Watching television won't turn babies into Einsteins

By Patricia Cantor
Concord Monitor
January 25. 2007

Following tradition, President Bush closed his State of the Union address by introducing some ordinary Americans who had done extraordinary things. In addition to the war hero, the everyday hero and the immigrant who made it to the NBA, there was the enterprising entrepreneur who hatched an idea in her basement and became a multimillionaire. She is Julie Aigner-Clark, and her money-making idea was to produce videos for infants and market them under the name Baby Einstein.

Of all the aspects of the speech that will be discussed and debated in coming days, his mention of Baby Einstein may seem inconsequential. But as a parent, early childhood educator and concerned citizen, I cannot let it pass without comment.

The story of the new mom whose attempt to bring her love of art and music to her infant daughter resulted in a $20 million company appeals to our American admiration of the self-made millionaire. As the Baby Einstein materials unfailingly point out, Aigner-Clark is a former teacher (high school English). What, then, could be wrong with a product line conceived by a teacher and mother?

Plenty. Baby Einstein videos are insidious - seductive but harmful. The shrewdly chosen name sends a clear message to parents: These videos will make your baby smarter, maybe even a genius. The parent testimonials on the Baby Einstein website exclaim about how much their babies love to watch these videos, how they will just stare at the screen for long periods.

But just because babies are staring at objects moving on a screen does not mean they're learning. There is no evidence to support the implied claims that Baby Einstein videos, or any similar products that engage infants in staring at screens, enhance infants' growth and development in any way.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics, in a 1999 policy statement, urges parents to avoid television or screen time for children under 2. "While certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional and cognitive skills," the statement said.
While Baby Einstein videos and similar products may capture infants' attention, they are no substitute for stimulating and nurturing interactions with real people. The moving shapes and animals on the screen cannot respond to a watching infant. They just keep doing the same thing over and over.

As parents and early educators have long known, infants learn by interacting with adults who care about them. Research on children's development is also clear on this point. Yet the trend to market Baby Einstein and similar products to infants (or their parents) continues to grow.

In addition to baby videos, products directed at infants include lapware, or computer software for babies, as well as a TV channel devoted entirely to infant programming.

Infants cannot even turn on a TV or computer, let alone ask for their own channel. The push to market to infants is not driven by a sudden desire among corporations to promote infant development, but by their recognition that there is money to be made from parents who want the best for their babies. Multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns pushing products to make babies "smarter" are hard to resist.

For many harried parents, baby videos serve the purpose of occupying the baby for a few minutes so Mom or Dad can take a shower, cook dinner or talk on the phone. But let's not be seduced into buying the marketing pitch that these videos will make our babies smarter.

Spending inordinate amounts of time staring at screens, whether at home or in the car, will not create a generation of geniuses. Babies don't need these products to learn or to grow into happy, healthy, intelligent adults.

I am willing to bet that Aigner-Clark, President Bush's model of American enterprise, did not develop her own particular brand of entrepreneurial genius by staring at a screen as an infant. And I am sure Einstein himself did not watch baby videos.

(Patricia Cantor of Concord is a professor of early childhood education at Plymouth State University.)


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