Video wasted on toddlers, unless it's interactive

May 18, 2006

Your toddler can sing along with The Wiggles and knows Big Bird's face as well as she knows her own, but are those hours spent watching children's videos really helping her learn? New research indicates that parents should choose videos with high interactive content if they want their children to be educated as well as entertained by their time in front of the tube.

The findings were published in the May 17 issue of Child Development by Vanderbilt University psychologists Georgene Troseth and Megan Saylor.

"By age 2, children have figured out that other people are a primary source of information about the world, and they use social cues such as facial expression and where a person looks or points to gather that information. As a result, they are more likely to learn from a person on video whom they perceive as a conversational partner," Troseth said. "In our study, if a video was not interactive, children were much more likely to dismiss the information being conveyed."

The toddler entertainment market has exploded in recent years - infants, toddlers and preschoolers in the United States watch an average of one to three hours of television and videotapes a day. But there is little information on what makes effective programming for these tiny viewers.

Troseth, Saylor and research assistant Allison Archer conducted two experiments to better understand which type of video best engaged toddlers. In the first, they tested differences in learning from video and from face-to-face interactions among 24 2-year-olds. A woman on a TV screen told the children where to find a stuffed animal hidden in another room. She then gave a second group of children the same information in person. The first group of toddlers rarely found the stuffed animal, suggesting they just didn't believe or listen to the woman on the screen. The children given the instructions in person usually found the toy.

In the second experiment, the researchers used a closed-circuit video system to make the video interactive. The woman on the screen could see, hear and respond to the children through conversation and games. After five minutes of interacting with the woman on the TV, children used the information she provided to find the hidden object.

Troseth and her colleagues believe the results indicate that because toddlers understand the difference between their "real" environment and what they see on videos, they are likely to dismiss information offered by someone on television unless that person is clearly interacting with them. This interaction can include tactics such as asking children questions, using their name, or referring to something the child can see and touch in their real environment.

"There is good evidence from other research that watching shows such as Dora the Explorer and Blue's Clues in which characters speak directly into the camera and wait for responses can positively impact children's mental and language development," Troseth said. "Our new findings have implications for educational television aimed at toddlers, as well as for the use of video images in research with this age group."

Troseth also offered some advice for parents feeling guilty about turning their kids over to the electronic babysitter.

"As long as video exposure is a small part of infants' and toddlers' daily activities, and those activities include lots of time interacting with family members, parents should stop feeling guilty," Troseth said. "What's bad is if the television is always on in the background - this disrupts parent-child interaction and the quality of children's play."
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Troseth served as a consultant for Sesame Workshop on their new DVD series, which uses Muppet babies and caregivers to encourage and model good social interaction. She is a member of the Vanderbilt Learning Sciences Institute and a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development investigator. The new research was supported by Vanderbilt's Peabody College and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Child Development is an academic journal published by the Society for Research in Child Development. For additional information about the society, contact Andrea Browning at (202) 336-5926 or abrowning@srcd.org or visit http://www.srcd.org.

For more Vanderbilt news visit VUCast, Vanderbilt's news network, at http://www.vanderbilt.edu/news.

Vanderbilt University

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