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Toddler Learning Videos Don’t Work Because Young Brains Don’t Get Screens

A new study shows that toddlers brains are wired to learn new tricks — but through real-live social cues, not something taught on a screen.

When Bert and Ernie made their public television debut 50 years ago, the puppets and the rest of the Sesame Street crew proved revolutionary. After watching the show, preschoolers had larger vocabularies than their peers and did better in school across income levels, according to a sizeable body of research on the program. One thing Sesame Street was not proven to be: A toddler learning video. What worked so well 3 to 5-years-olds isn’t the same for younger children.

“Babies find it hard to go across the digital divide,” says Rachel Barr, a developmental psychologist at Georgetown University who studies infant cognition. Young children don’t intuitively understand that a video represents something in the real world. It’s a tricky concept to make sense of, Barr explains, and they need help navigating the digital world.

A six- or even 20-month-old might be captivated by a screen, but that attention doesn’t equate to comprehension. “For them, it’s not really intelligible,” says Elisabeth McClure, a psychologist and research specialist at the LEGO Foundation. Effects like camera cuts showing a sudden perspective change don’t initially compute in a young brain, while inconsistencies like an object onscreen appearing a different size than in real life make it hard for babies and toddlers to link that information together. It takes time and experience for babies to make meaning from these distortions, McClure says.

Understanding a screen by themselves takes the same cognitive step from a child who’s scribbling just to play to scribbling in order to represent an idea that’s in their head, says Georgene Troseth, an early childhood development psychologist at the Peabody School of Vanderbilt University. Once a kid begins to comprehend symbols they can “see a picture, and realize that represents a real situation,” Troseth says.

Another problem with screens is that young children are wired to learn from social interactions. They read expressions, look for immediate feedback, and rely on nonverbal cues like gestures and nods. But that doesn’t mean videos and screens always ring hollow for babies and toddlers.

“They can learn, they just need a lot of support to learn,” Barr emphasizes. “We always suggest to use video chat and use the video and the touch screen like you use a picture book. Because it’s the same idea of them trying to figure out the symbolic world.”

Video chat, in particular, allows children to get some of the same social cues and interaction as they would in person. They still need support, however. A recent study Troseth published in Frontiers in Psychology showed two-year-olds struggled to learn new words from an interactive video without aid.

But with help from a supportive adult, video chat can be a valuable tool for deepening relationships with loved ones. “They’re able to make a magical time of it,” says McClure. In her own research with Barr studying video chat in real-world settings, she’s seen toddlers reading books with distant grandparents, singing, playing peek-a-boo, sharing food, chasing each other through the house, and one kid dancing, twirling with family across the screen.

For the youngest kids, connecting with far-away family and friends over video chat might be the best use for screens, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It’s for the warm and fuzzies,” Troseth agrees. “The learning is just not that great.”