The market for baby-brain DVDs – titles like “Baby Einstein,” “Brainy Baby” and others that make up what’s been called the “Baby Genius Edutainment Complex” – is huge. Parents spend hundreds of millions every year on videos that are marketed as giving tots a leg up in the IQ. Should they?
Why shouldn’t parents believe the promise that these DVDs are Human Growth Hormone for the mind?
After all, even President Bush recommends them, going so far as to honor Baby Einstein founder Julie Aigner-Clark at a State of the Union address.
As revealed at Salon.com, new research shows that Baby Einstein might better be named Baby Dummy. Babies who watch the videos are less verbally proficient than those who do not.
Researchers found that for every hour that an infant between 8 to 16 months old spends watching a brain DVD, he understands, on average, 6 to 8 fewer words than a kid who didn’t do Einstein.
Pediatrician Frederick Zimmerman and his colleagues at the University of Washington discovered the discrepancy through a telephone survey.
They called up a thousand parents and asked them to ask their kids a list of common words – things like “truck,” “cookie” – and to note which ones the infants understood.
The baby DVDs seemed to have no effect on the vocabularies of older kids – toddlers over 17 months.
But younger tykes just couldn’t place as many words as their non-DVD-addled fellows. The researchers controlled for all other likely factors – such as the parents’ education – showing the finding was correlated closely with DVD-watching.
The researchers are careful to note that their study doesn’t prove that the DVDs are the cause of reduced infant vocabularies; it could be that parents who are buying such DVDs are doing so because their own verbal skills aren’t strong, and that this weakness is being reflected in the kids’ confusion over words like “cookie.”
But Zimmerman told Newsweek that it’s possible that DVDs are causing the verbal slippage. “It might be that the baby videos are just displacing time that the child would otherwise spend with a parent or another adult caregiver, or even with an older sibling – all of whom can help the child develop language by interacting with them,” he said. “That interaction could be reading books, or telling stories or just getting down on the floor and playing.”
Zimmerman also cautions that much of the hype surrounding these DVDs is just that – marketing puffery. “You can produce a video in your basement and tell people that anyone who watches it will definitely turn into Mozart – and no one will stop you from saying that,” he tells Newsweek. “And those claims are effective. At the population level, about a third of parents have bought into those claims. So parents should just realize that people are making a lot of money off this.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics edict is no TV for kids under age 2, because all the evidence shows that TV and videos below this age are potentially harmful. But this rule is obviously roundly ignored by the majority of today’s parents. Why?
Author Pamela Paul takes on what she calls “the bamboozle that is Baby Einstein” in another article in Salon.com. She says,
“It’s funny. The playpen is something that all of our parents used. You plopped the kid in it, and then you ran to take the laundry out of the washing machine, and throw it in the dryer, or to return a call to your girlfriend.
“Today, the playpen is considered totally verboten. You never put your kid in a playpen. How could you limit their exploration? How could you deprive them of the stimulation?
“You may as well be spanking your kid roundly every day for no reason whatsoever.”
“But,” she explains, “what is Baby Einstein really, but a modern playpen? It’s a way to have your kid occupied, while you get to go do something else.”
Baby Einstein used to say this quite openly in their marketing: “Go take a shower, while your kid is learning about Noah’s Ark.”
Now, they’re much more careful about their wording, and they say: “This is an interactive experience for you to watch with your child.”
“But you talk to most parents, and the last thing that they want to do is watch Baby Einstein. It’s incredibly annoying,” Paul explains. She continues, “We assume for kids that it’s totally fascinating because they’re glued to it, but as a neuroscientist will tell you, a baby’s brain at this stage is actually trained to look at anything that moves or changes within specific time periods, which is what Baby Einstein does.
“Parents are saying: ‘Oh my … my child is mesmerized. He loves it!” Maybe. We don’t know what is going on inside their brain. Maybe they’re like Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ and they’re forced to watch these images that they want nothing to do with, and yet they can’t move.
“Baby Einstein is one of the most successful marketing bamboozlings of the American parenting marketplace. There is absolutely no evidence that Baby Einstein makes your baby smarter.
“We forget that 20 years ago, there was no programming for babies. If you wanted to really occupy your kid, if you didn’t have a playpen, or if that wasn’t enticing, you just turned on the TV and stuck them in front of ‘Days of Our Lives,’ and they would stare at it.
“The fact is that they may even have gotten more from ‘Days of Our Lives’ than they would from Baby Einstein, because it was actual human faces emoting, as opposed to these random blaring images.
“If Baby Einstein had been called ‘Couch Potato Kiddie,’ and the marketing had been ‘Get your child started on the joys of watching television as early as possible,’ that would have been honest marketing, and that really is what parents are buying.”