The Video Deficit Effect: What Is It?


Many parents today find themselves using media to their advantage with their small children, but is it really helpful?

Children begin to view TV and videos in early infancy as they are exposed to programs watched by their parents and their older siblings, or are shown programs aimed at viewers not yet out of diapers, such as Baby Einsteins. U.S. parents report that 50% of 2-month-olds watch TV and that by 2 years that percentage rises to 90% (Anand et al., 2014). 

Although parents assume that babies learn from TV and videos, research indicates that babies cannot take full advantage of them. 

Initially, infants respond to videos of people as if viewing people directly–smiling, moving their arms and legs and, by 6 months, imitating the actions of a televised adult (Barr, Muentener, & Garcia, 2007). But when shown videos of attractive toys, 9-month-olds touch and grab the screen, suggesting that they confuse the images with the real thing.

The Video Deficit Effect

In a series of studies, some 2-year-olds watched through a window while a live adult hid an object in an adjoining room, while others watched the same event on a video screen. Children in the direct viewing condition retrieved the toy easily; those in the video condition had difficulty (Troseth, 2003; Troseth & DeLoache, 1998). This is the video deficit effect – when children show poorer performance after viewing a video as opposed to a live demonstration. 

One explanation is that 2-year-olds typically do not view a video character as offering socially relevant information. After an adult on video announced where she had hidden a toy, few 2-year-olds searched (Schmidt, Crawley-Davis, & Anderson, 2007). In contrast, when the adult said the same words while standing in front of the child, 2-year-olds quickly retrieved the object. 

What does this mean?

Around age two and a half, the video deficit effect declines. Before this age, toddlers seem to discount information on video as irrelevant to their everyday experiences, because people on the screen don’t look at or converse with them directly as their caregivers do. When exposed to a high quantity of media at such a young age, 1-to 3-year-olds tend to have attention, memory and reading difficulties in the early school years (Christakis et al., 2004; Zimmerman & Christakis, 2005). 

When toddlers do watch TV and videos, it is most effective as a teaching tool when it is rich in social cues (Lauricella, Gola, & Calvert, 2011). These include the use of familiar characters and close-ups where the character looks directly at the camera, addresses questions to viewers and pauses to invite a response. 

One show that does a great job of this, for those parents out there that may not be sure where to start, is Super Why on PBS Kids. This series emphasizes the importance of problem-solving, teamwork, communication and compassion–as well as early literacy skills such as letter identification, letter sounds, simple spelling, and word recognition. According to PBS, the show was specifically designed for kids to interact with, so that “as they watch Super Why they are completely absorbed in the adventure of the story while engaging in challenging games and activities” (


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2 Responses to “The Video Deficit Effect: What Is It?”

  1. Randolph Matthews December 9, 2019 at 1:28 pm #

    Wow. This blog is one of the most interesting I have seen. I was blown away that 50% of TWO MONTH old children watch TV. TWO MONTHS?!?!?! I was also interested in the video deficit effect. I had never heard of that before. Of course the biggest neg effect in my experience is amongst school aged kids. I have also recently read that in the last 15 yrs (during which cell phones became prevalent), ADHD has increased 43% and depression 37%. I know that correlation does not show causation but it really makes me wonder…..

  2. Suzy December 9, 2019 at 7:15 pm #

    These are shocking and disturbing statistics. No infant should be placed in front of a TV or computer monitor. Entirely too much of the wrong kind of stimulation. They need cuddles!

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