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In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. According to Dimitri Christakis, codirector of the Child Health Institute at the University of Washington, "The more TV babies watch, the more likely they are to have attentional problems later in life." Christakis cites a long-term study that tracked children from age 1 through age 7. It found that for each additional hour of daily TV viewing before age 3, a child's chances of later developing problems paying attention increased 10%.
Christakis explains that the human mind—especially the mind of a baby—is driven by what Ivan Pavlov (of the famous dog) called the orienting reflex. When a baby is confronted with a novel sight or sound, he or she can't help focusing on it. By rapidly changing colors, sounds and motions, videos for children effectively force a baby's brain to stay at attention. If his or her gaze wanders, the action quickly rivets it back to the screen.
"Parents say, 'My child can't stop looking at it! She loves it!'" Christakis says. "Well, true, she can't stop looking at it, but that doesn't mean she loves it." Not only might Baby not be enjoying the program, Christakis says, "but based on the research I've done, there's reason to believe these products have deleterious effects on the developing mind." Christakis is not alone in this thinking. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV viewing of any kind before age 2.
CDs and DVDs designed to teach a baby Spanish or Chinese are also problematic. Patricia Kuhl, who studies language acquisition at the University of Washington, conducted an experiment comparing the effects of Chinese audio recordings for children and a Chinese-speaking human. She had a native Mandarin speaker play with a group of babies while speaking Chinese for 12 sessions of 25 minutes each over a four-week period. Later she tested the babies and was able to demonstrate that they recognized Mandarin sounds. But when she repeated the experiment with three control groups—one set of babies that saw the Chinese speaker play with babies on video, another that listened to an audio recording of the Chinese woman playing and a third that had no exposure to the Chinese speaker—none seem to perceive Mandarin sounds. Apparently, the presence of a living, breathing human was essential.
There's a lesson there for any parent who wants to encourage early learning. Most experts agree that what matters most is not what toy the baby plays with but the ways in which you interact with your child. "There's no question that the experiences a child has in its first year are crucial for cognitive, emotional and physical development," says Lise Eliot, a neuroscientist at Chicago Medical School and author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. "But the good news is none of this costs any money. Babies prefer humans over anything inanimate."
One key difference between human interaction and even the most sophisticated educational toy is that interpersonal exchanges engage all the senses—sight, sound, smell, taste and, very important, touch. "People tend to forget that children are very tactile and their most sensitive part is their mouth," says David Perlmutter, a neurologist and author of the forthcoming book, Raise a Smarter Child by Kindergarten. "Babies need to mouth things and to smell, to have rich sensory experiences."