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Inside Baby's Brain

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2007-08-15-BabyTV.JPG

And here I thought I was an OK dad. What a bummer to learn that I was making my kids dumb.

Researchers at the University of Washington and the Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute published a paper this month in the Journal of Pediatrics that could blow the lid off the multibillion-dollar baby video and DVD industry. According to the study--and to the shock of parents everywhere--those whiz-kid programs we've been pumping into our precious progenies' soft skulls are potentially turning them into mini-morons.

"The most important fact to come from this study," claimed lead author Frederick Zimmerman, "is there is no clear evidence of a benefit coming from baby DVDs and videos, and there is some suggestion of harm."

Crammed with damning data (and not a small amount of disapproving subtext), the report found that for every hour the tiniest test subjects (8 to 16 months old) spent watching baby tapes and DVDS, they understood six to eight fewer words than their fellow tots, whose obviously superior parents prefer not to park their tykes in front of the Sony Trinitron.

In other words, all that time you've invested in booting up those colorful clips of floating flowers and tumbling blocks--backed up, of course, by synapse-sparking snippets of Mozart--could, in fact, guarantee little Timmy a life behind the counter at Burger King.

Gimme a break.

What I lack in a knack for science I more than make up for in field study. As the DVD reviewer for Parenting magazine, I have watched hundreds, if not thousands, of programs designed to divert the babble-and-drool contingent, from spoon-feedy primers on the ABCs to lava-lamp-laden dream tapes intended to keep baby blissfully bug-eyed (while, yes, their weary parents grab 10 minutes to make a call, answer an e-mail or, God forbid, take a shower).

I have sat through morphing monkeys, armies of puppets and enough footage of Cookie Monster to qualify me as the guy's biographer.

And here's my report: With the exception of a single disc (a computer-animated tale called Doggy Poo, starring--I kid you not--a talking pile of doggy poo), I have yet to click "play" on anything I would hesitate to show my kids.

But it's not just the content that's the problem, say the researchers. It's also the amount of screen time--especially when this viewing robs baby of real-life interaction.

"There are only a fixed number of hours that young babies are awake and alert," said coauthor Andrew Meltzoff. "If the 'alert time' is spent in front of baby DVDs and videos instead of with people speaking in 'parentese'...the babies are not getting the same linguistic experience."

Well, duh. I don't know a parent alive who doesn't feel a pang of shame when flipping on the tube to baby-sit; and most of us make an effort to regulate TV time--or any activity, for that matter, that keeps our kids locked in their own world.

But where the wheels come off this study is in its methodology: The researchers never laid eyes on their little subjects. Instead, they interviewed parents by telephone for 45 minutes (oops--there goes that vital face-time with baby), grilling them about telltale words in their kids' vocabularies. From these results, numbers were crunched and determinations were made.

Granted, baby's little lexicon may be one indicator in this sort of scientific sleuthing, but where was the human factor?

Did the researchers witness (as I have) the sparkle in a child's eyes whenever Barney the Dinosaur transforms his neighborhood into "the land of make-believe?"

Did the data-collectors observe (as I did, with one of my daughters) a baby's delighted urge to imitate whenever the Teletubbies whip up another batch of Tubby Toast?

Did any of the scribbling scientists stop and truly capture (as millions do, on countless home movies) the sheer magic of a 10-month-old, who's barely mastered the act of sitting up, clapping and singing along with the Wiggles?

To their credit, the researchers mean well. This study is part of a wider analysis of the effects of media-viewing during the first two years of life. And the authors have understandably cast a discerning eye on the so-called smart baby fare--such as the Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby series--whose grow-a-genius marketing claims make them plump targets for debunking.

But there are infinite other ways in which kid-vid can widen the minds of little viewers. When created with care (and most children's media producers do a decent amount of research in child development), baby and toddler programs can teach self-esteem, encourage role-play, invite interactivity and stretch the imagination. And when viewed with a parent, which nearly all of these products recommend, they can foster bonding.

Speaking of which, in the two hours it's taken me to write this, my daughters (now 8 and 12) have watched one Disney sitcom and one full-length movie, while my wife cuddled up with a book. Naturally, we feel guilty about abandoning the kids--but guess what? They'll live.

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on August 15, 2007.