Language, babies and TV

June 20, 2009


Parents know that as an unpaid babysitter, television is a highly effective way of keeping children occupied and, hopefully, quiet. But new scientific evidence suggests that doing it too much will cause a child’s development to suffer. If that child is very young the risk is greater of them not being able to improve their social, cognitive and language development.The ‘baby’ language of many children’s programmes such as the Teletubbies can actually decrease a child’s likelihood of learning new words, and it’s passive nature affects their ability to talk, play and interact with others.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a University of Washington pediatrician, goes a step further and suggests that these negative effects are made worse when the parents are watching as well, which is not what I would have expected. He found that the parents are more likely to be distracted by watching the TV and less likely to interact with the child. He was able to put a number on the problem as he found that for every hour a television was turned on, babies heard 770 fewer words from an adult, and that conversational exchanges between baby and parent dropped 15%, as did the overall number of words spoken by children.

Television is essentially a passive medium, unless you are screaming at the screen during Big Brother, a football match or the final of Britain’s Got Talent.

Christakis found that on average when the TV is switched on, children spend more time in silence and solitude than they do in active social interaction. Even DVD’s aimed at encouraging interaction and education of children show up in this research as having the opposite effect, however good their intention and may even contribute to a drop in learning new words. The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages television-watching for babies under 2, and certainly unless it is balanced with a high level of encouragement and interaction from the parents it is certainly a babysitter with distinct drawbacks. Face to face, one on one, with good physical and emotional contact and lots of verbal interaction seems to be the best prescription to enhance a child’s development.


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