Does TV Watching Really Hurt Vocabulary Development?

Do programs like Dora and Sesame Street help or hurt our children's learning?

Posted Nov 23, 2013

Television is becoming an increasingly prevalent habit of a child’s daily routine. Not only are children’s television consumption rates rising, the age at which they begin watching television is decreasing. The average child starts watching television at nine months, and 40% of children are watching television as early as three months. By two years old, 90% of children have begun watching television in some capacity. Children’s growing consumption of television and other media has led to an increasing research interest in how television impacts various aspects of a child’s life. For example, research has found that early television watching from ages one to three years old can have a detrimental effect on their attention at age seven.

In my research I wanted to extend these findings to focus the potential impact of TV watching on vocabulary skills in toddlers (as this represents a critical developmental period). Parents told us the television watching habits of their children in different genres (educational, cartoons, baby DVDs, adult entertainment). We also included other key variables linked to vocabulary acquisition: short-term memory and reading habits. Here were the main findings:

1. Television did not impact vocabulary scores, either positively or negatively. This pattern was true for educational programs, as well as baby DVDs. There are several possibilities for why television viewing did not improve vocabulary skills, despite the claims of many 'educational' TV programs and DVDs.

• Displacement hypothesis—Television viewing displaces time spent on more valuable learning-based activities, resulting in lowered academic performance.

• Lack of engagement or interaction that children have with adults. Although children may watch television with adults, adults are typically inattentive to child’s needs during this time, and they will have fewer meaningful linguistic interactions to build vocabulary skills.

• Reduced mental effort exerted as a result of television viewing. Television typically places minimal intellectual demands on the child, which can create a pattern of laziness and disinterest in more challenging intellectual pursuits.

2. More time spent watching educational programs was associated with less time reading factual books. This relationship could be explained by the idea that educational programs represent a trusted source of conveying learning content, and parents could view such programs as a substitute for reading.

3. However, reading educational books and short-term memory skills are important in supporting vocabulary learning. Our findings show that reading educational books boosted vocabulary knowledge. While fictional and picture books may be enjoyable for your children, they may not have a strong learning component to them. Such books may serve a similar function to cartoons in that they are created primarily for light entertainment, rather than to communicate an educational message.

In summary, these findings can have an impact on the amount of media exposure parents allow for their young children, as there was no evidence to support the various baby DVDs’ claims to teach babies and young children to read and talk earlier than the typically developing children. This was also true for educational TV programs—2 and 3-year-olds who watched them did not have greater vocabulary knowledge.

Equally however, sweeping statements such as television watching is ‘bad’ are unhelpful, as the findings suggest that the television watching did not negatively impact vocabulary scores in toddlers. The relationship between TV watching and grades/learning is complex, and depends on the age of the child, as well as the content of the TV program.

 It may be better to focus on what made the difference in better vocabulary scores—reading educational books and  short-term memory skills. Spending time reading and developing memory can be useful ways to enhance vocabulary knowledge in young children.

Reference: Alloway TP, Williams S, Jones B, Cochrane F. (2013) Investigating the impact of television watching on toddlers’ vocabulary skills. Early Childhood Education Journal ABSTRACT

Tracy Packiam Alloway, PhD, is the co-author of THE WORKING MEMORY ADVANTAGE (2013)

About the Author

Tracy Packiam Alloway, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at the University of North Florida. Formerly, she was director of the Center for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan, U.K.  

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