Are toddlers incapable of learning from TV?

ResearchBlogging.orgThere's lots of evidence that most TV isn't beneficial to toddlers, and it may even be harmful. But can't kids learn from TV too? Isn't that supposed to be what shows like Teletubbies, Barney, and Sesame street are all about? For older children, three and above, it does seem to be true that some learning can occur, but for two-year-olds and younger, the evidence tells a different story.

Few studies have shown any evidence that two-year-olds can learn from TV anywhere near as well as they learn from real-world experiences. While they clearly can distinguish between nonsense programming and real shows, they don't do much at all with the information presented in the shows. One study found they can't imitate actions shown on TV as well as live actions, and another showed they don't learn labels for objects from TV shows.

Perhaps most intriguing are two studies, one by G.L. Troseth and J.S. DeLoache, and another by K.L. Schmitt and Daniel Anderson. In these experiments, two-year-olds were shown videos of experimenters hiding objects in a room. Then the toddlers were allowed into the room and told to find the object. Accuracy ranged from 44 percent to 25 percent, despite the fact that there were only from four to six possible hiding places in the room. Their performance was no better than if they had simply searched the room at random, with no video to help them.

Many toddlers did seem to look in the right spot after watching the first video, but if the task was repeated with a different hiding place, they simply returned to the original spot, ignoring the new video evidence.

Do toddlers just have difficulty translating from a small screen to full-sized reality? When Jim and Nora were toddlers, they loved Barney the Dinosaur, but cowered in fear when they saw a life-sized human in a Barney suit. Or maybe toddlers struggle with converting a two-dimensional television image into a three-dimensional physical space. Or perhaps they believe that the things on the TV inhabit their own tiny world inside the box, unrelated to the larger, outside world.

Marie Evans Shmidt, Alisha Crawley-Davis, and Anderson developed a new experiment that promised to answer some of these questions by simplifying the problem. Instead of hiding objects in a room, they hid stickers behind larger objects on a felt board. The felt board was the same size as a TV screen that the toddlers watched. Some of the two-year-olds watched an experimenter hide the objects on TV. Some of them watched the objects as they hidden on the actual felt board. And some them saw objects being hidden on a sample felt board. In each case they had to locate the objects on the original felt board. This graph shows the results:


As you can see, the toddlers who watched the objects being hidden on the actual felt board did significantly better than the others. In this experiment, there were only four hiding places, so a 25 percent accuracy rate is equivalent to chance performance. As in the earlier studies, toddlers who watched on TV were significantly better on their first attempt compared to later attempts to find the object, while there was no significant difference in the other conditions. Not only does watching TV help very little, but performance gets worse over time!

In a second experiment, the researcher hid a stuffed toy Snoopy in a separate room from the toddler, then either told the child where the toy was hidden in person, or on TV, before letting him or her into the room to search for the toy. Again, there were four possible hiding places. Here are the results:


Once again, being told in person resulted in significantly better performance. As before, the TV-watchers got worse over time. Clearly the toddlers can understand the verbal descriptions of the objects, but somehow they don't get the message on TV.

Schmidt's team says that these experiments show that toddlers don't have true mental representations of scenes. Instead, they rely on direct experience -- their own interactions with the felt board or the room with the hidden Snoopy doll. The reason they do somewhat better on the first TV-watching trial is that they form a "fragile memory" of the hidden object. When this is confirmed by experience, most toddlers assume the object is always going to be located in the same place, regardless of whether they see it hidden someplace else on TV later.

So while toddlers can understand what's going on on TV, they don't think about what they see on TV the same way older kids and adults do. They don't connect it back to the real things they encounter in their world, so they can't learn from TV. Whatever it is your toddler gets from watching TV, these researchers say, it's not learning.

Schmidt, M.E., Crawley-Davis, A.M., Anderson, D.R. (2007). Two-year-olds' object retrieval based on television: Testing a perceptual account Media Psychology, 9 (2), 389-409

More like this two year old has become an enthusiastic tooth-brusher as a result of watching Maisy Mouse do it on the "Playtime Maisy" series. In general, he wants to go do whatever Maisy does after he sees her do it - squeeze lemons to make lemonade, dance to "if you're happy and you know it," and, thank god, put on a scarf when he goes outdoors.

