Thursday, December 15, 2005

Media Mom column on Baby Einstein

The more I learned about the booming world of media for 0-24-month olds, the angrier I got. The nerve of the Baby Einstein people to say that they disagree with the American Pediatric Association's recommendation of no television, videos, or computers for babies under 24 months but admit that their own materials are not "research based." They know that the research shows that kids learn less from these DVDs than from interacting with the world (and that, contrary to being calming, the refresh rate of pulsing light on any screen is both hypnotic and stimulating, neither good for babies), but they are making so much money that they do not want to have to deal with what the research will tell them.



MEDIA MOM

Are 'educational' baby videos a scam?
Research lacking to support claims



By Nell Minow
Special to the Tribune

December 14, 2005

Nothing grabs the attention of nervous new parents and excited grandparents like a product they think can make their children smarter.

The market for educational "baby videos" aimed at children as young as newborn has skyrocketed, representing about $100 million in annual sales, according to Business Week.

It's ironic that while food labeled "fresh" or "low-fat" must meet very specific federal standards, there's nothing to prevent a manufacturer from labeling a kiddie video "educational" or "enriching" without providing much support for the claims. Indeed, for at least one educational baby video series, the PhD "experts" endorsing it on the box do not disclose they also are the experts paid to help develop it.

Our youngest children are growing up in media-saturated households, but a Kaiser Family Foundation report released last January found only limited research on electronic media's effects on them. (This week the non-profit private foundation plans to release a report on the marketing of educational media for babies, toddlers and preschoolers, as well as hold a roundtable discussion on the topic.)

There's also little available to help parents figure out the value of educational DVDs or videos or computer games designed for children under age 2.

Here's what we do know:

- The "Mozart effect" -- the popular idea that listening to classical music will make you (or your child) smarter -- has been discredited.

- The American Academy of Pediatrics advises zero "screen time" (videos, television, computer) -- none -- for children under age 2.

- No reliable body of research exists to support the notion that a child so young can measurably, permanently benefit from watching developmental videos.

Unfortunately for parents and grandparents, according to Dr. Susan Linn, psychologist at Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School, so-called "developmental" videos won't put Baby on the path to the Ivy League.

"Essentially, the baby video industry is a scam. There's no evidence that the videos are educational for babies, and a review of the research on babies and videos concludes that while older babies can imitate simple actions from a video they've seen several times, they learn much more rapidly from real life," Linn says.

One of the best known series of developmental media for infants is Baby Einstein, which got its start in 1997 when new mom Julie Aigner-Clark created a video "to help her share her love of art, classical music, language and poetry with her newborn daughter," according to the company Web site.

Until then, instructional media for children usually began around age 3, with the focus on preschool curriculum content -- dancing alphabet letters and numbers and flashcard-style presentations of colors, animals and shapes.

Baby Einstein, aimed at infants, is more gentle and free-form, with music, words and images of babies, children, toys, pictures and nature.

The company names its products after people from history instantly recognizable as brilliant in the arts and sciences -- Baby Bach, Baby Galileo, Baby Monet, Baby Wordsworth, for example.

Now a part of the Walt Disney Co., Baby Einstein has expanded its series of DVDs, music CDs, books and toys to include many more titles intended for infants, some as young as newborn or a month old. The company also has launched a new line of Little Einstein products for preschoolers.

But to my mind, it's hard to figure out what these products do. Are they entertainment? Are they educational? Something between a baby-sitter and a hold button to give tired parents a break?

Smarter not the goal

I turned to the company Web site and online store -- www.babyeinstein.com -- and learned the videos, music and "discovery cards" (flashcards) don't promise to raise a baby's IQ to Einstein levels. "Baby Einstein products are not designed to make babies smarter," the Web site says. "Rather, Baby Einstein products are specifically designed to engage babies and provide parents with tools to help expose their little ones to the world around them in playful and enriching ways -- stimulating a baby's natural curiosity."

The Web site features parental testimonials for Baby Einstein's success at holding their babies' interest, increasing attention span, teaching colors and appreciation for classical music. There's also a separate group of testimonials attesting to Baby Einstein's power as a calming agent for fussy, fractious kids. "Thank you so much for making something that my baby is interested in because I cannot get him to sit down and watch anything else except Baby Einstein," says one.

"They have been almost like a baby-sitter to me, while I shower or wash the dishes," says another.

