Does Baby Einstein Help or Harm Children?

Last time I was here I wrote a long entry on some of the spurious advertising techniques made to push products on children under the age of five. Since then, a major study was released suggesting that many of the educational videos aimed at very young children not only have limited to no educational benefits, but may exacerbate existing weaknesses in educating the rugrat crowd.

A university news release announced the study’s findings by stating that, “despite marketing claims, parents who want to give their infants a boost in learning language probably should limit the amount of time they expose their children to DVD’s and videos such as ‘Baby Einstein’ and ‘Brainy Baby.’”

The release also quoted Frederick Zimmerman, the study’s leader and an associate professor of health services, as saying that “the most important fact to come from this study is there is no clear evidence of a benefit coming from baby DVD’s and videos and there is some suggestion of harm.”

The two primary reasons that the researchers cite for the negative influence of the videos on infant development are thus:

1) Because the videos are supposed to promote cognitive and language development, parents whose children already have poor language acquisition skills may be turning to the videos for help instead of turning to professionals.

2) Parents who believe videos can promote the development of language and cognitive skills in baby may be less likely themselves to take a proactive approach with their children’s linguistic development.

The implications of this study are far-reaching, especially once Disney, who owns the Baby Einstein franchise, caught wind of the negativity and began to threaten the University of Washington if they didn’t retract their analysis.

But today, as part of Salon’s TV Week, author Lisa Guernsey suggests that the negative AND positive effects of toddler “screen time” are more moderate that previously suggested. In short, she finds that actually engaging with a program is less harmful than constantly having a television on as background noise for toddlers, and she also scoffs at the suggestion that toddlers (and adults) turn into unthinking zombies or develop ADHD when plunked down in front of a screen.

Based on my personal experience as a parent, I’m not sure how much I agree that child-centered TV and videos are as innocuous as Guernsey believes, although I can’t fault anyone for this:

Parents, myself included, have used video to take a breath, to make a bunch of phone calls that they need to make, to unload the dishwasher. I think that video, certainly with these younger ages, is being used as a way to buy some time.

But honestly, and maybe it’s just my son, I’ve never had to use this tactic with Ethan even when he was really little. I just found a way to fit the shower, the dishes, the laundry, and the blogging in (oh, how I blogged), and usually that meant involving him somehow, or saving my duties for after he went to bed. Mostly, I just let these duties go — dishes and laundry weren’t that important as long as we had something clean to eat off of and wear, but then I’ve never been a stickler for good housekeeping. Plus we were poor, didn’t have cable, and couldn’t afford videos. I’ve always limited Ethan’s screen time — computer, video games and TV alike — because I feel he’s drawing more creativity writing, drawing, and LEGOing, and now that I’ve given him an electric typewriter, writing his life story. As he’s gotten older, I have increased the time I allow him to spend in front of a screen. He has free reign on weekend mornings so Mommy can sleep in a little, and we sometimes allot some time to watch mom-approved movies and TV shows (Survivorman is his new favorite). Weekdays are too busy, but weekends are flexible. Regardless, I won’t begrudge other parents for using the tools available to them.

Guernsey’s main thesis is that children will absorb different things from their videos at different rates, depending on their level of cognitive development. Plainly, this is a duh. What she doesn’t really acknowledge, at least in this interview, is how advertising and branding on this age group is so deliberate, and so manipulative on families, and how this sort of manipulation is harmful long after the toddler years. Worse, the marketing of these videos plays on parental insecurities that if baby isn’t exposed to Mozart in her infancy that baby isn’t going to get into the best preschool, or learn to read before the age of five, or eventually get into college. Her analysis regarding the use of television as an educational tool ignores that prior to the age of five the most important lessons that baby can learn cannot be learned vicariously through Blues Clues. Really the only beneficial videos are repetitive lessons in Apple: show a picture of an apple, say the word apple, and do this together enough times and baby will learn that an apple is an apple and begin to understand the concept of the color red. Most “educational” children’s videos cover this learning technique in some ways, and Guernsey does say that it’s most important to glean the truly educational from the crap in order to avoid merely entertaining your child when you’re aiming for educating your child.