What I've observed is that his most interactive television experiences revolve around skills or knowledge that he already has, but may not have practiced or applied to himself.

Emily: The 2-year-olds in the study were 23-25 months old. People call 35-month-olds 2-year-olds, but clearly there's a world of difference. Once you hit three, they can learn a lot from TV.

This is seriously anecdotal and possibly apocryphal but may hold some insights into how people (of any age) who're not used to seeing things onscreen interpret what they see. I've heard there was a project for community education about malaria in Africa which involved videoing a discussion meeting involving people in one village and then showing the video in other communities.

In a focus group evaluation:

# When asked what the video was about, people who'd seen it were largely non-plussed until someone said there was a chicken, and everyone else agreed. The public health experts who'd made the video were perplexed until they ran it slowly. There was indeed a moment at which a chicken walked across the space in the middle of the village in which people in the video were standing around and talking.

# When asked what they'd learned about malaria prevention, people said it wasn't really a problem for them because in their area there were only small mosquitoes, not like the ones in the video. The video included a section where a health expert held up a piece of paper with a large picture of a mosquito while explaining the spread of malaria, so viewers assumed he was talking about mosquitoes the same size as in the picture.

I am not necessarily claiming this is true. But why should we expect toddlers to be able to make sense of onscreen images?

By Hilary PhD (not verified) on 21 Jan 2009 #permalink

Wouldn't it be interesting to do the experiment again, and have an actual felt board demonstration between trial 1 and trial 2 (for the TV watchers)? I'd be curious whether the initial exposure to the TV-directed search actually impeded their ability to learn from subsequent real-life teaching.

i have always thought this task was a little unfair because children were asked to assume that what happened on tv was a live video feed of what was going on in the other room. normally tv is pre-recorded and when something moves on tv it is not simultaneously moving in the next room. the kids didn't just have to understand what was happening on tv, but also that it was happening right now, in that room. it makes sense that they do worse after the first trial - they have to decide if what they just saw in real life on the last trial is still true or if what they saw on tv changed it. i think this is totally different than learning about a new animal, or brushing your teeth, etc.

At exactly one year old, my daughter was observed watching the Teletubbies very carefully, and repeatedly lifting her shirt to examine her own belly. We assume she was looking for the screen! Perhaps not very educational, mind you - well, she learned she doesn't have a screen at least!

It seems these experiments have proven that 23-25 month old children do not learn well from TV where an object is hidden. Does that translate into them not learning words and relating their own body parts to what's being shown on a screen? Learning songs or other repetitive things?

Perhaps when TV is used as a learning tool for those things, it's parental involvement that helps. Were parents present to reinforce and interpret what the child was seeing on the screen?

My children are now school age. My experience is that they imitated the tone of tv shows more than learned from them up until about age 6. After that they started to use scenarios from shows they watched in their own play, again in imitation, albeit more complex. Around age 7 one of my children started learning from watching art shows and incorporating that into her own crafts. But overall, my children have learned far more from their own hands on exploration. I found the same thing with computers, only more so. I find that they learn far more from paper and pencil and manipulating 3d objects in all areas of learning than by playing "educational" computer games.

Perhaps their inability to learn about spatial relationships does not also mean they cannot learn concepts such as teeth-brushing, sharing, math? (Qualitative things like that, not positions of stuff in real time.) kid taught himself how to read at a 1st grade level by the age of 3 by watching Sesame Street, Between the Lions, and his Thomas the Tank Engine DVD special features, (and yes he also reads actual books, of course, but refused to let me teach him how to read.) This wasn't just memorization or repetition...he could read any new word we put in front of him. He also learned how to count and say the alphabet in about 7 different languages by watching Baby Einstein. That's not learning?

My 30-month-old daughter seems to get quite a lot of information from TV and films. Until recently, whenever she saw any lion in a book, she tended to say "Alex" (the name of the lion from "Madagascar") than the generic "lion". Now this is changing, but when she was slightly over 2-years-old, "Alex" meant "lion".

