MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY to DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, people in India take to the radio to sing their hearts out and reach for stardom.
(Soundbite of Baby Einstein video)
BRAND: Ah, that music is from an insanely successful set of videos for infants called Baby Einstein. The video shows simple, slow images like undulating lava lamps, or toy trains going around a track. There's no dialogue, no plot, and no original music. And yet Baby Einstein and other similar videos mesmerize babies. And they hook parents, who are told their babies will be smarter if they watch these videos. They won't. In fact, quite the opposite, according to a study published today in the Journal of Pediatrics.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis is a professor at the University of Washington, and he's the lead researcher on the study. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.
Dr. DIMITRI CHRISTAKIS (University of Washington): Pleasure to be here.
BRAND: How did you conduct your research?
Dr. CHRISTAKIS: What we did was a survey of 1,000 parents of children under the age of two years in the states of Washington and Minnesota. And we asked them how their children spend the typical day. Specifically, we asked them how often and for how long they watch such videos as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby. We also asked them how often they read to their child, sing to their child, and play games with their child.
BRAND: And what did you find?
Dr. CHRISTAKIS: What we found was after adjusting for a variety of factors, that for children eight to 16 months of age, the more time they spend watching such baby DVDs, the lower or the slower their language acquisition was. In other words, quite the opposite of what these videos claim. They claim both implicitly and explicitly to promote language development and cognitive development. And in fact we found the opposite.
BRAND: But these are parents reporting their children's vocabulary levels. So does that call into question the accuracy of the findings at all?
Dr. CHRISTAKIS: Well, actually, parents are the best judges of what words their children actually know. And for very young infants, many of the children's pronunciations are not recognizable to anyone but their parents.
BRAND: So do you have a hypothesis as to why? Is it just that these kids are just spending more time not speaking or not being spoken to, and that's what's causing the delay?
Dr. CHRISTAKIS: I think that's exactly what's going on. We certainly need to do more research, but the prevailing wisdom amongst developmental psychologists and pediatricians is that children acquire language early in life through direct interactions with parents. Even videotapes of native speakers of languages fail to teach children as well as live speakers do.
And in the case of these videos, as you've said at your opening, there isn't even the attempt of the naturalistic dialogue that children desperately need. And when you consider that in our study, children who are watching these videos, spent between an hour and two hours a day doing so, you realize that they're spending about 10 to 20 percent of their waking hours watching TV. And you can't help but wonder what are they not doing that they otherwise would be doing during that time?
BRAND: And is this irrevocable; in other words, can the babies make up their delay in language acquisition?
Dr. CHRISTAKIS: Well, actually, it appears that they might, in fact, because what we did find in the same study was that the older kids did not have the same language deficit that the younger ones do. So it is in fact possible that they do make up that deficit.
BRAND: The company says that it's well aware of the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that there be no TV or video watching at all for the first two years of life and that many parents find that unrealistic, that they need to break that these videos offer so that they can do other things. And they say that their videos can be beneficial and educational if the parents watch the videos with the kids.
Dr. CHRISTAKIS: Well, there are many comments to make to that. The first is that the parents don't typically watch these videos with their children - they don't for several reasons. One that you actually alluded to is a practical, they use them actually to give themselves a break.
But more to the point, these aren't the kinds of videos that parents could watch with their child. Their child is fixated on the screen because of the rapid image change. Parents find the videos themselves discombobulating. They don't actually enjoy watching them. But even if they did watch with their child, they wouldn't be interacting with them because the child will be glued to the screen.
It's interesting because I do hear this in my clinical practice a lot, that parents say they can't possibly make dinner without putting the child in front of a TV. Despite the fact that people have made dinner for a millennia and TV has only been around for 50 years. And these baby DVDs have been around for less than that.
BRAND: Well, thank you very much.
Dr. CHRISTAKIS: You're very welcome.
BRAND: That's Dr. Dimitri Christakis. He's a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. His study on infant videos is in the Journal of Pediatrics.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.