But there’s still the advertising. As Susan Gregory Thomas, in another Salon interview earlier this year, says:

It’s complicated for an infant or toddler to process television. When they are put in front of the television, the only thing they seem to be getting out of it in a verifiable way is character recognition. That’s why you see babies and toddlers so thrilled when they’re at the supermarket and they recognize Elmo. But still, it wears what the marketing industry calls an “educational patina.”

What is so awful about character recognition?

The problem is that the great social values that Elmo and the characters on “Sesame Street” teach are lost on children under the age of 3. They get solely a flat, one-dimensional character recognition. And the only other times that children are going to encounter the character are when a company is trying to sell the kid something. You don’t see Elmo running around your park. You see Elmo when he’s in diapers, when he’s on juice boxes, when he’s on Band-Aids and when he’s on toothbrushes.

And then you buy.

If there’s anything dangerous about Guernsey’s analysis of the harmlessness of these “educational” videos, it’s that she merely sees the television as a vehicle for imparting information. She doesn’t see the television as a vehicle to market the videos, the cups, the books, the toothbrushes, the t-shirts, the diapers, the blankets, the brand.

Cross-posted at Unsprung

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26 comments for “Does Baby Einstein Help or Harm Children?

  1. chad
    September 14, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    I’m the guy who uses the video here and there to unload the dishwasher. (Thanks for letting me off the hook.) Is there really harm in character recognition? I mean, we need diapers, toothbrushes, juice boxes, and the rest anyway, and it is fun for my boy that it has elmo (or whatever) on there, right? I mean, elmo is cute, and we like him! What is the harm in having him on a juice box, esp if we were going to buy juice boxes anyway?

  2. Skittles
    September 14, 2007 at 9:59 pm

    Chad: The main problem in character recognition — especially when it starts that early — is that it’s getting your child a head start into brand buying. As in, “I like Pokemon, there are Pokemon on this backpack, this is the backpack I want even though it costs twice as much and will last half as long.” which can set the individual up for a lifetime of making important consumer decisions based on brand and advertising. This is how Axe and Tag body sprays continue to sell eau d’puberty to grown men. They create a brand “image” and young men buy into the image. The problem is it doesn’t allow for a critical analysis of the item to be bought, which is one thing in a juice box and another thing in a mortgage or a car. Branded items tend to cost more, which is why I don’t own Gucci and own a closet full of Levis. At its logical extreme, brand (which comes from character) recognition can lead one to a lifetime of debt.

  3. Barbara P
    September 14, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    I don’t know if it helped my daughter’s language aquisition, but the “baby einstein” videos definitely enhanced her appreciation of music. I remember when she was

  4. September 14, 2007 at 10:45 pm

    A big yeahthat to Skittles. We use limited TV time, but even then I can see a noticable differnce in what is asked for at the store. We can’t have the $15 sneakers we have to have the $25 ones with superman on them. Heaven forbid I bring home the cereal without the pirate’s face on the box! It sets up a lifetime of brand-buying and consumerism.

    Kids learn by doing, especailly young kids. They need to touch it, feel it, throw it, push it, to really get a grasp on it. That can’t be done with a video. You can show them videos of kids playing at the park, but actually taking them is where the learning comes from.

  5. Mandolin
    September 14, 2007 at 11:44 pm

    “Kids learn by doing, especailly young kids. They need to touch it, feel it, throw it, push it, to really get a grasp on it.”

    I don’t know why that has to be a generalization. Couldn’t there be some in-group variation for kids?

  6. chad
    September 14, 2007 at 11:46 pm

    Paying twice as much for an inferior branded product is silliness. I guess I am pretty sure I’ll effectively teach my kids how to see that despite their exposure to elmo.