Another thing is that she is able to recognize several basic emotions experienced by characters (the first was fear, than came happiness, sadness and surprise). I also have doubts concerning the claim that perhaps "they don't connect [things on TV] back to the real things they encounter in their world, so they can't learn from TV". My daughter sometimes says that e.g. the toilet is like the one in the movie and when we flush the water will go to sewer like in the movie. What's more she often wants to go "inside the movie" and I have a hard time explaining her it's impossible.

Perhaps this is the matter of individual differences, but this only means we should be careful with making sweeping generalizations.

While it was interesting to read about this research, I can't say I've come away from it with newly acquired knowledge.

Most of the information is consistent with earlier research (specifically Deloaches') showing that children have difficulty with dual representation (i.e., the recognition that objects can both be actual objects and symbols). As an example, Deloache (1987) had 2.5-3 year olds watch an adult hide a Snoopy toy in a scale model of a room. They were then asked to find and retrieve the same toy in the actual room. The 2.5 year olds showed difficulty with this task while the 3 year olds did not. In accordance with Donna B.'s comment (@7), children do better on the find-Snoopy task when adults point out the relationship between objects and how they can be represented symbolically.

I think a more novel finding would incorporate Piaget's sensorimotor stage, which holds that children from 0-2 have thought processes governed by physical interactions with the environment. Taking this into consideration, how might children do on the find-Snoopy task if physical interactions during the learning phase was involved? What if the find Snoopy task were repeated using virtual reality (or a simpler 2-dimensional computer game scenario), in which 2.5 year olds actually search for and retrieve Snoopy on a computer screen after being shown where the experimenter has hidden it; then they are taken to an actual room and the experimenter asks them if they could show them the location of the object that they found in the pretend place (i.e. the computer screen game). Would they be more accurate in finding Snoopy? A variation on this would be to ask them to first look for Snoopy in an actual room, and see if they can locate Snoopy on a computer screen. Would they be more accurate in finding the object in this situation than the other experimental situation? If so, this would suggest 2-year-olds find it easier to translate real situations into imaginary ones, than translating imaginary situations into real ones; which would be consistent with Piaget's assumption of sensorimotor driven thought-processes of 2 year olds, and with Lilian's comment (@8) about hands on exploration.

I'd also have to agree with other commenter's general implicit disagreement that this research is only addressing one type of learning that might specifically taxing on the visuospatial memory and processing capacities of 2 year olds. There are other types of learning not assessed such as the extent to which 2-year-olds can acquire new words from television, and the extent to which television contributes to their social and emotional interactions with objects in the real-world. As an example, I'd bet if a 2-year-old watches Barney on television on a regular basis, s/he he would prefer the stuffed toy Barney on the store shelf rather than any other stuffed toy on the shelf.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 22 Jan 2009 #permalink

This reminds me of the dual representation research using scale models and how difficult that is for children. In fact it seems that this research is essentially the same (hiding an object in a model room and having children search for it in a real room). I would think that TV presents the same "scale model" difficulties for children.

Dave: My Maisy-loving son is 24 months old.

I disagree with these findings. My son is 32 months old now. When he was between 12 and 24 months he watched a couple of different PBS shows, one of which is Super Why fairly regularly. Neither I nor his babysitter were trying to teach him to recognize letters at 12 months old, but he knew every letter by sight by the time he was about 18 months old.

I don't know if the researchers are making a valid interpretation of the findings.

Probably these kids have had adults tell them "TV isn't real" for most of their lives. In their own experience, when things happen on TV, they don't happen in real life. So I think that kids brought their preconceptions with them into the experiement. They assumed that what they were seeing on TV didn't reflect the real world, because up until now, it hadn't.

It doesn't really surprise me that the toddles couldn't change their entire perception of TV over the course of a single experiment. If anything, this tells me that they able to separate TV from reality in a positive way.

I've been thinking about this in relation to my granddaughter and her computer use. She is 22 months old now and spent 6 months communicating with her Daddy only on the computer, via webcam while he was in Iraq.

She also visits with both sets of grandparents that way as we live 100s of miles away.

Is the interaction enough to make it 'real' for her? She certainly had no problem with Daddy showing up again for real. (TSA let them through to meet him at the gate and there's lovely video of her seeing him and running to him.)

I'm just wondering if enough relevant research has been done on how children learn. My experience for years is that they learn more and learn more quickly than any research has ever suggested.

