WASHINGTON — Researchers are increasingly looking at how much time babies and toddlers spend in front of TV, laptops or iPads, but now some are saying the debate needs to shift to what's on the screen.
"It's never so simple as it's bad or good. It's content based," says Deborah Linebarger, director of the Children's Media Lab at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who presented her most recent study over the weekend at the American Psychological Association's annual convention, which ends Sunday.
"There's a lot of research now that shows when you design infant and toddler-directed media in ways infants and toddlers can learn, they can learn from it," she says. "If you use screen media and pick the right stuff, it can be another tool."
Linebarger's study of 498 children, ages 8 months to 36 months, isn't an endorsement of those baby-focused videos. Rather, her research shows that some types of programs help babies and toddlers with their language skills and increase vocabulary, while others do not.
Prior research has shown that 74% of infants are exposed to TV before the age of 2, despite a 2011 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics that viewing by infants and toddlers is not recommended and likely harmful.
"The average infant or toddler spends about an hour and half per day watching or interacting with screen media directly and, perhaps more distressing, they're exposed to 5.5 hours of TV that's on in the background," Linebarger says.
Babies and toddlers learn best from interacting with humans, which is why screen content that mimics real persons in real situations is best, Linebarger says.
Her study's focus is content, with programs that have characters telling a simple story, such as Clifford the Big Red Dog on PBS or Blue's Clues on Nickelodeon.
"When you have a show like Blue's Clues specifically where a character talks directly to the child through the screen, that is exactly how you do language intervention. That models how to have a conversation," she says.
Babies and toddlers exposed to other types of programming have smaller vocabularies, her research finds. Those programs include what's been labeled "educational," such as Sesame Street on PBS or those baby videos such as Brainy Baby or Baby Einstein, Linebarger says.
She says Sesame Street isn't appropriate for those under age 2 because it doesn't tell a narrative tale and is filled with "an enormous amount of information coming at them quickly."
"It keeps their attention, but they're less effective at making sense of it. To an older child, it's a fantastic program, but for kids under 2, it is not appropriate," she says.
Baby videos have the same problem, she says, because they don't really have characters telling a story.
"They'll show a picture of an apple. There's a lot of content and it's quickly changing. There's too much information for an infant — too much production features, with lots of cuts and it's fast-paced. It shows objects, but they are not really in context and there are no real characters."
What she calls "entertainment television" is either directed at kids or adults. Young children watching these programs also have smaller vocabularies. Such programs include cartoons, such as SpongeBob SquarePants on Nickelodeon.
Background television "wasn't good and wasn't bad," she says. "It's not associated with vocabulary."