  7. September 14, 2007 at 11:50 pm

    Another problem with character recognition is that it conditions kids to respond exclusively to kid culture. And yeah, I do think that a three-year-old is better served by listening to Bob Marley and watching A League of Their Own (or whatever) than just mainlining Elmo 24-7.

    As for the teevee as a respite, I find I lean on it a lot more now that I have two kids than when I just had one. Trying to get anything done with a four-year-old and a nine-month-old at home is just this side of impossible, I find. I’m really frustrated by that, and I feel like it’s a reflection of the weakness of my parenting skills, but it’s how things are shaking out. (Paradoxically, though, it may also reflect the fact that I have more childcare help this time around. I haven’t been forced to sink or swim quite as much as I was in Round One.)

  8. September 15, 2007 at 12:54 am

    It might help that you don’t have a husband to look after. One reason I’m suspicious of the OHMIGOD SINGLE MOTHERS rhetoric is that a lot of married women are basically single mothers in terms of housework, and in fact may have it worse with the extra adult to clean up after. The extra income is useful, but when it comes to the “second pair of hands” rhetoric justifying alarmism about single mothers, I’m skeptical.

  9. Milorad Buggerov
    September 15, 2007 at 3:35 am

    I think it is pretty obvious what these companies are really selling. Good vibes for the real consumer, the parent. Do dogs and cats really relish the elicious taste of Fancy Food For Your Pet (TM)? No, of course not, but for some dim-wit pet owner (someone like A. Roddick for example) they get to feel all warm inside. I think the same dynamic is going on with these products. Same for fancy prep schools. God, the people I’ve met from Choate etc are even more annoying and ignorant than American feminists. I know nothing about children, but I grew up in Appalachia without a book in sight, and yet I still turned out to be a genius.

  10. SoE
    September 15, 2007 at 5:43 am

    “Kids learn by doing, especailly young kids. They need to touch it, feel it, throw it, push it, to really get a grasp on it.”

    I don’t know why that has to be a generalization. Couldn’t there be some in-group variation for kids?

    Variation like what? Some kids go like to put things in their mouth more than others and some just patt on stuff for hours with enjoyment. But I have yet to see a child that doesn’t try to grab everything interesting.

    In my opinion TV is never as good as the real world because children have zero interaction. If people talk to them they adjust their speech in order to bring back attention when the baby gets bored. They figure out whether the baby is more interested in red things or wants to see more apples. Even if a baby explores a room without a person it gets real feedback. The carpet feels different than the wooden chairs and you can put your toys into an open wardrobe but none with the doors closed.
    Some might get the difference between an apple and an orange instantly and some will have a hard time after various repetitions and videos just don’t cater to that.

  11. Barbara P
    September 15, 2007 at 6:43 am

    Strange. Somehow my comment messed up.

    I was going to say (regarding the video and appreciation of music):

    I remember when my daughter was

  12. Barbara P
    September 15, 2007 at 6:44 am

    Alright. Never mind. apparently, there is some force in the universe not wanting me to say what i want to say! ;o)

  13. Barbara P
    September 15, 2007 at 6:45 am

    No – scratch that. I’ll try again. I remember when my daughter was

  14. Barbara P
    September 15, 2007 at 6:49 am

    Sorry sorry sorry – i finally figured out the problem. (It’s located somewhere between my chair and my keyboard…) Please ignore/delete? the last bunch of insane comments. Apparently, I’ve been watching too much “spongebob” lately and my brain is fried…


    I remember when she was around 2 and the pianist was playing Bach at church and she piped up (loudly) “hey Mommy, listen! It’s ‘baby bach’!”

    And she still really likes/recognizes that music at age 8 and can carry a tune very well.

    So whatever – I say let your kids watch it, but don’t assume it will make them a genius.

    And yeah, the elmo/barney/etc. thing gets a little old. However, the marketers of Elmo should consider that (IME) older kids tend to violently reject him as “babyish”, and so their efforts may backfire.

