[Paleopsych] NYT: See Baby Touch a Screen. but Does Baby Get It?
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Wed Dec 28 03:01:48 UTC 2005
See Baby Touch a Screen. but Does Baby Get It?
By TAMAR LEWIN
Jetta is 11 months old, with big eyes, a few pearly teeth -
and a tiny index finger that can already operate electronic
"We own everything electronic that's educational - LeapFrog,
Baby Einstein, everything," said her mother, Naira
Soibatian. "She has an HP laptop, bigger than mine. I know
one leading baby book says, very simply, it's a waste of
money. But there's only one thing better than having a baby,
and that's having a smart baby. And at the end of the day,
what can it hurt? She learns things, and she loves them."
New media products for babies, toddlers and preschoolers
began flooding the market in the late 1990's, starting with
video series like "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby." But
now, the young children's market has exploded into a host of
new and more elaborate electronics for pre-schoolers,
including video game consoles like the V.Smile and handheld
game systems like the Leapster, all marketed as educational.
Despite the commercial success, though, a report released
yesterday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, "A Teacher in the
Living Room? Educational Media for Babies, Toddlers and
Pre-schoolers," indicates there is little understanding of
how the new media affect young children - and almost no
research to support the idea that they are educational.
"The market is expanding rapidly, with all kinds of
brand-new product lines for little kids," said Vicky
Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Foundation. "But the
research hasn't advanced much. There really isn't any
outcomes-based research on these kinds of products and their
effects on young children, and there doesn't seem to be any
theoretical basis for saying that kids under 2 can learn
"If parents are thinking, 'I need a break, I'll put my
4-year-old in front of this nice harmless video,' that's one
thing," she continued, "But if parents are thinking, 'This
is good for my 3-month-old, it will help her get ahead in
the world,' that's another."
In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended no
screen time at all for babies under 2, out of concern that
the increasing use of media might displace human interaction
and impede the crucially important brain growth and
development of a baby's first two years. But it is a
recommendation that parents routinely ignore. According to
Kaiser, babies 6 months to 3 years old spend, on average, an
hour a day watching TV and 47 minutes a day on other screen
media, like videos, computers and video games.
"These new media toys are growing and becoming quite
prevalent," said Claire Lerner, a child-development expert
at Zero to Three, a nonprofit advocacy group that includes
information about brain development on its Web site. "This
generation of parents grew up thinking technology was all
positive, so if they see their child looking happy, engaged
with what's on the screen, it's very seductive. But a group
of toddlers making up a story together is a much richer
learning experience than dragging things across a screen to
make a story. Children learn best in the context of
While there is no research on the effect of the new
commercial products, earlier research has shown that
educational television can teach 3- to 5- year-olds
vocabulary and number concepts. Most child-development
experts, however, say that babies under about 2½ are not
sufficiently developed for such learning.
Still, many parents buy their babies toys designed for older
children, either believing that their children are unusually
advanced or hoping the toys will make them so.
Just minutes after spending $150 on a VideoNow player and
cartridges (ages 7 and up) at a Manhattan Toys "R" Us, Ms.
Soibatian holds Jetta up in her stroller to see if she is
interested in Learn Through Music Plus! (ages 2 to 5). At
first, Jetta gently bops the screen with her whole hand,
watching the flashing lights, but soon she notices the
buttons, the index finger goes out, and a delighted Ms.
Soibatian is ready to buy again.
"You're never too young to learn, and kids nowadays are more
advanced because of all these educational toys," said Iesha
Middleton, another parent shopping at Toys "R" Us. Ms.
Middleton's son will be 3 next month. "I tried to teach my
son his ABC's when he was 1, and I didn't get very far, but
with the Leapster, he learned A-Z really fast, and he can
count up to 50."
Even Sesame Workshop, long the torchbearer in children's
educational media, is moving into the infant market, with
new "Sesame Beginnings" DVD's for babies 6 months and up.
"There are all these babies watching videos, and we wanted
to address the reality that's out there and come up with
something that is at least appropriate," said Gary Knell,
Sesame's president. "Ours are about sharing and caring,
modeling good parenting, not the cognitive approaches that
are more appropriate for 3- or 4-year-olds. We won't be
making any boastful claims about school success."
Others have less restrained marketing: The "Brainy Baby -
Left Brain" package has a cover featuring a cartoon baby
with a thought balloon saying, "2 + 2 = 4" and promises that
it will inspire logical thinking and "teach your child about
language and logic, patterns and sequencing, analyzing
details and more."
The V.Smile video game system - a "TV Learning System"
introduced last year - features the motto "Turn Game Time
into Brain Time" and cartridges called "smartridges." The
V.Smile, named "Best Toy of the Year" at the toy industry's
2005 trade show, has a television ad where a mom tells her
children, "You'll never get into college if you don't play
your video games!" The game says it is designed for children
3 to 7.
There are, as yet, no reliable estimates of the size of the
market for such devices, but at toy stores nationwide, they
are selling briskly.
Educational toy companies say their products are designed
with the existing educational and developmental research in
mind but add that more research on media effects would be
"There's nothing that shows it helps, but there's nothing
that shows it's does harm, either," said Marcia Grimsley,
senior producer of "Brainy Baby" videos. "Electronics are
part of our world, and I think that, used appropriately,
they can benefit children."
Ms. Rideout says parents need more help sorting through the
array of electronic media: "We have detailed guidelines for
advertising and labeling products like down pillows and
dietary supplements, but not for marketing education media
products," she said.
Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Technology Review,
has watched children play with many of the new products and
believes that many of them have great education potential
for older preschoolers.
"We spend a great percentage of our energy in preschool
teaching kids about symbols, and interactive electronics are
very good teachers of symbols," Mr. Buckleitner said.
"V.Smile is like a hyperactive nanny with flashcards. We had
a 4-year-old, on the cusp of reading, who was so excited
about finding words in the maze that she got addicted, in an
arcade-ish way, and wrote down 20 words on a piece of scrap
paper, then came and said, 'Look at my word collection.' I
asked if she could read them and she could. It was very
motivating for her."
It does not work that way when the toy does not fit the
child's developmental stage or pace: Mr. Buckleitner
remembers a 2-year-old playing with an interactive
electronic toy, but not understanding the green "go" button;
after coaching from her mother, when she touched a cow that
mooed, she was frustrated by the cow's continued mooing
while she touched five other pictures. "The design people
are still learning, so the technology will get better," Mr.
Still, he concedes that in teaching small children, "There's
not an educator alive who would disagree with the notion
that concrete and real are always better."
Research bears that out. In a line of experiments on early
learning included in a research review by Dan Anderson, a
University of Massachusetts psychology professor, one group
of 12- to 15-month-olds was given a live demonstration of
how to use a puppet, while another group saw the
demonstration on video. The children who saw the live
demonstration could imitate the action - but the others had
to see the video six times before they could imitate it.
"As a society, we are in the middle of a vast uncontrolled
experiment on our infants and toddlers growing up in homes
saturated with electronic media," Mr. Anderson said.
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