More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
When Toddlers Turn on the TV and Actually Learn
September 5, 2006
By LISA GUERNSEY, New York Times

Yelling at the television used to be the domain of adults watching ?Jeopardy!? But young children have become the real pros.

Sit down with a 3-year-old to watch ?Blue?s Clues? or ?Dora the Explorer,? and see the shouting erupt. Whenever a character faces the camera and asks a question, children out there in TV land are usually answering it.

Active engagement with television has been an antidote to criticism that the tube creates zombies. ?Blue?s Clues,? which celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, has been credited with helping young children learn from the screen. Academic research has shown that viewers ages 3 to 5 score better on tests of problem solving than those who haven?t watched the show.

But what happens with children younger than 3? Should babies and toddlers be exposed to television at all? Is there any chance that they could actually learn from the screen? While debates rage among parents, pediatricians and critics of baby videos (think ?Baby Einstein?), developmental psychologists are trying to apply some science to the question.

Experiments conducted at Vanderbilt University, described in the May/June issue of Child Development, offer some hints about toddlers. They showed that 24-month-olds are more apt to use information relayed by video if they consider the person on the screen to be someone they can talk to. Without that, the children seemed unable to act on what they had seen and heard.

The experiments compared two video experiences: One was based on a videotape. Watching it was similar to watching ?Blue?s Clues?; the actor onscreen paused to simulate a conversation, but back-and-forth interaction with the viewer was impossible. A different group of children experienced two-way live video. It worked like a Web cam, with each side responding in real time.

Georgene L. Troseth and Megan M. Saylor, psychologists at Vanderbilt, and Allison H. Archer, an undergraduate student there, designed the study to find out if toddlers would learn from video if they considered the onscreen actors to be, as they put it, ?social partners.?

The test hinged on a hiding game. First the 2-year-olds watched the video ? either the tape or the live version. The screen showed a person hiding a stuffed animal, Piglet, in a nearby room, often under a table or behind a couch. When the video ended, the children were asked to retrieve Piglet. Those who saw the recorded video had some trouble. They found him only 35 percent of the time. Children in the other group succeeded about 69 percent of the time, a rate similar to face-to-face interaction.

Does this mean that TV programs that simulate interaction are doing nothing for kids? Not necessarily, the researchers say. A few of the children in the recorded video group were especially responsive to the games and pauses, and they were the few children in that group who retrieved the toy.

?We found that if children gave evidence of treating the video as a social partner,? Dr. Troseth said, ?they will use the information.?

Their article referred specifically to ?Blue?s Clues,? saying the show appeared to be ?on the right track? ? a point that, not surprisingly, thrilled creators of the program. Alice Wilder, the show?s director of research, said each script was tested in live settings with children to make sure that the show?s hosts ? a young man named Steve in the early seasons and the current one, Joe ? appear to be having realistic, child-centered conversations with viewers.

Developmental psychologists say the Vanderbilt research offers an intriguing clue to a phenomenon called the ?video deficit.? Toddlers who have no trouble understanding a task demonstrated in real life often stumble when the same task is shown onscreen. They need repeated viewings to figure it out. This deficit got its name in a 2005 article by Daniel R. Anderson and Tiffany A. Pempek, psychologists at the University of Massachusetts, who reviewed literature on young children and television.

Child-development experts say the deficit confirms the age-old wisdom that real-life interactions are best for babies. Parents can be assured, they say, that their presence trumps the tube.

But psychologists still want to get to the bottom of what might explain the difference. Is it the two-dimensionality of the screen? Do young children have some innate difficulty in remembering information transmitted as symbols? ?It?s definitely still a puzzle, and we?re trying to figure out the different components to it,? said Rachel Barr, a psychologist at Georgetown University who specializes in infant memory. She and Harlene Hayne at the University of Otago in New Zealand published some early evidence of the video deficit in 1999.

The Vanderbilt research offers the possibility that the more socially engaging a video is, the more likely the deficit will disappear. But Dr. Troseth and other psychologists stress that in-person connections with parents are by far a child?s best teacher. No word yet on whether that includes those moments when harried parents are so distracted that TV characters are more responsive than they are.


when toddlers turn on the t.v. and actually learn how to use the remote control.. then we all in trouble.. i know mine learnt very quickly how to use it and what number to press for the fav programme... usually that big purple fella.... aaahhh Barney!! followed by Bosco.. mind you i even watched lol and then sesame street... go big bird!!! heh heh

The more music and games these programmes had the better thye liked them, they learnt songs and numbers ect ect..

anyway that's my tuppence worth as they say.

P.s I don't think you need to be a scientist (or a rocket scientist :) )to know if certain programmes are good for the kids.


I wonder if Abby has found the remote yet... or bbc's little one... anyone else have wee kiddies.. do they know how the t.v works??

maybe we can do our own research here... lol
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