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