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No Einsteins?

Jan Wilson
The Parent Paper,
December 1, 2009

Many parents got a surprise last month when the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood announced that the Disney Co. was offering consumers refunds on its popular Baby Einstein videos. The CCFC said in a press release that the refund offer came after it filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, asserting that the company was making false claims that the videos were educational. Disney, in turn, says that it makes no such claims currently, and that it is "leaving it up to the customer" to decide whether or not they find value in the videos. While the back and forth may leave parents confused, when it comes to infants and toddlers, experts all agree that they would be better off with no screen time at all.

"What we know is two things: most research shows that viewing these videos isn’t beneficial in any way, and some research shows that it is harmful," says Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, a professor of education at Lesley University and author of Taking Back Childhood: Helping Your Kids Thrive in a Fast-Paced, Media-Saturated, Violence-Filled World (Hudson Street Press, 2008). "But parents want to make their children smarter, and the marketing of these kinds of products tap into that."

In fact, while Disney has not marketed its Baby Einstein product as specifically educational for several years, Po Bronson, author, with Ashley Merryman, of NutureShock: New Thinking About Children (Twelve, 2009), says that since the founding of the company (which was acquired by Disney in 2001), the brand has always been associated with building your baby’s brain power, explicitly, and, later, implicitly. "These claims were being feverishly made. It sounded scientific. It had the science wrong but it seemed to be something credible," Bronson says. "What’s more, people watched it with their kids, and their kids liked it."

Too tiny for the tube

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in 2005 recommending no screen time at all for children under the age of 2, that message seems to fly in the face of what parents do in real life – put on the television to get a break from the demands of 24/7 parenting, or to get some housework done. Still, says Dr. Punam Kashyap, senior developmental and behavioral pediatrician at the Institute for Child Development at Hackensack University Medical Center, its important that parents take the AAP’s message to heart. "I really take the time to talk to my families about this," she says. "They have to discourage active viewing for the infant or the toddler. If you are telling me that you have no choice but to leave your baby in front of the television, I would say that there other ways to get in a shower or get things done."

Carlsson-Paige adds that today’s parents don’t even realize that they can easily create activities that entertain and educate young children without a video screen. "Parents have lost some of the ability to provide open ended activities that will interest children," she says. This, coupled with the fact that children do often mimic what they see in videos, so that it appears that they are "learning" their colors and numbers, make even parents who might be television averse buy so-called educational videos. "We have to get past these more simplistic ways of looking at learning. Learning is way more complex in a 1-year-old and 2-year-old than we previously understood," she says. "Many parents think that rote learning of colors or numbers makes a child really smart. But what they don’t know is that understanding numbers isn’t about saying a numeral."

Bronson also notes that the science shows that while children may appear transfixed by these videos, this means little to their actual learning. "Scientists talk about this being more of a reflex than actual attention," he says. "The images on the screen are actually triggering this involuntary attention."

Beyond videos

Beyond using the television as a babysitter, many parents believe that Baby Einstein videos and others like it contribute to a language explosion among their toddlers, or that their children learned important facts through them that they will carry into kindergarten. It can be hard to reject that, particularly when everyone in your peer group is talking about the latest educational game or toy. Carlsson-Paige advises parents that if they see a new product for very young children labeled "educational" – don’t fall for it. "There’s nothing backing that claim up," she says. "We have so much research that is so solid and tells us how babies develop, but there is a huge lack of awareness about child development in this country.

All of the things that parents used to do before the advent of sophisticated electronic media still serve children well today – talking to your baby, offering open-ended materials for your infant or toddler to play with, and responding to their needs. Coincidentally, these are also the things you need to do to help your baby learn. As one simple example, Bronson offers object labeling, which he says research shows works best: "when you don’t put an object in front of a child and tell them what it is, but rather, follow a child’s gaze and point out what they are looking at." In other words, just follow your child’s lead.

If you are interested in a refund from Disney, the company is offering $15.99 for up to four of the DVDs per household. The DVDs must have been purchased between June 5, 2004 and Sept. 5, 2009.





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