Can educational videos help children’s language development?

In today’s world, children have unprecedented access to media and technology. As most parents will attest, young children are quite drawn to, adept at, and perhaps even addicted to the TV/videos, mobile/cell phones, and iPads and other tablets available to them in their homes and from the adults around them. This week, over two posts, I am summarizing some of the research on the effects of children’s exposure to media and technology on their development and learning. In my last post, I summarized research on the effects of television and other screen media on young children’s learning and development. In today’s post, I will focus on the effects of educational videos and DVDs such as ‘Baby Einstein’. 

Image courtesy of Jomphong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Jomphong / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the last decade or two, there have been a number of products claiming to help infants’ brain development and learning. These programmes include the ‘Baby Einstein’ videos which came out in the late 90s and the more recent ‘Your Baby Can Read’ products. There are also products like Leapster, Brainy Baby, and Baby Prodigy.

Most parents want to give their children the best possible start in life – and these products make strong claims about helping children’s learning and development. So, do they work? Can educational videos help children’s language development?

What does the research say about the effects of educational videos or DVDs on children’s learning and development?

There is no research evidence that infants can learn words or reading from educational videos. Here are some summaries of the current research.

Basically, research tell us that there’s no evidence that products like ‘Baby Einstein’ or ‘Your Baby Can Read’ actually work. There is some indication that children above the age of 3 (and perhaps above the age of 2) may be able to learn vocabulary from educational videos. However, this has not been found for children under the age of 2.

Research consistently shows that infants learn best from interaction – for example, they learn new words better from live adults than from educational videos (Krcmar, Grela, & Lin; 2007).

There is some research indicating that not only are they ineffective, but these baby videos/DVDs may actually have adverse effects on children’s learning. A large study of children under the age of 2 found no benefits to infants viewing baby videos, and actually found that infants between the ages of 7 and 16 months who watched baby DVDs had poorer language skills (Zimmerman, Christakis, & Meltzoff, 2007). For each hour of baby videos that infants watched, they knew on average about 6–8 fewer words.

There is some research suggesting that some of the negative effects of media use may be reduced (and positive effects enhanced) if the video viewing is moderated or facilitated by an adult (see Christakis, 2009). However, at least one study has found that infants who watched more baby videos and DVDs had fewer words in their vocabulary, regardless of whether a parent was viewing with the child (Zimmerman, Christakis, & Meltzoff, 2007).

In contrast, being read to or being told stories every day has been associated with increased language skills (Zimmerman, Christakis, & Meltzoff, 2007).

What about interactive educational programmes, applications, and games on tablets and computers?

The research described above has generally examined the effects of  videos or media that are basically unidirectional and that the child ‘consumes’ passively. There has been far less research on the effects of the more interactive educational apps that have proliferated in recent years, although parents and researchers have expressed concern. These apps have only been around for a couple of years so it will be interesting to see the short- and long-term effects of these technologies emerge in the years ahead. (Interested readers may also want to check out a previous post of mine exploring the effects of using tablets for learning in early primary school aged children: Educational and other effects of giving children tablets for learning.)

What are your thoughts? Please share comments and other relevant research on the effects of media and technology on young children in the comments section below.

Sadaf Shallwani

Update (May 6, 2013): Check out this TEDx talk in which Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a professor of pediatrics  (whose research is mentioned in this post), summarizes current research on how television and other screen media affect young children’s developing brains – with lifelong consequences.

See related posts:

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