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What the Experts Say

Debbie Glasser, Special to The Miami Herald

The next time your toddler's favorite television character asks a question or sings a song, you might want to encourage your toddler to join in the fun. According to a recent study, the more interactive the content of your toddler's videos, the more likely your child will be entertained - and educated.

Interactive characters - those who speak directly into the camera and wait for a child's response - may serve as a meaningful source of information for young viewers.

"We've known for some time that watching video is not an especially efficient way for toddlers to learn,'' said Georgene Troseth, study co-author and assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. "Young children seem to learn better from directly interacting with people.''

However, when characters appear to look into children's eyes and engage in conversation with them, they are producing what psychologists call "social cues,'' Troseth said. These cues can enhance children's social, cognitive, and language skills.

When children are exposed to social cues, either from fictional characters or real people, they're more likely to pay attention and respond to the information presented to them, according to experts. This engagement can be a powerful learning tool.

But as positive as interactive characters may be, Troseth reminds parents that "conversations'' between children and characters on TV are no substitute for the critical social connections that can only be achieved by face-to-face communication.

What can you do to make the most of your children's TV viewing experiences and enhance their learning? Here are some suggestions:

* Choose wisely. "Television - whether good or bad - is multi-layered, and can have an unpredictable impact on a child who's not yet a savvy media consumer,'' said Emily Richardson- Lorente, coordinating producer of South Florida's KidVision, WPBT-PBS 2's programming platform for kids, "so parents need to make good and careful choices about what they allow their children to watch.'' Choose shows that promote positive messages that are consistent with your family's goals and values, she suggested.

* Watch together. An effective, fun way to help young children learn from television is to watch with them, Richardson-Lorente said. "Talk about the characters and the story line together,'' she said. "Ask your children questions about what they're watching, reaffirm the lessons, and help make the lessons come alive.''

* Make connections. "Young children are still figuring out that a video is a representation that they can learn from,'' Troseth said. Point out links between what's on television and what's in your children's world. For example, if they're learning about the color yellow on TV, point to yellow objects at home. "Don't assume that the connection between video and the real world will be clear to toddlers.''

* Keep commercials to a minimum. "Young children can be easily influenced by advertising, especially when it's geared towards them,'' Richardson-Lorente said. "For young children who don't understand the difference between a program and an advertisement, commercials can be toxic.'' Limit exposure to television commercials when children are young and help them become informed consumers as they grow, she advised.

* Set limits. Troseth encourages parents of young children to set limits on television viewing and provide opportunities for playful, meaningful connections away from the TV.

Experts agree that while many television programs and videos can be effective learning tools, parents are their children's best teachers.

"Children watch everything you do and say, and they learn best in their daily interactions with you,'' Troseth said. "You are much more powerful in your children's lives than any character on TV.''

To learn more, visit www.pbs.org/parents.

Debbie Glasser, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of NewsFor Parents.org, an online newsletter for parents. She can be reached at debbie@NewsForParents.org.

Published: June 1, 2006
Copyright (c) 2006 The Miami Herald

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