Nobody can take issue with harried parents thrilled to find something to keep the baby occupied for a few minutes so they can clear the table or grab a shower. But do we really want babies to learn that the best way to find something interesting to do, or to calm themselves down, is to watch a television screen?

I e-mailed Baby Einstein to ask if staff members know of any independent research showing what babies and toddlers learn from material like their videos. I heard back promptly from a publicist who ran my questions by the company's vice president for marketing, communications and educational products, Rashmi Turner.

"It is important to note that Baby Einstein products are specifically designed to provide parents with tools to help expose their little ones to the world around them through parent-child interaction," Turner said.

"The Baby Einstein Company does work closely with child development experts and relies on their insights and expertise to help ensure its products are appropriate for both parents and babies alike."

I brought up the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that babies under age 2 not have any "screen time" at all, whether television, DVDs or computers because children learn best through hands-on experience and interaction.

"As stated on the Web site, The Baby Einstein Company respects the American Academy of Pediatrics," Turner said. "While we don't necessarily agree that children under the age of 2 should not be exposed to television, as we believe it can be a powerful learning tool when used appropriately, we do agree with many aspects of the AAP's recommendation."

Notably, Baby Einstein agrees that parents should watch programming with their children and parents should interact with their children throughout -- talking, playing, singing and reading together. That part of the Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation, however, is supposed to apply to older children, not infants and toddlers.

Turner said the Baby Einstein DVDs are "not research-based" and the company does not have any data showing that children learn anything from watching them.

Evaluation difficult

It is very difficult to evaluate how much infants can learn from watching videos and DVDs, first because we can't ask them, but more important because infants are at the most receptive stage of life for learning. It is almost impossible to measure how much they pick up -- much less how quickly or how well they learn -- from a DVD compared with having a parent or caregiver sing a song or play with them.

Still, an academic review of the research to date by Daniel R. Anderson and Tiffany A. Pempek of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, discussing studies from different perspectives (measuring attention, imitation, new vocabulary), shows babies learn less from watching DVDs than from the same amount of time playing and interacting and observing directly.

In other words, your baby will learn more about gravity from throwing her spoon onto the floor than she will from watching a video of a baby dropping spoons -- no matter what kind of music is playing in the background.

If you look and listen carefully, that's what the producers of the baby DVDs themselves tell you.

Three "academic leaders" (who also are paid consultants, though that isn't disclosed) appear in a segment for parents on the Eebee DVD by Sony Wonder, for example, to explain to parents that babies need interaction and experience. They advise parents that "play is the work of childhood" and that children need to feel textures and explore objects for themselves.

"We know that passive viewing is not good for children," says Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, identified as a PhD and co-author of "Einstein Never Used Flashcards." On the DVD's box, however, which does not identify her as a consultant in developing the material, Hirsch-Pasek, provides a cheery blurb that reads: "Eebee's adventures sparkle with a creativity that shows how the magic of everyday moments can become extraordinary learning opportunities."

Also on the Eebee DVD, Dr. Deborah Linebarger of the University of Pennsylvania, another paid consultant, says, "It's not realistic to tell a parent no TV or no videos."

Not realistic? That makes me furious. Are babies going to tell you they're going to the library to study and then sneak off to a friend's house to watch something on a screen? One lesson babies cannot learn too early is that parents know how to set limits.

`What are we learning?'

Former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson once said, "All television is educational. The question is what we are learning from it."

Despite adults' best intentions in turning on "enriching" videos, there's a danger babies and toddlers may be learning they don't need to develop imagination, curiosity and the ability to entertain and quiet themselves. As Linn says, "What babies do learn . . . is to turn to a screen for stimulation and for soothing."

These DVDs don't teach babies nearly as much about colors or words or shapes or the world outside as they teach them this: Watching television is and will be a major occupation.

So when we sit babies down in front of a video about how wonderful it is to touch, squeeze, roll, stretch, hide and feel -- instead of encouraging them to actually do those things -- the lessons they are most likely to learn are that watching television is important and that the grown-ups in their life will tell them one thing but do the opposite.

Maybe that's a new line of products. We can call them Baby Irony.

- - -

Alternatives

Media Mom suggests:

- Play music and sing to your baby (she doesn't care that you're not a candidate for "American Idol").

- Read books out loud and make audio tapes of yourself reading them to play to the baby when you are away.

