Article at a Glance
The educational claims made by baby media companies can be enticing. Who doesn’t want to make their child smarter? But can a video or mobile app offer your toddler anything meaningful?
In the early 2000s, “genius” baby DVDs enjoyed staggering sales, only to come under scrutiny for making false claims. It turned out, baby media companies were wooing parents with promises they couldn’t keep, and many had to drop the “educational” claims from labeling.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long recommended against screen time for babies and toddlers. Children at this stage need a great deal of real-world stimulation to acquire the skills critical to this developmental stage. Television was generally considered a hindrance, not a help, to achieving those gains.
At the height of the popularity of baby DVDs, a New York University study demonstrated that they don’t work. The study followed 117 babies ages 9 to 18 months old. For seven months, researchers had 61 of the babies follow the heavily marketed “Your Baby Can Read” program. The other babies weren’t given the program or told to do anything special. Researchers evaluated the babies using eye-tracking tasks and standardized measurements for emerging reading skills. They found no difference between the two groups.
In 2010, a similar study published in the journal Psychological Science looked at whether a video designed to increase a baby’s vocabulary actually worked. After babies watched the video for a month, researchers found that babies who watched the video had not learned any more words than those who hadn’t.
What was surprising in both studies is how much parents believed that the programs were working, even when the tests showed no improvement. It looks like a little wishful thinking and some very effective advertising can have a powerful impact on parents’ perceptions.
In the last ten years, marketing of educational media for toddlers has only grown—as has toddler access to screens. The web overflows with Top Ten lists for educational baby apps. Parents take comfort in the interactive nature of this new form of media, assuming it has more to offer than passive video watching. Research has been struggling to keep up, but further studies continue to disprove the benefit claims touted by marketers.
While your toddler may be very adept at interacting with screens, multiple studies show she’ll take little value from the experience beyond distraction. New vocabulary words and other skills only emerged from screen time if the parents interacted with their child, during and after the screen-based experience. It seems this face-to-face interaction is critical for toddlers to transfer 2D concepts into reality.
Although the idea of using an app or video to teach your baby to read, talk, or count is attractive, the best way to help small children learn is by interacting with them. Reading, talking, and singing to your child is the best primer for reading and building language. Manipulating real objects is the best way to build hand-eye coordination.
Ultimately, toddlers don’t need special products to learn. They just need you.
Dr. Bailey is a rural Utah native and father of four who loves the mountains and national parks of his home state. He specializes in infectious disease and nutrition, and enjoys working with children of all ages. Languages: English, some French