  15. Trudi
    September 15, 2007 at 7:58 am

    Interesting that the downside to these videos isn’t that the video is bad, but that it might make parents choose them over something more suitable (ie: not getting professional help when needed). That goes to marketing though, so marketing them differently should clear that up.

    My son had never been to a McDonald’s or a KFC but when he was about 18 mos old, he recognized the signs of both from the car window because kids from daycare had toys from those places that had the logos on them. Now, my husband is a graphic designer, so we talk logos a lot, so my kid (now 4 1/2) gets that these are logos and that seeing them just means you know where a store is.

    But advertising is a funny thing. He saw and ad for shampoo one day that showed people staring at this woman who was swinging her glossy fragrent hair about. He got all excited and said “mom! you need to buy that! it will make you beautiful!” and I realized how powerful advertising really is. So we broke it down. What did they sell? (shampoo) What does shampoo do? (clean hair) Does that really make someone become super-beautiful? (no, but it does make for nice hair, he decided). Do I need new shampoo or does my shampoo give me nice clean hair? (loves current shampoo). No need to buy that.

    And time consuming as it is, we break it down every single time. At the store, he sees Elmo cereal. So we compare it to regular cereal. In this instance, we bought it because it was organic and had more fibre in it than the regular one. But we walked through it together and Elmo was the bonus. Now, he wants to do the compare thing and decide if a character is just a nice part of it or if it really makes something better.

  16. September 15, 2007 at 2:22 pm

    I don’t have kids yet, but I’ve certainly seen the way children are marketed to through TV, movies, and videos. It’s intense and it’s disgusting.

    I’ve decided that one of the regular videos my kids will see on TV over and over are home movies of me reading to them. Like this:

  17. September 15, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    That’s not me (by the way).
    But I did sleep at a Holiday Inn last night.

  18. PhysioProf
    September 15, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    “[I]t’s that she merely sees the television as a vehicle for imparting information. She doesn’t see the television as a vehicle to market the videos, the cups, the books, the toothbrushes, the t-shirts, the diapers, the blankets, the brand.”

    In fact, television programming is scientifically designed to have negative information value. It actively interferes with the ability to engage reality via logical, sequential thinking directed at formulating and achieving long-term goals. This is by design, and it has nothing to do with the “content” of the programming.

  19. September 15, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    I’ve often noted that I get a lot more done ordering my kids outside than if I drop them in front of the television. It’s one of the biggest advantages I’ve found to renting a house with a good backyard rather than an apartment. They’ll play outside for hours (ages 2-1/2 and 5), while with television they’re constantly thinking about snacks they want, random questions they have and so forth.

    My son does have speech issues, however, and we’re getting those taken care of. Some videos have encouraged him to talk (he loves the LeapFrog ones), but most he just sits and stares, more zombie than child. I’m not overly fond of it.

    I know my daughter is less brand conscious than a lot of her kindergarten classmates, although she’s still pretty stuck in the Disney Princess machine. Actually, it’s pretty much any princess anything. But I see her classmates demanding clothes of particular brands regularly. It makes me grateful that my kids don’t have that bad yet.

  20. Kat
    September 15, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    Baby Einstein originated as someone’s home project–a mom who had an idea about what kids might like and found an investor. I may be wrong here, but I don’t think she had any background in child development or psychology or speech or whatnot. But she knew how to put shiny objects in front of infant minds, was clever enough to put the “Einstein” label on it, and see the profit potential.

    My SIL literally schedules these videos into her child’s day. I think that’s the danger here. The original Baby Einstein video was just somebody’s home project, but its got a whole lot of parents believing that it will somehow enhance their child’s intelligence.

    Its making all of us parents who put the kids in front of Spongebob to buy some time to take a shower look bad, when in fact it may not have any more educational value than Spongebob. (At least Spongebob has some fun double entendres mixed in….)

    And Chad, yes, Elmo is cute on a sippy cup. But fair warning–when your child won’t eat the 49 cent mac & cheese because he swears the 1.29 Spider-Man version tastes better, you will see the downside of character recognition.

