Many Parents Believe That Watching Videos and DVDs May Help Bring Out the Budding Genius in Their Babies
Sandra G. Boodman
October 9, 2007
The titles lure aspirational parents eager to do what's best for their infants: Baby Einstein, Baby Galileo, Baby Shakespeare and even Brainy Baby with its original motto, "a little genius in the making."
But do these enormously popular and profitable videos and DVDs devised for viewers too young even to sit up provide educational enrichment, as supporters contend? Or are they a skillful marketing scheme for products that may actually impede cognitive development, as critics say?
Those questions have been reignited by a highly publicized study by veteran child development researchers at the University of Washington.
The Seattle team surveyed more than 1,000 families in February 2006 and found that infants between 8 and 16 months who regularly watched Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos knew substantially fewer words -- six to eight out of 90 -- than infants who did not watch them, according to parental reports. The deficit, which increased with each hour of video viewing, was not seen among babies who watched other programming, such as "Sesame Street" or "SpongeBob SquarePants" or adult shows such as "Oprah."
The study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, is the first to examine the impact of videos that have been heavily promoted as educational, according to lead author Frederick J. Zimmerman, a University of Washington associate professor of public health and pediatrics. Zimmerman called the negative effect "large and significant" but said the study stopped short of establishing a causal connection.
"Parents should not panic," Zimmerman said. Fifteen minutes of video viewing, he said, is unlikely to matter. But some babies in their study watched as much as four hours per day -- a circumstance facilitated by the automatic replay feature on Baby Einstein DVDs.
In Zimmerman's view, parents have been "misled" about the benefits of baby videos, which can displace real-world parent-child interaction and creative play, both known to be essential for cognitive development.
No Screen Time
Other experts agree. No empirical study, they say, has demonstrated benefits for any video or television programming in children younger than 2. That is the chief reason the American Academy of Pediatrics advises no screen time for this age group, a recommendation that experts concede is widely ignored. Studies have linked heavy TV viewing among children older than 3 to attention and learning problems, sleep disturbances and obesity.
Earlier this year, researchers reported that 20 percent of children younger than 2 had a television set in their bedroom. Another study by Zimmerman's team found that 40 percent of 3-month-olds regularly watched an hour per day, a figure that rose to 90 percent by age 2.
And a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2005 found that about 25 percent of families owned at least one baby video and that nearly half of parents considered them important educational tools. (Parents also said they used videos to entertain their babies or when they needed to take a break.)
A decade ago, programming aimed at infants and toddlers was virtually nonexistent. Since then, videos, DVDs, affiliated books and toys and even a 24-hour cable TV channel called BabyFirst TV have emerged, creating an industry with annual revenue estimated to exceed $1 billion.
"These videos are incredibly seductive and hit parents where they are most vulnerable: fears about academic success and intense time pressures," said educational psychologist Susan Linn, co-founder of the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Last year the campaign, with the support of the AAP and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, alleging that they engaged in false and deceptive advertising. At issue were claims by the manufacturers that the videos promote language skills, foster infant development or provide "a jump-start on learning." The matter has not been resolved.
"The hype that these are educational makes parents feel less guilty about sticking their kids in front of the tube," said Washington area psychiatrist Michael Brody, who chairs the AACAP's committee on media.
Brody, who teaches a course on children and media at the University of Maryland, says videos have helped fuel a kind of arms race involving "hypercompetitive parents who use their children as objects" and seek to ensure they are keeping up -- or better yet, excelling.
Makers of baby videos dispute such criticism. They dismiss Zimmerman's study as methodologically flawed and point out that the language gap was not seen in infants between 17 and 24 months.
Brainy Baby chief executive Dennis Fedoruk said in an e-mail that his Atlanta-based company's videos are "tools that parents can use with their children, much like a book, to introduce academic basics."
Fedoruk said he has received "thousands of unsolicited testimonials from customers who have seen a positive result in their own children from watching our videos," including improved scores on an IQ test.
Susan McLain, vice president and general manager of Disney-owned Baby Einstein, which has an estimated 90 percent share of the market, said company officials "took offense" at the notion that their line of 24 DVDs, many bearing the names of luminaries -- da Vinci, van Gogh, Mozart, Newton -- might be harmful.
