By ERICA GOODE
Even young babies can be influenced by emotional messages delivered through a television screen, a new study has found.
After watching a videotape of an adult actress reacting to a toy with a show of either negative or positive emotion, year-old infants in the study displayed similar emotions in their interactions with the toy.
"They are able to pick up where a person is looking, and of course, they pick up the emotion," said Dr. Donna L. Mumme, an assistant professor of psychology at Tufts University and the lead author of the study. "It was quite striking to us that 1-year-olds were able to gather that much information from a 20-second television clip."
When the actress responded to a toy with fear, the babies avoided playing with it and were more likely to appear worried, frown, scowl or cry. When the actress was enthusiastic, the infants were more apt to play with the toy.
The study, which appears today in the journal Child Development, adds to the increasing evidence that children can distinguish and decode specific social and emotional cues much earlier than scientists once thought.
Intense displays of emotion have effects on even the youngest infant, said Dr. Joseph Campos, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, who was familiar with the study. But until the baby is able to figure out what the emotions are about, Dr. Campos said, "they don't know if the mother is yelling at them or at their sibling or at the dog or at the mailman."
The new study, he added, documents "that by 12 months, babies have the capacity to know to whom or about what a person is emoting."
He called the finding "a very important contribution."
Dr. Mumme and other researchers said that parents sometimes assumed that their very young children were oblivious to television programs, but that the study's findings suggested otherwise.
"The impact of television is often underestimated," said Dr. Linda Camras, a professor of psychology at DePaul University.
But, she added, "I wouldn't be concerned that your infant will be polluted by watching Jenny Jones over your shoulder."
Similarly, Dr. Anne Fernald, a professor of psychology at Stanford and the second author of the study, said she doubted whether infants would be much affected by adult programs that presented information "at a level of complexity that is beyond the child."
The videos in the study, Dr. Fernald said, were "slow and deliberate and timed in a way that babies could follow."
The infants sat facing a 20-inch television set and watched 20-second videos of an actress reacting to toys like a long red spiral letter holder, a knobby blue ball, a green and yellow garden hose adapter and a plastic valve with a red wing nut and a blue knob. The infants were then given an opportunity to play with the toys, which were visible during the video but not close enough for the babies to reach.
The actress varied her tone and facial expressions to convey positive or negative emotion, but used the same neutral words to describe the toy. In one case, the actress said: "Look at that. It's plastic. It has four legs. It has lots of loops. It's a cylinder. It's bright red. Look at that."
Dr. Mumme said the infants sometimes waved at the television or said hi to it.
Their emotional reactions not only mimicked the actress's responses to the toy, but they also appeared to be quite specific. For example, the babies avoided playing with the toy shown in the video when the actress reacted to it negatively, but happily played with a "distractor" toy that was also within their reach, the researchers found.
In a second study, the researchers found that 10-month-old infants, unlike their older counterparts, were not influenced by the actress's emotions. But the scientists speculated that even those younger babies might respond to emotional displays by siblings, parents or others in real life.
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