Life Babies and TV: For some, it’s all about the search for something new
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Babies and TV: For some, it’s all about the search for something new

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As the debate around screen time and children continues, one experiment has suggested why some youngsters find television more captivating than others.

The new research found “the brain responses of 10-month-old babies could predict whether they would enjoy watching fast-paced TV shows six months later”.

The research team says the findings are important for the ongoing debate around early TV exposure.

That conclusion appears to be more about childhood development and exposure to new things.

The implications for the TV habits of older children isn’t clear.

In a prepared statement from the University of East Anglia’s School of Psychology, lead researcher Dr Teodora Gliga explained: “The sensory environment surrounding babies and young children is really complex and cluttered, but the ability to pay attention to something is one of the first developmental milestones in babies.

“Even before they can ask questions, children vary greatly in how driven they are to explore their surroundings and engage with new sights or sounds.”

Dr Gliga and her colleagues wanted to find out “why babies appear to be so different in the way that they seek out new visual sensory stimulation, such as being attracted to shiny objects, bright colours or moving images on TV.”

Three theories for how babies seek visual stimulation

One theory holds that infants who are less “sensitive” – presumably to what’s going on around them – will seek less stimulation.

Another theory is that some infants are simply faster at processing information – an ability that could drive them to seek out new stimulation more frequently.

In this study, the East Anglia researchers “bring support” for a third theory: That a preference for novelty makes some infants seek more varied stimulation.

That is, some babies, as it goes with grown-ups, have a predisposition for seeking something new – at least in terms of things to look at.

How the experiment was designed

Using brain imaging (electroencephalography or EEG), the researchers team studied brain activity in 48 babies – aged 10 months – while they watched a 40-second clip from the Disney movie Fantasia on repeat.

The clip was shown 10 times.

The clips from the movie Fantasia was randomly interrupted by the sudden flashing of a back-and-white chequerboard. Image: UEA

Now and then the clip was randomly interrupted by the image of a black and white chequerboard suddenly flashing on screen.

As the babies watched the repeated video clip, EEG responses told the researchers the babies had “learned” its content.

“We expected that, as the video became less novel and therefore engaged their attention less, they would start noticing the chequerboard,” Dr Gliga said.

“But some of the babies started responding to the chequerboard earlier on while still learning about the video – suggesting that these children had had enough of the old information.”

Conversely, other babies remained engaged with the video “even when there was not much to learn from it”.

Part of the research relied on parents

Parents and carers were also asked to fill in a questionnaire about their babies’ sensory behaviours.

Did baby enjoy looking at:

  • Moving or spinning objects
  • Shiny objects
  • Their reflection in the mirror
  • Fast‐paced, brightly coloured TV shows.

Enjoyment seemed to be measured by baby giving their attention to these stimuli.

The researchers found that a baby’s brain responses during the experiment – how quickly they switched their attention from the repeated video to the chequerboard – predicted whether they would enjoy watching fast-paced TV shows six months later.

“These findings are important for the ongoing debate on early TV exposure since they suggest that children’s temperament may drive differences in TV exposure,” Dr Gliga said.

However, it was unlikely the findings were explained by early TV exposure in these babies – their parents reported that only a small proportion of 10-month-olds were watching TV shows.

The data from five of the babies was discarded because they didn’t tolerate the EEG net on their heads, were fussy or couldn’t stay still.

Perhaps they’re the sort of kids that grow up to be movie critics.