proven to increase kid's vocabulary and thinking skills, Blue's Clues, only really does so when the repetition that the creators intended (the same show repeated throughout the week) is followed.

Videos are not a substitute for parent-child interactions or books and stories. But considering how much information adults get from media like TV, it's about time we started thinking critically about how to make our kids media saavy in ways that go beyond "advertising bad" and "TV bad." Part of that includes more nuanced studies than just "reading is better than watching movies!" Well, considering the state of the media, duh. But until we acknowledge that moving pictures can be more than just entertainment, very few of them will be anything other than entertaining.


*A noticeable one, anyway. Some of the videos have skits with puppets, and there will be cuts between the skits when the puppets are offstage, but you have to know what you are looking for to see them.

**A caveat: while still not as good as person to person conversation, dialogue that rhymes a lot (songs, nursery rhymes, poetry, Dr. Seuss books on tape) should work as well as the concentration on particular vocabulary words. The idea is that, because babies have a harder time following dialogue on screen, you want to focus on one thing instead of expecting them to pick it all up together. Having mostly words that rhyme allows them to focus on the sound of language, rather than the meaning of words. This is the one area I think the Baby Einstein videos are lacking in, they concentrate too much on vocabulary and not enough on the other parts of language that babies need to learn.

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