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Posted at 8:35 PM ET, 02/22/2010

New claims about baby 'educational' videos

By Valerie Strauss

I’ll give this to the Brainy Baby Company: It doesn’t give up.

For years the company, along with the Baby Einstein folks, has been selling DVDs for the very young on the notion that they were educational and helped kids learn.

Child development experts fought back, saying there was no scientific evidence to prove that contention and filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that the companies were engaging in false and deceptive advertising for saying that their videos can promote language skills. The FTC took no enforcement action but the companies changed the way they market their products.

Late last year, activisits won an agreement from the Disney Co., which owns the Baby Einstein product line, to refund money spent on on DVDs bought from June 5, 2004, to Sept. 4, 2009. The offers expires March 4.

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics has for years recommended that children under age 2 watch no television or any other "screen media," though that hasn’t proven to be much of a deterrent. The Kaiser Family Foundation reported in 2005 that about 25 percent of families already owned at least one baby video and that nearly half of parents thought they were important educational tools.

Challenged to prove its contention that its DVDs are educational, the Brainy Baby Company funded a study at the University of Texas-Austin to see if the very young could in fact learn something from its DVDs. By funding the project through the university, the company knew that the researchers would publish the results. The researchers did not know how the company would parse the results.

I learned about the peer-reviewed study when I received a press release from the company that had this headline: “University Study Finds Infants Can Learn From Brainy Baby DVDs.” The release said the study found that “infants/toddlers under the age of two can learn from DVDs designed to teach young children shapes.”

So taken was the president and CEO of the Brainy Baby Company with the “landmark study” that he, Dennis Fedoruk, appealed to the American Academy of Pediatrics to reconsider its recommendation that parents not allow any child under age 2 to watch any television and make an exception for educational DVDs.

I called the lead researcher of the study, Elizabeth Vandewater, formerly with UT-Austin and now senior research scientist with RTI International, an independent research institute.

What, I asked, would infants really get out of the DVDs? Did she think the academy would change its recommendation?

Whoa, Vandewater said. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

What?

She said that the study, which will be published in The Journal of Children and Media late this year, tested kids age 18-24 months, and used small bits of one Brainy Baby video to test whether the children could learn to recognize a single shape, a crescent, she said.

It showed that some children age 18-24 months learned to recognize a crescent, she said. However, it does not show broadly that infants/toddlers under the age of two can learn from DVDs designed to teach young children shapes.

“For me,” she said, “where I really differ from Dennis is that what these findings do is basically thicken the plot. It was one small finding of one small aspect of one of his videos. We are not advocating throwing kids in front of these DVDs. We’re not justifying the entire line of product. I’m not an advocate anyway. I’m a scientist.”

How much evidence is there on whether these DVDs are harmful or helpful? I asked.

Not anywhere near enough to make a decision either way, she responded.

So it would be wrong, I asked, to say that her student shows what Brainy Baby’s press release said it showed?

Yes, she said.

Then I called the American Academy of Pediatrics to see what its members thought of the study, which was funded by the Brainy Baby Company.

I learned that the academy is now reviewing its 11-year-old recommendation that kids under age 2 not watch any television. Pediatrician Ari Brown, a member of the academy’s Council on Communications and Media, which is reviewing the recommendation, would not discuss the deliberations but said a report would be released probably within the next year.

The initial recommendation was made, she said, based on the notion that the first two years of life are a critical time in brain development and that any electronic media can get in the way of exploring, playing and other activities that encourage healthy physical and social development. The 1999 recommendation mentioned only television and a few years later all electronic media was added.

Brown said that even now, the long-term health, social and developmental effects of media saturation by the very young are still not known. She said she has great respect for Vandewater but, like the researcher, cautions about using the study to make any great policy leaps.

Here’s hoping that the recommendation by the academy stays intact.

And, parents, beware of claims made extolling the educational virtues of technology.

Some of it may turn out to be real, but we are a long way from knowing.


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 22, 2010; 8:35 PM ET
Categories:  Early Childhood  | Tags:  early childhood, infants watching tv  
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Comments

Really nice piece Valerie.
It's also important to think about the control condition in this experiment. Was it no exposure to a crescent shape?

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | February 23, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Really bad piece. This article is like a witch hunt. What are you looking for? For years, the community has been asking for scientific proof and now that we have it, you are suspicious. Brainy Baby should be applauded for doing the responsible thing. Who CARES if they funded it (don't know that they did, but you said it... twice). Brainy Baby obviously rolled the dice. The result could have been negative and that would have been reported too! So, get off their back already. They have a good product, people like it, kids learn from it and now they have the science to back it up. Why does your article sound so mistrusting? I don't get it. Go interview some moms and ask them. They have more sense than the PhD's. Personally, I'm glad Brainy Baby "doesn't give up". They have help my family in many ways. I will continue to support them and their science. Oh yes, and my kids aren't dumb, ADD or suffer from a loss of vocabulary either, just in case you were concerned.

Posted by: babyeducator | February 24, 2010 2:57 AM | Report abuse

You know, at the end of the day it makes no difference what these so-called "experts" or even "scientists" say. It's all about what the moms themselves experience with their own children. I wonder if these professionals reference above have toddlers in the home. I do. I'm a proud mom of a 2 year old little boy that actually requests his "Brainy Baby" movies by name and I've seen first-hand the difference they've made in his ability to learn shapes very quickly. After watching the Shapes and Colors DVD the first time, he was pointing out "octagon stop signs" while we were driving in the car, and then he picked up his soccer ball, noticed the shapes on it and called it his "pentagon ball." I was dumbfounded! So as a mom as a first-hand witness, I'll stick with my own mommy instincts on what is good for my child. Brainy Baby rocks. I think some activists have waaaay too much time on their hands.

Posted by: shellymoon | February 24, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

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