    Parenting really just comes down to finding balance. My kids are sitting right now watching TV. But we spent the morning playing football and soccer, so I have no problem with that. Everything in moderation….

  21. Monika
    September 15, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    I don’t see anything wrong with parents needing to use a video to give them a break / time to do other things; but the problem with these videos is that they were promoting themselves as being GOOD for children.

    Parents should be able to make an informed decision on programming for their children, based on accurate information.

    And, as mentioned previously, any marketing towards children is despicable!

  22. September 15, 2007 at 6:24 pm

    The part that’s insidious for me is labeling the videos “educational” when “entertainment” is clearly more honest. When parents start scheduling them into the child’s day, they’re doing so in their children’s best interest, but potentially to the detriment of the child’s education. Especially when a parent who is interesting in helping to further the child’s education might have better tools available to them for a similar price.

  23. kate
    September 15, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    We never had a television most of the time my children were young simply because I wanted them to develop a habit of reading and to develop a more natural proclivity to those things.

    I exposed them to classical, jazz and other forms of music, we danced we went places. When I started working it was much harder, but the bond that developed between me and the kids during their first years helped that period as well.

    Oh and I stayed home for most of the children’s early time and usually they had toys or books to entertain them enough to allow me to do my own things as well — while child is still in same room or playpen. Call me a curmudgeon, but I don’t see the necessity of television or video in child rearing. I think we’re used to television so much that we find a way to use it in every part of our lives and see it as a banal kind of friend.

  24. Kat
    September 15, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    Does anyone remember that video Baby Mugs? I got it as a baby shower gift when pregnant with my now-10-year-old son. I politely accepted it but put it away because, “I was not going to be a video tape mom”. But about the time my son was 4 months old or so, I was having a really tough time with our routine when we came home after childcare/work. He wanted to nurse immediately, but I needed a few minutes to get organized. In desperation one day I popped that tape in. And the most magical thing happened–I had 28 minutes of uninterrupted bliss. I got to feed the dog and let her out, go to the bathroom, get a glass of water and a snack, get on some comfy clothes and get situated in our favorite chair to nurse just in time for the closing credits. It was great. The video promised social development–the Amazon review says, “In essence, early exposure to other real, live babies’ mugs may make for more sociable children.” I was not only getting the break I needed but my kid was getting socialized!

    Fast forward 5 years, and my 2nd baby came alone. I pulled out the old copy of the Baby Mugs expecting the old magic to work on the new kid. And nothing. He was bored to tears with it. Literally.

    I was so absolutely worried about the 2nd child. What was wrong with him? He was destined to be an unsocial child!

    The irony of it all is that it turns out my older son has autism (the hallmark of which is social deficit) and my younger one is not only “typical” but extremely social. Looking back, I realize that my older son was a little too focused on videos, it was one of the first signs of his disorder. My younger one, with his short attention span, was much more developmentally typical.

    But the hype had me convinced, at the time, that it was just the opposite.

  25. PhysioProf
    September 16, 2007 at 7:19 am

    “The part that’s insidious for me is labeling the videos ‘educational’ when ‘entertainment’ is clearly more honest.”

    Neither label is honest. The vast majority of TV and video is all about corporate control of the human mind and prevention of genuine thought.

  26. Lucy Gillam
    September 17, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    The original article on the videos annoyed me to no end, because they kept claiming that the videos were “actively harmful” when their research didn’t remotely support that. The videos weren’t reaching into baby’s head and sucking out the words; they just weren’t as good at teaching words as repetition, interaction, and reading to baby. Which, like so many other child development findings, is really great for those families that can afford to have a full time, personal care giver (either parent or individual nanny), and sucks for the rest of us trying to grab half an hour to make a halfway nutritious dinner after a long day at work.

    (Possibly I’m a little oversensitive, here. The article came out the same week I started my infant in daycare. But still, the rhetoric was ridiculously alarmist, and as a new parent, not to mention a rhetorician, I’ve had it up to my eyeballs with alarmist rhetoric lately.)

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