TV for toddlers: Don't feel so guilty

A new study says DVDs for babies may be harmful. Gimme a break.

And here I thought I was an OK dad. What a bummer to learn that I was making my kids dumb.

Researchers at the University of Washington and the Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute published a paper this month in the Journal of Pediatrics that could blow the lid off the multibillion-dollar baby video and DVD industry.

"There is no clear evidence of a benefit coming from baby DVDs and videos, and there is some suggestion of harm," claimed lead author Frederick Zimmerman.

The report found that for every hour the tiniest test subjects (8 months to 16 months old) spent watching baby tapes and DVDs, they understood six to eight fewer words than their fellow tots. In other words, all that time you've invested in booting up those colorful clips of floating flowers could, in fact, guarantee little Timmy a life behind the counter at Burger King.

Gimme a break.

What I lack in a knack for science I more than make up for in field study. As the DVD reviewer for Parenting magazine, I have watched hundreds, if not thousands, of programs designed to divert the babble-and-drool contingent, from spoon-feedy primers on the ABCs to lava-lamp-laden dream tapes intended to keep Baby blissfully bug-eyed (while, yes, the weary parents grab 10 minutes to make a call, answer an e-mail or take a shower).

I have sat through morphing monkeys, armies of puppets, and enough footage of Cookie Monster to qualify me as the guy's biographer.

And here's my report: With the exception of a single disc called "Doggy Poo," I have yet to click "play" on anything I would hesitate to show my kids.

But it's not just the content that's the problem, say the researchers. It's also the amount of screen time – especially when this viewing robs Baby of real-life interaction.

I don't know a parent alive who doesn't feel a pang of shame when flipping on the tube to baby-sit, and most of us make an effort to regulate TV time and any activity that keeps our kids locked in their own world.

But where the wheels come off this study is in its methodology: The researchers never laid eyes on their little subjects. Instead, they interviewed parents by telephone for 45 minutes, grilling them about telltale words in their kids' vocabularies. From these results, numbers were crunched and determinations were made.

Granted, Baby's little lexicon might be one indicator in this sort of scientific sleuthing, but where was the human factor? Did the researchers witness (as I have) the sparkle in a child's eyes whenever Barney the Dinosaur transforms his neighborhood into "the land of make-believe"? Did the data-collectors observe (as I did, with one of my daughters) a baby's delighted urge to imitate whenever the Teletubbies whip up another batch of Tubby Toast?

Did any of the scribbling scientists stop and truly capture the sheer magic of a 10-month-old, who's barely mastered the act of sitting up, clapping, and singing along with the Wiggles?

To their credit, the researchers mean well. This study is part of a wider analysis of the effects of media-viewing during the first two years of life. And the authors understandably have cast a discerning eye on the so-called smart baby fare – such as the "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby" series – whose grow-a-genius marketing claims make them plump targets for debunking.

But there are infinite other ways in which "kid vid" can widen the minds of little viewers. When created with care, baby and toddler programs can teach self-esteem, encourage role-play, invite interactivity, and stretch the imagination. And when viewed with a parent, which nearly all of these products recommend, they can foster bonding.

Speaking of which, in the two hours it's taken me to write this, my daughters (ages 8 and 12) have watched one Disney sitcom and one full-length movie, while my wife cuddled up with a book. Naturally, we feel guilty about abandoning the kids – but guess what? They'll live.

Bruce Kluger writes for Parenting magazine and USA Today. ©2007 Los Angeles Times.

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