The “baby-brain” business – educational toys and DVDs that promise to make your baby smarter – is the largest growing toy sector in Canada.
But growing research suggests screen time doesn’t promote cognitive development and may hinder language in children up to the age of two, says a pediatrician in the developmental pediatrics training program at Bloorview.
“We now have hard data to show that children under the age of two should not be watching TV,” says Dr. Michal Begin, a pediatrician from Jerusalem who is studying at Bloorview.
Begin and Dr. Joelene Huber presented a review of the literature on the impact of TV and DVDs on babies up to the age of two at a recent Hospital for Sick Children Grand Rounds in Toronto.
They found the average kid these days starts watching TV at five months – compared to four years in 1971 – and it’s not unusual for baby to have his or her own TV.
When asked why they give babies screen time, a survey of 1,000 U.S. parents found that “about 20 per cent say it’s good for the baby’s brain, another 20 per cent see it as a babysitter, and 20 per cent say it’s because the baby enjoys it,” Begin says.
Products for children as young as six months claim to teach preschool skills like the alphabet, shapes, colours, numbers and counting. “The implication is that if you don’t do it, your kid won’t be as smart as the other kids on the block,” Begin says.
In fact, according to two large American studies published in the journal Pediatrics in March of this year and August of last year, watching TV before age two has no cognitive benefit, doesn’t promote preschool skills and can actually harm language development.
“Infants who watch TV before the age of two have a smaller vocabulary than kids who don’t, when both are tested at age three,” Begin says. “It certainly doesn’t make kids smarter and isn’t good for the brain.”
Young babies aren’t able to grasp the meaning of what they see on TV, Begin says, because they don’t understand symbols. “If they see a ball jumping on the screen, their ability to understand it’s a ball, and that they were just holding a ball, is very poor. When they watch TV, they see moving images with no meaning.”
Begin says that studies have found that when the TV is on, parents and babies talk less, and when parents do talk, they tend to use one word rather than sentences. “The babies are listening, but they’re not using language,” Begin says. “Infants don’t learn language from TV as well as from human interaction.”
A screen also can't provide the multi-sensory input babies and toddlers need to grasp basic concepts like bigger and smaller, Begin says.
Rich interaction with parents – talking, singing, playing, listening to music or reading together – and everyday, hands-on activities, like playing with pots and pans, is still best for early child development, Begin says.
“And it doesn’t cost anything!”