Can Netflix teach vocabulary to kids?

A great shower-taking device, but probably not a great learning tool. |  AlexAntropov86  for Pixabay.

A great shower-taking device, but probably not a great learning tool. | AlexAntropov86 for Pixabay.

When the American Academy of Pediatrics' relaxed its screen time guidelines to include children as young as 18 months, unshowered parents everywhere rejoiced in the news that they could turn on Netflix without fear of irreparable brain damage. 

The AAP's Media and Young Minds statement stresses the importance of "high quality" programming. That recommendation, combined with the lowered age range for screen viewing, gives tacit approval to the burgeoning industry of educational media for young learners. 

At this moment of increased attention to vocabulary-boosting TV shows and apps, we would do well to revisit the lessons learned from the former king of baby media: Baby Einstein. The story of that company--what it claimed and why it fell--is instructive in understanding what educational television can and can't do for young children. 

Why parents turn on the TV

The screen time rules whose relaxation parents everywhere have existed for nearly two decades. The AAP's original recommendation was made in 1999, two years before Disney purchased the Baby Einstein company and began marketing their educational value. But those recommendations didn't appear to be well-understood by parents, as evidenced by a handful of studies in the early 2000s. 

Five years after the AAP issued its screen time recommendations, many parents didn't know they existed. The Kaiser Family Foundation's 2004 survey found that parents were unaware that the AAP recommended no screen time for kids under 2. 6% of the survey's respondents were aware that the AAP recommended no television viewing for children aged 2 and younger. Another 7% of respondents knew of the recommendations, but understood them incorrectly, either because they thought children 2 years and younger should watch no more than an hour or two of television per day, or that the television viewing was fine as long as the programming was educational. 

Perhaps one reason that parents were unaware of the AAP's guidelines is that they had a favorable view of the educational possibilities of television. In a 2003 survey, the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 43% of parents of children aged 0-4 thought that television thought it "mostly helps" children learn. When that television was labeled "educational," parents were even more optimistic about its value: 58% of parents believed educational television to be "very important" to their children's intellectual development, while 49% answered the same about educational videos.

In a phone survey of parents published in 2007, researchers from the University of Washington read parents whose children watched television a set of six reasons for letting their children watch. The most-answered reason, representing nearly a third of responses, was "The television and video programs that I have my child watch teach him/her something or are good for their brain."

What did children learn from Baby Einstein?

If the above surveys are representative of US parents as a whole, Baby Einstein's educational baby DVDs entered the market at a time when public opinion about educational television contradicted medical advice about screen time. Some organizations went so far as to argue that Baby Einstein and other companies like it were responsible for that contradiction, basing their arguments on the companies' educational claims. "Baby Wordsworth" DVD, for example, advertised that it “will foster the development of your toddler’s speech and language skills.” 

The problem with such claims was that they weren't rooted in research. 

There is good data to suggest that children can learn from television. The venerable Sesame Street, perhaps because of its longevity, has inspired many studies assessing what kids can learn from television, such that the AAP includes Sesame Street and other programs like it within its recommendations for older children. When the lessons learned from those studies began to be applied to new television markets--namely, babies up to age 18 months--makers of those shows attached claims about their benefit without testing those claims on appropriate age groups. 

In a 2006 complaint filed with the FTC, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood argued that Baby Einstein was deliberately misleading customers to think that its line of baby videos was educational, in spite of the lack of evidence supporting that claim. Although the FTC rejected the CCFC's claim, in the following years more research suggested that baby DVDs made by Baby Einstein and other similar companies were teaching less than they claimed. 

In another article stemming from its 2007 phone survey, the same researchers at the University of Washington who found that parents' main reason for letting their children watch television was their belief in its educational value also researched whether or not children's vocabularies were affected by watching television and DVDs. Of all the media formats they studied (educational children's television, non-educational children's television, and baby DVDs, for example) the researchers found that children aged 8-16 months who watched one hour of baby DVDs per day were likely to know 6-8 fewer words than their non-DVD-viewing peers

Disney responded to the researchers' press release with a demand for retraction. Among the claims in that demand was Disney's critique of the researchers' methods. The phone survey, Disney's lawyers claimed, was a less accurate method of data gathering than "direct observation."

Whether it was just regular company policy, as spokespeople for the company claimed, or because of the increased attention from researchers and educational watchdogs, in 2009, Disney offered a full refund of up to four Baby Einstein DVDs per household. 2009 was also the date of the last Baby Einstein video. 

Parents make better teachers

The increased attention on baby DVDs seems to have demonstrated that while the videos don't really hurt, they don't help either. After criticism of its educational claims, Baby Einstein changed its marketing to focus on how the videos promoted parent-child interaction. That type of marketing continues today, as popular baby media companies, perhaps finally listening to the AAP's guidelines, stress that parents should watch along with their children. 

That interactive component of baby DVDs is supported by a 2010 randomized controlled trial, in which researchers found that parental instruction was a more effective means of teaching vocabulary than baby DVDs.

The researchers studied 72 12-18 month olds, split into four groups. The first group watched an educational video with concurrent instruction from their parents five times per week for four weeks. The second group watched the same video, also five times per week for four weeks, but with no parental involvement. The third group watched no video, but parents were asked to teach their children the same target words as in the video for that same four weeks. The final group was a control group with no interventions. 

Researchers came to the surprising conclusion that children who watched the video--with or without their parents' involvement--did not learn any more words than children who did not watch the video. On the post-test at the end of the four-week period, the best-performing group was the one with children whose parents had been teaching them the words with no video. 

The data on what very young children learn from media makes it clear that parents put too much stock in the claims of such products. Parents don't need an "educational" excuse to shower in peace. If the lessons of Baby Einstein apply to our current media landscape, sitting down on the couch and talking about what they see has more educational value than any particular show. Whether you put on an old Baby Einstein DVD or Netflix's latest "Early Learning" release, the result is the same. You have an excellent 20-minute safety device, because your kid's not leaving until the credits roll. (And that's only if you've disabled Netflix's auto play feature.) 

This piece originally appeared on Parent.co, which was always educational.