Ulterior Motives

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Why do parents think the DVDs work, then?

Do DVDs that aim to teach babies really work?

Cute baby
The demographic for these learning DVDs
New parents are perhaps the most stressed shopping demographic in the world. Not only are they sleep deprived, but they are instantly worried about how to help their new babies in every way. Products that aim to make a baby smarter are a particular trap for parents. Who wouldn't want to help their baby get smarter, particularly if it doesn't require a lot of effort? DVDs that aim to teach babies new words fall into this category. Parents spend millions of dollars each year on products like this that might help their babies get an advantage when they reach school age.

But do they work?

This question was addressed in a paper by Judy DeLoache, Cynthia Choing, Kathleen Sherman, Nadia Islam, Mieke Vanderborght, Georgene Troseth, Gabrielle Strouse, and Katherine O'Doherty in the November, 2010 issue of Psychological Science.

They gave an educational DVD that aims to teach 25 words to babies to a number of families. The babies in this study were all between 12- and 18-months-old. Some families were told to watch the DVD with their babies at least 5 times a week for 4 weeks. Other families were told to let their babies watch the DVD alone (while they were still in the room). These two groups used the DVD similarly to the way many new parents use them when they buy them for themselves. A third group was not given the DVD, but was told to try to find ways to teach their babies the words for those 4 weeks. A fourth group was a control that was given no instructions.

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Baby Einstein
Baby Einstein is one company selling these DVDs
After four weeks, the babies were tested to see how many words they had learned. The two groups of babies who watched the DVD knew about the same number of these words after 4 weeks as the babies in the control condition. That is, the DVD did not seem to help them learn the words at all. The babies whose parents tried to teach them the words knew about 10% more of the words at the end of the study. That is, the babies whose parents played with them and taught them words learned more than babies who watched the DVDs.

The babies did find the DVDs interesting. The authors report that parents said that their kids were riveted by the DVDs. In fact, one parent called them "Crack for babies." Even though they watched the DVDs intently, they did not learn words from them.

Why do parents think the DVDs work, then?

For one thing, the authors asked parents to rate how much their kids had learned after watching the DVDs. These ratings were unrelated to how much the babies actually learned. However, when parents believed the DVDs would work, their ratings were much higher than when they did not think the DVDs would be that effective.

In addition, as the authors of this study point out, between 12 and 18 months, babies learn a huge amount about the world. It is hard to disentangle all of the factors that drive this learning. If you are showing your child an educational DVD every day, then it is easy to think that the DVD is the cause of all of this learning. As the results of this study demonstrate, then, the DVDs are not helping kids learn.

So how should parents spend their money to help their kids? One possibility suggested by this study is to spend money on things that might help free up time so that parents can spend more time with their kids. These interactions between parent and child are a powerful source of learning. The DVDs don't hurt learning, so parents shouldn't feel bad about using them, but they are not helping the way that direct teaching does.

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Hi Dr. Markman

Thank you for writing about this important subject.

My only quibble is that you write:

"The DVDs don't hurt learning, so parents shouldn't
feel bad about using them, but they are not helping
the way that direct teaching does."

Perhaps you didn't realize this, but the American
Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends no TV for
children under two.

"Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television
viewing for children under the age of 2 years. Although
certain television programs may be promoted to this age
group, research on early brain development shows that
babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct
interactions with parents and other significant care
givers (eg, child care providers) for healthy brain
growth and the development of appropriate social,
emotional, and cognitive skills. Therefore, exposing
such young children to television programs should
be discouraged."


- More TV equals Less interaction with the caregiver:

"We've known that television exposure during infancy
is associated with language delays and attentional
problems, but so far it has remained unclear why,"
said Christakis. "This study is the first to
demonstrate that when the television is on, there
is reduced speech in the home. Infants vocalize
less and their caregivers also speak to them more


- More TV equals Less creative play:

“The results also showed that for seven- to 12-year-olds,
the more TV they watched, the less time they spent doing
homework, and among kids of all ages — especially among
those younger than five — more TV meant significantly
less creative play.”


- More TV equals Less sleep:

"The Association Between Television Viewing and
Irregular Sleep Schedules Among Children Less
Than 3 Years of Age"


- More TV equals Less activity in the Frontal Lobe:

"Subsequent work by Malach and colleagues has found that,
when we're engaged in intense "sensorimotor processing"
... we actually inhibit these prefrontal areas. The scientists
argue that such "inactivation" allows us to lose ourself
in the movie"


- Faster and more TV equals Less attention:

"In particular, we found that children’s orienting networks
and error rates can be affected by a very short exposure to


Dr. Markman wrote:

"The babies did find the DVDs interesting. The authors
report that parents said that their kids were riveted
by the DVDs. In fact, one parent called them
"Crack for babies." Even though they watched the
DVDs intently, they did not learn words from them."

Exactly. This is partly why babies and young children
are watching so much TV. That and the fact that parents
are addicted to the electronic babysitter.

"Approximately 40 percent of three-month old children
and about 90 percent of children age 24 months and under
regularly watch television, DVDs or videos, according
to a report in the May issue of Archives of
Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine."





- More TV equals Less Performance IQ:

"Middle-class 6-year-olds matched for sex, age,
pretest WPPSI IQ, and TV-viewing time were blindly
assigned to a restricted TV-viewing group or an
unrestricted group. Restricted parents halved
subjects' previous TV-viewing rates and
interacted 20 min./day with subjects for
a 6-week period. Unrestricted TV parents
provided similar interactions but did not
limit viewing. Results tentatively suggest
that TV restriction enhanced
Performance IQ, reading time, and
reflective Matching Familiar Figures scores."





Thanks for all of the links. I completely agree with your points. (My TV at home is connected only to a DVD player.)

I certainly hope that nobody interpreted the paragraph I wrote as arguing that parents should allow their children unrestricted access to the TV. As you point out, there is good evidence that a lot of TV watching is problematic for lots of good reasons. Kids need individual interaction with caregivers to learn properly, and as they get older, they also need social experiences. TV provides neither of those.

I am sure that lots of parents will find the resources you provided to be quite useful.


Thank you!

Hi Dr. Markman, thank you for your kind words!


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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.


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