"Educational TV" doesn't help language development

"Educational TV" is a contradiction in terms.


Oh, no, not another tirade against parents letting their children watch TV!

Look, I enjoy a good show as much as anyone, and so do my kids, so I’m not going to tell you to get rid of your TV. But understand that watching TV, even "educational TV", does not aid language development. A lot of companies these days are marketing DVDs claiming that their products increase math, language, and reading ability. Products like Baby Einstein and Baby Bumblebee, marketed as tools for enhancing young children’s development, have been hugely successful.

Many of these "educational TV" and DVD products are based on sound research and are created in consultation with child development experts, in some cases including speech-language pathologists. The PBS show Teletubbies uses a number of techniques that speech-language pathologists apply in therapy; Mister Rodgers (God rest his soul) used a speaking rate that was just about perfect for two- to three-year-olds. The Baby Einstein DVD series (including Baby Mozart and Baby Bach) uses classical music, based on the “Mozart effect” (independent research does not actually support a lot of the claims floating around).

It all sounds very promising; but, because watching TV—even "educational TV"—is a passive activity, the best claim you can make for any of these products is that they do no harm, and the experts don’t even agree on that. I’m not anti-TV, but TV is for entertainment. On that score Baby Einstein and the Teletubbies are great—they are engaging and fun to watch, even for adults. But take the best educational, developmentally appropriate programming in the world and roll it all together, it still won’t benefit your child as much as five minutes of interaction with an interested adult who is giving him their undivided attention. The marketers of DVDs targeting early child development hedge their claims a bit by reminding you to view their products together with your children and interact with them as you watch, rather than using the TV as a babysitter. That's great advice, but then you can probably interact with them just as well with the TV off and save yourself the money you would have spent on their products. I’m not going to tell you not to let your kids watch TV—just don’t expect them to be smarter or to have better language skills when the show is over.

No machine exists that will improve your child's expressive or receptive language skills. For that, your child needs human interaction.

And speaking of human interaction, when I say "Turn off the TV," I’m not just talking about reducing the amount of time your child spends watching. Reducing how much TV you watch may allow you to pay closer attention to your child. I’ve worked with children in living rooms where the local news or Entertainment Tonight is droning in the background while I provide therapy. I always make a point of asking the parents in these situations to turn off the TV, because it not only makes it hard for me to concentrate and do my job well; it also pulls the parents' attention away from what the child and I are doing.

People talk to each other less when the TV is on. People pay less attention to each other when the TV is on. And children whose parents talk to them less, and interact with them less, experience inferior language development. So turn off the TV and give them your attention. Dr. Phil can wait; your children can’t.

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Sookie & Finn: Our Day DVD Here is a rare exception to my "Turn Off The TV" curmudgeonism. This DVD targets vocabulary and grammar skills appropriate to toddlers and preschoolers through labelling, repetition, adult narration, and songs embedded in familiar daily routines. Events and narration are presented at a pace appropriate for young children. That's another way of saying "Deathly slow by adult standards". You may find yourself feeling impatient for the action to pick up, but keep in mind that the point is to help your child's language development, not to entertain your child's parents. Slow is good. Run time: 36 minutes.

Click the video below for an example of a scene from the DVD.