"We've never claimed they're educational," said McLain, who said she played them for her 4-month-old daughter. The goal is to "instill in infants a love of classical music and art and nature."
"Our core position has been about the discovery of meaningful moments for Mom and baby," she said. "That was Julie Aigner-Clark's vision."
Aigner-Clark, a Colorado English teacher, founded Baby Einstein in 1997 when she filmed the first video, which cost her $15,000, using borrowed equipment. Four years later, when she sold the company to Disney, it had sales of $20 million, President Bush noted when he singled her out in his 2007 State of the Union address as representative of "the great enterprising spirit of America."
Aigner-Clark has said she drew the logo herself and chose the name to reflect Albert Einstein's "love of the arts, simple curiosity and passion for discovery" -- and not because his name is synonymous with genius. (Baby Einstein pays royalties to the late physicist's estate.)
Her initial goal, she said, was to expose her baby daughter Aspen to "the arts and sciences," only to find there were no "age-appropriate products."
She and her husband shot "scenes on a tabletop in my basement," she recounts on Ladies Who Launch, a Web site for female entrepreneurs. "I put a puppet on my hand and plopped my cat down in front of the camera."
"Everything I did in the first videos was based on my experience as a mom," she continued. "I didn't do any research. . . . I assumed that what my baby liked to look at, most other babies would, too."
Her timing was flawless. Baby Einstein was launched during a decade of unprecedented interest in infants' cognitive development. A few years earlier, researchers had published a study of the so-called Mozart effect, a theory about the beneficial effects on learning of exposure to classical music.
That theory, which has since been largely discredited, was seized on by politicians, including then-Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia, who advocated sending parents of newborns in his state classical music tapes. The Clinton White House held a conference on brain development during the first three years of life, and parents across the country flocked to stores with names like Zany Brainy to buy educational toys designed to nurture their children's budding intellect.
"It was a perfect storm," said child psychiatrist Brody.
How Babies Learn
Some child development experts say it is highly unlikely babies know what to make of commercial baby videos, which they describe as a noisy, rapid-fire melange of images, sounds and words in multiple languages that seem to have little connection to one another but may be attention-grabbing.
"Babies can barely recognize objects at all," Zimmerman said. A picture of a horse and a bouncing cow to illustrate the concept "farm" -- along with the word "farm," which they cannot read, is likely to be baffling, he said.
"A 1-year-old is not going to learn to read: They don't have the cognitive architecture."
Studies have found that before age 3, babies have substantial difficulty learning from a two-dimensional image; they learn, instead, from touching or tasting or otherwise experiencing the three-dimensional world around them.
Developmental psychologist Rachel Barr, director of the Early Learning Project at Georgetown University, said she regards baby videos as "a personal choice for people to make" but recommends that "parents think about how they use them and how often they use them. An hour is a long time."
"A screen is a very difficult thing for a child under 2 to process," she said. Young children do not learn by osmosis, as many adults believe.
Barr cited a study conducted several years ago by University of Massachusetts researchers, who found that 1-year-olds who saw a video about how to use a puppet had to watch it six times to learn how to do it, while those who received a live lesson did so immediately.
McLain said Baby Einstein videos are "based on well-established principles that babies can absorb and respond to different sights and sounds." Brainy Baby's Fedoruk said his videos were created by "educators with time-tested expertise."
Some parents are fans.
Deborah Ankutse, a former software engineer in Round Rock, Tex., said she played Brainy Baby videos for her son, now 6, and is convinced that they helped him learn to talk early and to read when he was 27 months old.
"I used them as a teaching tool, and I think they're very important," she said.
Catherine Stocker of Bethesda said she regards the 10 or so Baby Einstein videos she owns as "3-D mobiles" for her sons, ages 1 1/2 and 4 1/2 . She sometimes uses them on long airplane trips when she and her children watch on her laptop or a portable DVD player.
"I don't compare them to other activities I would do with my kids" at home, she said, "but with what else would they be watching on TV for 20 minutes while I throw dinner in the oven."
To Harvard's Linn, the widespread use of these videos raises a more vexing question.
"In this digitized world, do we want to raise a generation of children who are either bored or anxious if they're not in front of a screen?"
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