Thanks for all the great comments and stories, everyone. Of course, your child may be different, but I'd be very interested to see how some of these very bright two-year-olds would do in the exact scenario described in this study -- most commenters' examples are different.

It's possible that you all have exceptionally bright children who'd pass the test with flying colors. It's also possible that this study describes a unique situation that doesn't relate much to reality.

But these two experiments do cover two very different types of learning from TV, with similar results. Add that to earlier studies showing that two-year-olds don't imitate actions they see on TV as well as actions they see in person, and I believe the evidence is fairly convincing that TV isn't a very good learning tool for two-year-olds.

The picture changes quite rapidly after that, and for older kids there's clearly quite a bit of learning that's possible via television and other technological means. Our kids got a great head start on reading and math using computerized learning games.

My mother taught grade school for years in Canada. Sesame Street didn't arrive till the 70's. This is only her impression but she noticed a marked drop in attenion span in here students when Sesame Street with its short snappy segments started. How do you compete with something that even if it bores you will change in 2 minutes will change to something completely different.

My wife and I raised our son with very little TV. Not because of above, but because we wanted him to be himself as much as possible and not surrender him to the media and its designs on learning and consuming. Plus with those extra 2 to 3 hours a day he doesn't watch tv he's free to do other things and most importantly we're free to do them with him. He's 9 now. Our tv broke last July, I finally fixed it over the Christmas holidays. It really wasn't missed.

I still think there's something to the idea that TV used to reinforce existing messages is a different thing from TV being used to present entirely new information. This would be similar to the two-step model of persuasion, and although I've studied only persuasion and not learning models per se, I wouldn't be surprised if there was something analogous there.

Outside of experiments, I bet that many of the things that toddlers see on TV (when their parents are selecting the programs, of course) are things (songs, behaviors, object names) that they have encountered already elsewhere. The TV may act as a separate source to confirm the toddler's knowledge and encourage the toddler to demonstrate it him or herself.

But these two experiments do cover two very different types of learning from TV, with similar results.

I agree with this if learning is defined in terms of the testing situation (i.e., infants [presumably] pointing to hidden objects directly from a television screen after watching it being hidden on a television screen in experiment 1 vs. watching it being hidden on a television screen and then having to retrieve it from a room in experiment 2). But if we define learning in terms of the learning task, it is possible to define learning very specifically here, as the observed ability of 2-year-olds to retrieve hidden objects after being given directions from a television screen vs. alternative situations.

Add that to earlier studies showing that two-year-olds don't imitate actions they see on TV as well as actions they see in person, and I believe the evidence is fairly convincing that TV isn't a very good learning tool for two-year-olds.

What attenuates this somewhat, is the data above, showing that 2-year-olds have above average performance in retrieving hidden objects on the first trial of television watching. So there's some suggestion that something is happening, but it is very brief. Similar to the researchers' comment, I agree that it's some kind of memory phenomenon. I suspect it's specifically a context-dependent memory phenomenon, as the general nature of experiment 1 shows 2-year-olds perform the object retrieval task best in a situation where the information acquisition context and object retrieval context are the same (i.e., viewing objects being hidden on a specific felt board and retrieving these objects on the same felt board). The television context might be somewhat different as the infant might have to contend with two pieces of visual information--the border of the tv and the border of the felt board.

I would probably agree with the very specific conclusion that toddlers are not capable of learning to retrieve objects from television. As for the impact of television on learning in 2-year-olds more generally, I'm uncertain; especially concerning a previous CogDaily article suggesting the content of television programs can affect attention in children 0-36 months old. Attention is a significant component of learning in general.

So I would conclude that tv may have a generic (rather than specific) impact on learning.

By Tony Jeremiah (not verified) on 23 Jan 2009 #permalink

A few questions/points.

First, while they may not actually be learning much, is there any evidence that the tee vee is actually bad for them. My one year old absolutely adores Elmo. We discovered this when the eldest decided to watch Elmo when the then five month old was having a bit of a cranky day. As soon as he heard Elmo and then looked and saw Elmo, he calmed down.

