Child Development: Content, Not Medium, Matters (Why Sesame Street Beats Teletubbies)

Debates have raged over the last couple of years on the effects (det­ri­ment­al or not) of tele­vi­sion, com­puter games (viol­ent or not) and the Inter­net on a child’s cog­nit­ive devel­op­ment. Tak­ing excerpts from a review art­icle that provides an excel­lent sum­mary of the top­ic, Jonah Lehr­er makes it clear: for a child’s cog­nit­ive devel­op­ment, the medi­um doesn’t mat­ter but the con­tent is cru­cial.

First, an explan­a­tion of why this is:

In the same way that there is no single effect of “eat­ing food,“ there is also no single effect of “watch­ing tele­vi­sion” or “play­ing video games.” Dif­fer­ent foods con­tain dif­fer­ent chem­ic­al com­pon­ents and thus lead to dif­fer­ent physiolo­gic­al effects; dif­fer­ent kinds of media have dif­fer­ent con­tent, task requirements,and atten­tion­al demands and thus lead to dif­fer­ent beha­vi­or­al effects.

And some find­ings on how devel­op­ment is affected by vari­ous children’s shows:

  • Ses­ame Street is asso­ci­ated with “a wide assort­ment of pos­it­ive out­comes, includ­ing improved per­form­ance on meas­ures of school read­i­ness, express­ive lan­guage cap­ab­il­it­ies, numer­acy skills and vocab­u­lary size”.
  • Sim­il­ar effects have been found for Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer and Clif­ford the Big Red Dog.
  • Tele­tu­b­bies is asso­ci­ated with the slow­ing down of early edu­ca­tion.
  • Mater­i­al tar­geted to infants, such as Baby Ein­stein and Brainy Baby are awful: “each hour of daily view­ing between the ages of 8 and 16 months led to a sig­ni­fic­ant decrease in the pace of lan­guage devel­op­ment” and a 17 point decrease in lan­guage skills (in com­par­is­on, “daily read­ing with a par­ent was asso­ci­ated with a 7 point increase in the lan­guage skills of 2 year olds”).

As for video games, action games have been asso­ci­ated with “a num­ber of enhance­ments in vis­ion, atten­tion, cog­ni­tion, and motor con­trol”.

The art­icle goes on to describe the required format for children’s tele­vi­sion shows that wish to pro­mote early literacy: “the use of child-dir­ec­ted speech, eli­cit­a­tion of responses, object labeling, and/or a coher­ent story­book-like frame­work through­out”. In oth­er words, they need to “engage the young viewer, […] eli­cit dir­ect par­ti­cip­a­tion from the child, provide a strong lan­guage mod­el, avoid over­load­ing the child with dis­tract­ing stim­u­la­tion, and include a well-artic­u­lated nar­rat­ive struc­ture”.

via @TimHarford