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Baby's Must-See TV Does Not Increase Vocabulary

Researchers find that infant media does not expand vocabulary
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In 1997, the BBC launched Teletubbies, a controversial education program aimed specifically at children under the age of 4. In a bid to win over its presumed audience, the show affixed its main characters with the body proportions, behavior and language of infants. It became a critical and commercial success, despite occasional silliness surrounding one Teletubby character and another: the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

The First World spends generously on infant media. Four years after the Teletubbies debut, The Walt Disney Co. bought the Baby Einstein Company, founded by a former teacher in Georgia, for $25 million. It now represents 90 percent of the baby media market in the United States, a market worth a reported $200 million.

Despite widespread popularity and a lively exchange over the benefits of playing classical music to young'uns, there has been little scientific evidence on the benefits of infant media. Only a few studies have focused on infant relations with early television exposure; and of those, few have specifically focused on infants' learning something directly from the media. A new study in the journal Psychological Science examines this learning curve.

Researchers from the University of Virginia and Vanderbilt University tested 72 infants aged 12 to 18 months for how many new words they absorbed after repeated viewing of a popular educational DVD.

The infants were screened for vocabulary prior to testing and assigned five to 12 unique target words that they were required to learn from the 39-minute video over the span of four weeks. Researchers conducted the experiment in the subjects' homes and under conditions that mimicked typical viewing experiences.

A third of the participants viewed the video with parental interaction. A parent watched the DVD with the child at least five times a week for a total of 10 or more hours of viewing time. A second group of participants viewed the DVD for the same period of time, but were left alone (parents were in the room, but not watching television with their children). A third control group was used to measure an infant's learning without the use of an educational video, but through natural parental interaction. All parents were asked to complete a log of their child's development as the experiment progressed.

After four weeks, participants were screened for enhanced vocabulary. The subjects were shown pictures, some representing their target words and others intended to distract their focus. They were then asked to identify the picture containing their target words. Each participant ran through testing twice to ensure that he had actually "learned" the target words.

Researchers found that the children did not learn any more words from their month-long exposure to the educational DVD than their control counterparts. In fact, the highest level of learning occurred in a no-video environment in which parents taught their children target words during everyday activities.

Earlier this year, our Erik Hayden reported that the amount of television had little discernible impact on children aged 5 to 10. While it's comforting to know that the idiot box is truly not an idiot-maker, it is disheartening to discover that the old video babysitter isn't making our children any smarter, either.