Jan 14 2010

The Baby Einstein Hubbub

In the 1990’s a small company started by William Clark began marketing a series of videos, the flagship of which was one called Baby Einstein. The title carries the promise that by watching the videos babies would gain a benefit to their intellectual development. The videos mostly consist of puppets and toys with classical music in the background. According to the company, they enjoyed 17 million dollars in sales, and then sold the company to Walt Disney.

Marketing hype rarely accords well with reality, and such is the case with Baby Einstein. There is a distinct lack of credible scientific evidence for any benefit from watching such videos. Further, two studies performed at the University of Washington appeared to show that, if anything, infants watching the videos had delayed language acquisition. One study was a phone survey of 1008 parents – here are the results:

Among infants (age 8 to 16 months), each hour per day of viewing baby DVDs/videos was associated with a 16.99-point decrement in CDI score in a fully adjusted model (95% confidence interval = -26.20 to -7.77). Among toddlers (age 17 to 24 months), there were no significant associations between any type of media exposure and CDI scores. Amount of parental viewing with the child was not significantly associated with CDI scores in either infants or toddlers.

So for young infants watching educational videos was associated with delayed language development, but by two years old the negative effects seem to disappear.

Now Clark is suing Washington University to obtain the raw data and methods of analysis used for these studies. He argues:

“Given that other research studies have not shown the same outcomes, we would like the raw data and analytical methods from the Washington studies so we can audit their methodology, and perhaps duplicate the studies, to see if the outcomes are the same.”

But I don’t agree with his premise. For example, a similar Thai study found no association with video watching and language by two years of age. The study found no delay – but neither did the Washington study – at two years of age. The Thai study did not look at younger infants. This recent review (by one of the co-authors on the Washington study) concludes:

No studies to date have demonstrated benefits associated with early infant TV viewing. The preponderance of existing evidence suggests the potential for harm. Parents should exercise due caution in exposing infants to excessive media.

It would seem there is no benefit to these alleged educational videos, and there is a suggestion of harm – although I would conclude that there is no long-term harm. It must also be pointed out that these studies are observational – not experimental. There are therefore many possible confounding factors. Perhaps parents who rely on these videos do so because they don’t have enough time to give to their young children – which itself is the factor that delays language.

The results of these studies fit well with what is generally known about child development. Children need some minimum of interaction and activity in order to have normal neurological development. If they are deprived of language, they will suffer – even to the extreme of never developing language. But with any language exposure they will develop, mostly according to their pre-determined genetic program. The rate at which we develop may be influenced by environmental factors, but people tend to seek their genetic potential eventually. (This refers to raw neurological function – not knowledge or skills).

Clark argues that he wants to protect his legacy and that of Baby Einstein. But I think this legacy is not worth protecting. I appears to be a failed idea, useful for making parents anxious that they need to be doing everything they can for their children, and generating a multi-million dollar industry – but not useful for actually contributing to childhood development or long-term educational goals.

In fact, I would argue that the Baby Einstein culture has been harmful, contributing to (while feeding off of) the over-parenting that has marked the most recent generation. It can be argued that parents should worry less about trying to force the intellectual development of their very young children, and just relax and give them more quality time and attention.

Ironically the Clark suit may serve to refocus attention on this point, and the fact that the research does not support the marketing claims of the overall “baby genius” industry.

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