Second, while they may not learn from what they're seeing, is there any reason to believe they aren't picking up on the language? We never allowed anything that didn't include a lot of dialogue. While I generally chalk it up to innate intelligence and the fact that we talked to him constantly and read to him a lot, the eldest was able to express complete thoughts at a very early age. I can't imagine that the dialogue on the hour of tee vee he was allowed didn't contribute to that.

Finally, I suspect that the fear of Barney issue has more to do with translating that tiny picture to something much larger, than anything else. For the eldest, it was construction machines. He loved construction machines and even liked them in real life - as he saw them on a major project that was happening close to our old house. But there, they were still quite a distance from our point of view and therefore still quite small.

Then one day we stopped to watch when they happened to be bringing several loads of steel to the site and had the fence around the site open. He was notably nervous about the fence being open and even talked about it some. Then a loader came rumbling by, fairly close to the opening in the fence. He got absolutely hysterical, afraid that the machine was going to escape. It was three days before he felt safe enough to go back to this site, in spite of the fact that being a couple blocks from our house it was very accessible and our visits were almost daily, often twice a day.

He was twenty seven, twenty eight months at the time. His reasoning seemed to be that the machines on the site weren't very friendly and were very big. His favorite show at the time (and for all to long after) was Bob the Builder, which featured autonomous, talking construction machines.


See the posts linked at the top of my post. Yes, it can be harmful, depending especially on the types of programs you let them watch. Violent programs (including Disney movies) are the worst.

A little TV probably won't harm your child, but a lot of TV is almost certainly not a good thing.

Here's an easy, cheap experiment anyone can do about TV learning, and not just for toddlers.

Practically all American kids have seen Sesame Street and its instruction to count to 10 in Spanish. Ask any teenagers you know to count to 10 in Spanish. If they can do it, it won't be because they learned it on Sesame St.

By Harry Eagar (not verified) on 26 Jan 2009 #permalink

If they can do it, it won't be because they learned it on Sesame St.

If they learn the names for the numbers as a gimmick, and never get to practice using those names, they forget them once they loose interest in the show. Did you really expect anything different?

By Valhar2000 (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

The biggest problem with TV as a learning experience is that it is not truly interactive. I see this with my granddaughter as she intuitively learns grammar,punctuation and pronunciation.

She will often get pronunciation (or other aspect) wrong at first, sometimes we don't understand and have to ask her to repeat it. If we do finally understand we repeat the word/phrase correctly. Being required to repeat it (with modification) till we understand, hearing her statement echoed correctly, this interaction helps her speak and understand in a way that the TV simply cannot.

For the past two months, my 17 month old has been humming the Jeopardy theme song, the theme song to Elmo's World and the Alphabet song (essentially humming the alphabet A,B,C, D...). I think this is pretty cute and it's obvious he learned it from watching television. He also says "ut oh" when someone spills something or falls or whatever and he laughs when characters do funny things. I always wonder how he knows something is funny! I believe he understands a lot more about what's going on than most studies show.

My three-year old daughter seems to have some interaction with the TV she sees. She likes shows with music, and asks to see the same shows until she learns the songs sang in the shows. When the characters start singing, she sings along with them. Her vocabulary has improved beyond what I could have taught her since she now knows the name of some animals that I do not know (English is not my first language, so my animal kingdom vocabulary is not as extensive as I would like it to be). She loves to see symphonic pieces on TV. She now recognizes many instruments and what they sound like, but her favorite is to see the conductor (she loves to see James Levine, I guess beacuse of his peculiar hair). She also loves to see ballet pieces since she like ballerinas. Over the holidays we watched together "The Nutcraker" on video. She loved it. When we watch TV together, we interact with each other, so for instance, we would comment on what she is wacthing (e.g. is that a violin? do you like the ballerina's dress? Isn't the conductor funny?). I do not think I can take my three-year old daughter to a concert hall to listen to a symphony, and I think she might not last the whole Nutcraker sitting on her chair, but at home, she can get exposure to all these things via video and TV. While most of the literature about TV and cognition has focused on toddler vs TV, we are missing a very important aspect, which is to analyze the whole esperience of TV or video, including how TV can be only part of the experience. How parents and other adults interact with the child while watching TV or videos seems to be a very important of the TV/video experience. We might need to design some experiments to tackle this aspect as well.