[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?


    Jetta is 11 months old, with big eyes, a few pearly teeth -
    and a tiny index finger that can already operate electronic
    entertainment devices.

    "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
    from media.

    "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.
    Buckleitner said.

    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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