Do babies and toddlers learn from TV?

Most parents with young children rely on DVDs and videos to cook dinner in peace, talk on the phone uninterrupted for five minutes, or to take a much-needed shower. In fact, ask any parent with tots: a good Sesame Beginnings or Baby Galileo DVD is money well spent.

But are these movies good or bad for toddlers and infants? This question is all the more timely given the fact that scientists found that one in four kids under two in the U.S. have a TV in their bedroom, which is often watched from the crib.

The debate over movies designed for kids under three intensified in the late 1990s after several companies, notably Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, released DVDs and videos that they claimed were beneficial for the diaper set. Many parents bought into this notion, helping to propel the baby video market to more than $1 billion in sales so far.

Still, the American Academy of Pediatrics stuck by a policy that kids under two shouldn't watch television, citing research by scientists that found watching movies may delay language development and lead to behavioral problems. One of these researchers called on toy makers to prove that their products are educational.

"I am frequently asked by parents what the value of these products is," said Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrics researcher at Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.

"The evidence is mounting that they are of no value, and may in fact be harmful," Christakis said in a story announcing the findings of one of his well-known studies. "Given what we now know, I believe the onus is on the manufacturers to prove their claims that watching these programs can positively impact children's cognitive development."

Now a toymaker says it's got proof that DVDs it makes for very young children can help them learn.

Brainy Baby, a company formed by filmmaker Dennis Fedoruk in 1995 when he couldn't find "quality" movies for his small children, recently released the results of a study he says shows his firm's DVDs are beneficial for kids.

"I find it ironic that a small company would step up and do the right thing to end the controversy," he told WalletPop. "Ultimately, what we want is the truth."

Fedoruk's company gave a grant to the University of Texas in 2007 to partially fund the research. An abstract of the peer-reviewed study -- that means that other scientists validated how it was conducted -- showed that when a group of 18-to-33-month-olds watched a DVD featuring a crescent and other shapes daily for about two weeks they were able to independently identify the crescent later.

The study, conducted by two well-known researchers of the media's impact on children, is among the first to test whether the diaper set can learn from DVDs and videos, said Fedoruk following the company's release of the study's findings on the eve of the Toy Fair in New York City.

The research should stop what he termed a "witch hunt" by consumers' groups, Fedoruk said. Activists prompted the Walt Disney Co, which purchased Baby Einstein, to offer refunds for some of its movies last fall under the threat of a class action lawsuit charging they had been falsely marketed as educational.

"If you're looking at general broadcast television and videos that aren't educational, there could be some negative impact for children," Fedoruk said. "But if you use Baby Brainy DVDs, its clear from the results of the study that parents will have positive benefits for their children."

But even the scientists who conducted the study caution that the findings -- which aren't available in their entirety until the study is published this fall in The Journal of Children and Media -- cannot be generalized to mean that very young kids will learn from DVDs.

"I understand why he's excited and why he feels the way he does," said Elizabeth Vandewater, an adjunct associate professor of public health at the University of Texas. "But I don't agree with his conclusions. He has an axe to grind and I'm trying hard not to grind an axe."

She added that the study found that children could learn "one small thing (the crescent shape) from one aspect of one of their DVDs."

"We have no idea if children are benefiting from watching their DVDs in general," Vandewater said. She added that the study, conducted with Rachel Barr, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, is completely independent and her work in general is dedicated to finding the effects of media on children, especially given that television is not going away.

Still, Fedoruk called on the American Academy of Pediatrics to "at least consider amending its current policy to include acceptance of educational DVDs," given the study's results.

Doctors are not inclined to accept his invitation.

"One study does not change anybody's minds," wrote Dr. Victor C. Strasburger, an academy spokesman, in an e-mail to WalletPop. "The concern from the research is language delay with increased screen time. There are now seven studies showing possible language delays."

One thing everyone agrees on: There needs to be more research about the effects of television on very young kids.

"In general, there's no single study which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, anything," Vandewater said. "It took a long time to prove cigarette smoking was really bad for you. It took a long time and we have a huge body of evidence."
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