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Baby Einsteins or baby couch potatoes?
 

You can almost hear the boom in sales of "educational videos" for American infants and toddlers.

On Amazon.com, the "Baby Einstein Mozart" DVD ranks right around 126 in total DVD sales, behind "Bambi," but well ahead of the fourth season of "Seinfeld" and the "Eagles Farewell Tour from Melbourne."

Retailers project infancy to age 7 as the fastest-growing segment of the children's DVD market between now and 2010.

Well-educated moms and dads are shelling out $15 or $20 for DVDs and videos from Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby, Baby Genius and Nick Jr., among others. The market is huge, the claims ambiguous.

Parents say the videos, which can produce trances in babies and toddlers, are a healthy way to occupy children while dinner is being made or housework gets done, but experts say the colorful and highly produced products are growing a generation of couch potatoes.

"We know that babies do just fine without watching television if they have a reasonably supportive and stimulating environment," said Daniel Anderson, a University of Massachusetts-Amherst researcher with a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the impact of baby videos.

"The bottom line is that there is absolutely no evidence that baby videos enhance that world at all, and there's some weak evidence that they might actually do harm," he said. "The marketing . . . makes it seem you are doing something good for your kids when the research shows it's just kind of a time-waster. You are really fooling yourself if you're thinking it's doing some good for the baby. It's good for you. Don't kid yourself as to what's going on here."

In December, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study, "A Teacher in the Living Room? Educational Media for Babies, Toddlers and Preschoolers."

The study found that:

DVDs and videos aimed at very young children may be less effective than other activities they may be displacing, such as one-on-one parental interaction and physical activity.

Some experts worry that early childhood electronic media products may actually have adverse effects on child development, including attention span and response to stimulation.

Maria Stacey, a registered nurse, and her husband, Erik, a dentist, have a library of Baby Einsteins in their Verona home - everything from "Baby Einstein Wordsworth" to "Baby Einstein Neighborhood Animals" - for son Nicholas, 3, and 15-month-old daughter Brynn. They also have flash cards marketed with the DVDs.

"I think there are worse things they could be watching," said Maria Stacey. "Nick really liked the colors and the music. Someone gave us one as a gift when he was 6 or 7 months old."

But neither she nor her husband believes the products make their children smarter, and say watching doesn't replace trips to the park.

Madison mother Char Purtell says her son, Mitchell, 3, watched Baby Einstein as an infant. "I think it allows infants to coordinate their eyes to follow images on the screen," she said.

Baby Einstein-like products, Purtell said, give an infant something to do during long stretches of wakefulness during the day, though she said she hasn't had time yet to view them with her 4-month-old daughter, Anya. "She's going to get bored staring at my face all day long," Purtell said. "She's up a lot during the day. I need to have options."

The Kaiser report said educational videos lure parents with the implications of names like Einstein and Genius. The Brainy Baby Left Brain video for babies 6 months and older, for example, is marketed as "the first video series that can help stimulate cognitive development." Brainy Baby executives say the products inspire "whole brain thinking."

Experts are skeptical.

"There is not a shred of evidence that these products make babies 'smarter,' whatever that means," said Seth Pollack, director of the child emotion research lab at UW- Madison. "At very best, babies may find them interesting . . . but there are lots of physical and social things in the world that babies are also captivated by."

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 2 years old - and no more than one to two hours a day of high-quality educational screen media for children over 2. But on average, the study reports, American babies spend an hour a day watching TV.

Although there hasn't been much research on media's effects on infants and toddlers, Julie Poehlman said, there was a study last year of 2,068 children aged 4 to 35 months that found more television watching was associated with irregular napping and irregular nighttime sleep patterns.

"I think that the claims of the videos and DVDs produced for infants are not based on science - rather, they are just clever marketing strategies for parents who want their infants to be as 'smart' as possible," said Poehlman, assistant professor of Human Development & Family Studies at UW- Madison.

In the business world, the strategies translate into dollars. The market for developmental videos and DVDs produced specially for infants and toddlers is increasing steadily, with one report estimating that U.S. sales had reached $100 million in 2004.

"It's the business to be in," said Temple University psychology professor Kathy Hirsh- Pasek.

But Hirsh-Pasek and other researchers view the phenomenon with concern.

"First of all, you are creating a passive generation," she said. "If you're hanging around and sitting in front of the television, what aren't you doing? They're not playing outside. They're not doing gross motor play."

In addition, Hirsh-Pasek said, the products lack human interaction and raise false expectations. "Children learn by interacting with human beings," she said, "and most parents report they are using the TV as a baby-sitter, not as a learning opportunity."

Anderson said the rapid growth in baby media represents a huge change in the environment of very young children. In the 1970s and '80s, infants and toddlers watched little television, he said.

"Kids by and large didn't start seriously watching TV until 2," Anderson said. "But, beginning with "Barney," there's been almost no looking back. . . . "Barney" pushed the age down. "Teletubbies" pushed it lower. Then the Baby Einstein series came out."

Now, he said, baby videos are arguably the most popular baby-shower gift.

Charleen Mattmann, the manager of the Learning Shop, 714 S. Gammon Road, sells the products, but she warned they aren't very educational by themselves. "You have to interact," she said. "You can't just plop a baby down in front of it and expect something to happen."

And if you must give your infant to Baby Einstein for safekeeping, Hirsh-Pasek said, do it for only 15 minutes at a time. "We have to start looking at the world as an exciting place and not outsourcing everything we do. Electronic media is outsourcing, especially for children younger than 2."

 

Toddlers can't understand TV, researcher says

Daniel Anderson, a researcher with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is studying the effects of media on infants and toddlers.

In his lab, he compared a 2-year-old's response to "live" human directions versus directions given by the same humans on a television screen. The youngsters were told to find a toy hidden in another room after they saw the researcher hide it through a window.

But when the toddlers were asked to find an object by watching the same researcher on a TV screen hiding it, they had trouble.

"If you use a live demonstration with kids 2 and under, they can do all kinds of things - imitate things, find things," Anderson said. "But if you use a video demonstration, they act as if they don't get it."

For children older than 2, he said, TV can be a really powerful educational medium. "But babies and toddlers don't pay attention to TV because they can't understand it. At the very least, in terms of what we know, it's probably a waste of kids' time."

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