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Debunking Baby Einstein

New research shows the videos may not make kids smarter. Did parents really believe the hype that they did? Can we all get back now to playing rather than learning?

When I wrote about "marketing to your reptilian brain" on Tuesday, I was just hearing the news breaking about the new study that suggests that babies' viewing of Baby Einstein videos may hamper rather than accelerate language acquisition. Since I was writing about unconscious marketing techniques, I ran with the McDonald's Wrapper research rather than the Baby Einstein findings.

The runaway reporting of the Baby Einstein story caught me by surprise, because I had assumed that on some level we all knew these videos were just a crutch we used to keep the kids occupied while we took a shower, cooked dinner, or blogged. Apparently the educational marketing messaging has been much more effective than that. As Stefanie Olsen reported in her CNET blog on Tuesday, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood released a statement that said, "The No. 1 reason parents allow babies to watch television and DVDs is the mistaken belief that the programming is educational and, or good for brain development."

As a neuroscientist, I had a brief fascination with video-based learning back in the 1990s. I was impressed by Dr. Patricia Kuhl's research demonstrating that babies are born with the ability to hear and distinguish phonemes from other languages that can't be heard by adults. For example, Japanese-speaking adults can't hear the difference between the English "r" and "l" phonemes, but all babies can. But infants' brains make a commitment to the sounds of one language around their first birthdays. I considered developing a video-based learning system that would expose babies to all phonemes and help keep the window of language discrimination open longer.

I'll never know whether that would have worked on a scientific level (Kuhl's subsequent research suggests that videos are less effective than human interaction), but it could have been marketing gold. Well-intentioned, science-based efforts to promote the "first three years" of life as an important time for brain development created a market that was extremely receptive to "educational" toys and videos. The marketing legacy of "play" being replaced by a "curriculum" remains today. If you walk down any toy aisle in a major retailer, you'll find that toys right down to birth are sold with specific learning objectives. The irony of course, is that kids who receive loving human interaction and attention can learn in just about any situation. The specific objects don't really matter and, in the case of television in particular, can be worrisome.

There's a growing consensus among medical professionals that television is not great for kids. But parents are left in a bind. The two forces that need to be detangled in the Baby Einstein story are that 1.) the American Academy of Pediatrics says that children under age 2 should watch no television and 2.) in the wake of this new study, Baby Einstein founder Julie Aigner-Clark responding that the Baby Einstein company "doesn't make claims about developmental abilities increasing."

From my perspective, I will ding the AAP for being unrealistic, and Aigner-Clark for being disingenuous. After all, the company isn't called "Baby Couch Potato."

To the AAP, yes, people survived for eons without television, but it's become a fact of life in modern society, and there are times that parents turn to it to entertain their kids to get a break. But given that television-watching has become rampant, with 40 percent of parents with young children reporting that the TV was on "most" or "all of the time," and a quarter of kids under age 2 having a television set in their bedrooms (according to the book Buy Buy Baby), I will give the AAP credit for encouraging us to tone it down.

As for Aigner-Clark, a quick study of the Baby Einstein Web site shows that the marketing language is careful, not making overt promises of genius, but evoking a feeling of edutainment at every turn, selling itself on the point that it "uses music, art, language, science, and nature in playful and enriching ways." I would argue that the strategy of segmenting of the DVDs into different levels every 3 months also implies a developmental progression that may or may not actually be there.

The Baby Einstein site and Aigner-Clark emphasize that the "right" way to use these videos is to sit alongside your child and interact the whole time. On The Today Show this morning, Aigner-Clark called the DVDs a "digital board book," saying that "You don't put in a video and leave the room. It's all about interacting with your child. You want to sit with your child in your lap, watch the video together, use 'parentese' and talk to them as if you were reading a picture book."

For a reality check, I asked my husband, Michael, what he thought about that, to which he replied, "That sounds like the worst of both worlds."

Leave it to a Dad to cut through the hype and tell it like it is.