- Give the toddler measuring cups and something safe to scoop and spill -- his cereal, maybe, or mashed potatoes. (Let him enjoy getting messy and be sure to take pictures before he takes a bath.)

- Describe what you're doing, and describe what you see. "We are driving to the bank, and oh, look! A fire engine! Where's it going?" is thrilling repartee for a toddler in a car seat, and your excitement and curiosity will be inspiring.

- Remember, you are doing much more than practicing words or pointing out things about the world around you. You are teaching your baby he or she is important to you -- that's a lesson no video can match.

- - -

What the American Academy of Pediatrics says about television, children and learning:

Television affects how your child learns. High-quality, non-violent children's shows can have a positive effect on learning. Studies show that preschool children who watch educational TV programs do better on reading and math tests than children who do not watch those programs. When used carefully, television can be a positive tool to help your child learn.

For older children, high-quality TV programs can have benefits. However, for younger children it's a very different story. The first two years of life are especially important in the growth and development of your child's brain. During this time, children need good, positive interaction with other children and adults to develop good language and social skills. Learning to talk and play with others is far more important than watching television.

Until more research is done about the effects of TV on very young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend television for children younger than two years of age. For older children, the AAP recommends no more than one to two hours per day of quality screen time.

www.aap.org

- - -

A crowded field

The popularity of the Baby Einstein series has inspired other companies to further pry open the wallets of competitive or worried parents. Psychologist Susan Linn has counted more than 200 titles for this age group. Among them:

Baby Chatterbox (where "learning is always fun!!!") is "designed by caring parents, teachers and speech language professionals" to "focus on promoting your child's vocabulary acquisition." Recommended ages: 3 months to 3 years.

Baby Bumblebee, which claims to rely on "a scientifically well-established teaching method," says it will "build your baby's brain" with DVDs devoted to vocabulary building and numbers. Recommended ages: 4 months to 11 months, though it adds that "many parents have successfully started earlier or later."

Eebee's programs ("when adventure becomes understanding") show adults interacting with babies and a baby puppet, playing with a ball and pouring cereal.

Tiny Tot Sports says it helps fight childhood obesity with its DVDs about baseball, basketball, golf, soccer and football for "ages 0-4."

Sesame Street announced in November the advent of Sesame Beginnings, "a new line of DVDs, books, toys and infant products, brings everything you love about Sesame Street to you and your infant." The Web site notes, "With Sesame Beginnings, every time you and your baby laugh and connect over a silly song, you encourage your child's curiosity and interest in learning."

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Nell Minow reviews movies each week as The Movie Mom for Yahoo! Movies and for radio stations across the country. She can be reached at moviemom@moviemom.com.


Copyright © 2005, Chicago Tribune

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3 comments:

JMR said...

As you can imagine, I heard this reported on NPR with great interest. We popped in a copy of "Baby Mozart" that someone gave us ONCE -- and decided that the playground was far better. The baby videos are now banished to the basement.

Occasional crybaby screenings, however, are still in the mix. Although I missed last week's screening of Syriana because I deemed his nap more important. Hey, at least I have some priorities straight.

Troy said...

Why shouldn’t Baby Einstein disagree with the American Pediatric Association (“APA”)? The APA basis its suggestion on a report that is inconclusive in the first place. You yourself then cite the Boston/Harvard study in this blog that specifically found no harmful effect of screen time on an infant.

Baby Einstein never claimed its product would make a baby smarter by itself. Instead the company offers the product as tools to help parent and baby interact in almost the same fashion as what your “Media Mom suggests” section entails. And that’s been Baby Einstein’s platform for advertising since 2002.

The company has good reason to defend itself.

Nell Minow said...

Thanks, Troy. I appreciate your comment, even though I do not agree.

When I asked Baby Einstein how they responded to the academic studies showing no benefit whatsoever to babies, the response was, "our products are not research-based." So it would be one thing if they engaged on the research or even did any research of their own to support their educational claims. The FTC forced them to stop using that word, but the very name has educational implications and they still tell parents the DVDs teach pattern recognition, etc., with no evidence to back that up. There is also no evidence that the DVDs promote interaction. Quite the contrary -- most parents use them to distract the child so they can take a break from interaction. The business of the first two years of life is direct interaction with the world and the only thing the DVDs teach babies is how to watch television. The company has no grounds to defend itself and its statement about the settlement on its website is disingenuous and specious.