Last week the new "Baby Einstein" study came out suggesting that "educational" baby videos are ineffective teaching tools. The most memorable conclusion from one of the researchers: "I would rather babies watch American Idol than these videos."
Over the weekend I was invited to debate BabyFirst TV co-founder Sharon Rechter about the relative merits of these products. BabyFirst TV is a 24-hour cable channel that broadcasts "educational" shows aimed at infants and toddlers. Their programming includes the Brainy Baby video series, some of which were included in the recent study.
Unfortunately, a technical glitch meant I didn't get to participate in the discussion as planned, but preparing for the segment gave me a chance to examine the culture behind these products. Why are these videos so appealing to today's parents? As I thought about it over the weekend, and re-read Susan Gregory Thomas' new book Buy Buy Baby I came to realize that there is a perfect match between the marketing messages coming from companies like BabyFirst TV and Baby Einstein, and the culture and socialization of Gen X parents in particular.
We Gen X parents were the first Sesame Street generation. We remember watching television at a young age, but what we might not remember is that Sesame Street was geared for 3- to 5-year-olds, and many of us were probably not watching it before then. Author Susan Gregory Thomas makes the extraordinary point that "a 15-year-old girl has more in common, cognitively, with a 55-year-old man than a toddler has with a 4-year-old."
But now that we are parents who are extremely comfortable with technology in our own lives, we really like the idea that television can be educational and can bring us closer to our children. This promised "connection" is an important element to include alongside the mandatory "learning" objectives. The BabyFirst TV marketing language stresses that through television watching, you can "bond even further and share in your child's TV viewing experience" which "allows you to actively participate in your child's development." The pitch encourages parents to watch along and engage with their babies, but I would like to see research documenting how many parents do sit down and watch the shows.
Anecdotally, my impression is that this charming marketing scenario rarely happens in real life. Many sane adults, myself included, get annoyed out of their minds after a few minutes watching this kind of program.
But the TV experts won't tell you that. The "expertizing" of parenthood is an ongoing cultural tradition in the U. S., and baby video gurus (often paid consultants) are on the forefront of the current wave. BabyFirst TV presents parents with a 28-page Parents' Guide, with a foreword written by a highly credentialed physician. This trend makes me really sad. You don't need to be an expert to teach a baby. If you are totally engaged with your child, interacting and talking, then why do you need a TV there? Some of the BabyFirst TV programs are subtitled to help give parents ideas of how to interact with their babies while watching the shows. To me this is frankly insulting to parents' intelligence, and undermines their confidence in their own parenting abilities.
Marketers are telling us things we really want to hear. If you look closely at the marketing language these video producers use, you'll see that while it is aggressive, it walks a fine line of making vague rather than specific promises. Parents need to remember that a program that is "created by top experts in child development" does not mean that it is necessarily a research-based educational tool.
The problem remains that these products may be totally ineffective or even harmful to the development of language or attention, and we have almost no research to show the effects of any television on kids under age 3.
Babies will watch TV, but there is no weight of evidence showing that they learn from it. The one thing that toddlers have been shown to learn from television is identifying characters, which leads into a great effort to sell products to them. (Sponge Bob macaroni and cheese, anyone?)
BabyFirst TV representatives argue that since 59 percent of children ages 2 and under watch TV anyway, they are better off watching programming that is designed specifically for them. Other experts maintain that for babies, the problem is with the medium itself, not just the message. These programs may well be junk food for the brain. My conclusion is that if kids are eating too many potato chips, the solution is not to provide vitamin-fortified potato chips 24 hours a day.