Toddlers and TV: Turn It Off, Baby

Popular educational videos designed to stimulate young minds, like "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby," may actually impede language development, according to a new study in The Journal of Pediatrics. In a survey of the video-watching habits of 1,000 families, the DVDs—some of which promise to enhance the cognitive development of babies as young as 3 months—fared worst out of several types of programming studied. Exposure to educational shows, like "Sesame Street," and non-educational ones, like "SpongeBob SquarePants," had no net effect on language, researchers said—but for every hour that infants 8 to 16 months spent watching the baby DVDs, they understood six to eight fewer words, out of a set of 90, than infants who didn't watch. (For 17- to 24-month-olds, there was no net effect.)

Reading or telling stories to infants at least once a day was found to increase their vocabularies by only two or three words, indicating that the negative impact of the DVDs may outweigh the benefits of parental involvement. "You can produce a video in your basement and tell people that anyone who watches it will definitely turn into Mozart, and no one will stop you from saying that," says Frederick Zimmerman, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and a lead author of the study.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, which does not recommend TV for children under 2, says the study raises more questions than it answers. "This is the first of several investigations that need to be done," says spokesman Dr. Ari Brown. "The big question is still 'Why?' Is it because parents are using the DVDs as a babysitter when they're supposed to be using them interactively? Or is there really something detrimental about the content?"

There's no need for parents to panic, says Andrew Meltzoff, a psychologist and study coauthor. "All the evidence shows that babies are very resilient. They 'right themselves' easily in the first three years of life." Susan McClain, general manager of the Baby Einstein Co., told NEWSWEEK in an e-mail that the company's collection is designed to "promote discovery and inspire new ways for parents and babies to interact."