BABY EINSTEIN: "EDUCATION" AS BRAIN DAMAGE:
OR 'THE MOUSE LOSES THIS ROUND':
In 1997 the Baby Einstein Company was founded by Julie Aigner-Clark of Denver Colorado. It was a typical home startup business in which she and her husband Bill clark invested $18,000 to produce the first VHS/DVD entitled 'Baby Einstein'. It was later remarketed under the name of 'Language Nursery'. This original production featured a number of toys and visuals illustrated by a mix of stories, music, numbers and words in several languages.
The video grew, and by 1998 it was a million dollar franchise. By the year 2000 it was grossing $10 million a year. Fads are indeed wonderful things. Aigner-Clark sold 20% of the shares in her company in February, 2000 to Artisan Entertainment and the rest to the Walt Disney Company in November 2001 for an undisclosed large amount. The manic mouse took the idea to new heights, spawning such titles as 'Baby MacDonald' (about agriculture), 'Baby Bach Musical Adventures', 'Baby da Vinci From Head to Toe', 'Baby Monet Discovering the Seasons','Baby Mozart Digital Board Book','Baby Galileo','Baby Beethoven's Symphony of Fun', and 'Baby Newton World of Shapes'. You name it they got it. The website of the line which, of course, connects to the 'Disney Shopping Site' lists no less than 24 unique DVDs, three packages of same and 11 CDs for sale. The line is available in 7 different languages in 12 different countries. It also now includes books, 'discovery cards', toys, puppets, party supplies, baby clothes and bibs. One has to wonder how much of this line is manufactured in China, one of the countries where Baby Einstein is marketed. The Mouse under its 'Disney Channel' mask created an animated television series called Baby Einsteins in 2005.
The Baby Einstein line under the tutelage of the Mouse went from success to success. After selling out to the Mouse Aigner-Clark remained active as a "consultant" and visible spokeswoman for the series. The height of publicity came on January 23, 2007 when US President George Bush mentioned the company during his State of the Union address. He also acknowledged Aiger-Clark whose was invited to sit in the gallery at the time. This led to a little bad publicity for the President as the media dug up the fact that Aiger-Clark's husband William E. Clark had donated $5,150 to the RNC and Bush in 2004. For sheer pettiness this deserves an Academy Award as this may stand as the cheapest mass advertising ever purchased on the sly from a head of state in the western world. It sounds more on the line of what you'd be able to buy from the President of a tiny Pacific Ocean island nation with a population of 25,000 people. But from the head of the greatest empire the world has ever known ???
Storm clouds, however, were beginning to gather on the happy cartoon horizons for both the Mouse and Baby Einstein. In may of 2006 the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood filed a lawsuit and launched a complaint with the US Federal Communications Commission against not just Baby Einstein but also other makers of videos for very young children. They alleged false advertising citing the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children under 2 years of age should watch NO television; that's NONE, ZERO. A survey also cited found that only six percent of parents were aware of this recommendation while fully 49 percent were under the misapprehension that "educational" videos were important in the intellectual development of young children. Now, the two things that amaze Molly about this survey is 1)that as much as six percent were aware of this recommendation(somebody is doing their job right,whether it be parents or doctors) and 2)that almost half of the population lacks the common sense to know that it's obvious that plunking kids in front of a TV- whatever the show may be,"educational" or otherwise- is bad news and only to be resorted to in extremis. You really don't have to be aware of a medical recommendation to recognize the obvious.
This lawsuit and complaint was chugging its merry way along at the usual glacial speed of such things as the profits accumulated when an unexpected bombshell landed in the front yard of the Mouse. Last August Drs Frederick Zimmerman, Dimitri Christakis and Andrew Meltzoff of the University of Washington published a study on language development in children under two years of age in the online Journal of Pediatrics. Entitled 'Associations between Media viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years' the study came to the conclusion that viewing of such "educational" videos by children aged 8 to 16 months was associated with significantly lower scores on standard language development tests. In 'toddlers' from ages 17 to 24 months where neural connections had escaped a critical period where they were susceptible to damage the videos had neither a positive nor negative effect. The senior author of the study, Dr. Zimmerman, couched his conclusions in cautious terms saying, "It is possible that heavy viewing of baby DVDs/videos has a deleterious effect on early language development". Another author of the paper, Dr. Christakis, was, however, less restrained. He has been widely quoted as saying, "I would rather babies watch American Idol than these videos". He may be right if you think about it.
The University of Washington sent out a press release about the study which was picked up by much of the mass media. The release quoted Dr. Zimmerman as saying, "There is no clear evidence of a benefit coming from baby DVDs and videos and there is some suggestion of harm. We don't know for sure that baby DVDs and videos are harmful but the best policy is safety first. Parents should limit their exposure as much as possible.". The press release also quoted Dr. Christakis who said, "The evidence is mounting that they are of no value and may in fact be harmful. Given what we now know, I believe that the onus is on the manufacturers to prove their claims that watching these programs can positively impact children's cognitive development.".
The Mouse came out swinging. Despite the fact that the Mouse quite deliberately covers its legal tracks with fine print stating that the line, "is not designed to make babies smarter" (see Nature 448 pp848-849, August 23,2007 -online at www.nature.com/nature if you are a subscriber) the Mouse immediately sent a demand letter to the administration of the University of Washington telling them to retract the claims made in their press release. To their credit the university backed down not one inch. The University President Mark A. Emmert fired back saying that the University stands behind its researchers and that their press release accurately described the paper's conclusions and the doctors' commentary. The Mouse persists in its attempt to silence this research as can be see on their website cited above.
Molly finds this case rather interesting. There have been multitudinous other cases where corporate entities have attempted to silence scientific research. Sometimes they succeed. sometimes they fail. Sometimes they shoot themselves in the foot big time as they promote a minor technical dispute such as the effectiveness of a certain drug as compared to others into a mass media event which destroys their brand names. This case is probably in the "fail" category as all the damage was done by the results of the study which merely reinforced the common sense proposition that these videos can do no good- a proposition tacitly admitted by the Mouse in the fine print even as they try to create the illusion that the videos are educational by attaching famous names in science and the arts to them. As an interesting aside the Mouse's royalties to the estate of Albert Einstein have helped to elevate that estate to the top four in earning for "dead celebrities" as reported by Forbes , a position usually held by dead musicians. One wonders what the ghost of old Albert, the lifelong socialist, would thing of this turn of events.
As said above this item has been picked up and repeated many times in the mass media. References to the original paper, the University of Washington press release and the reply by the Mouse are available above. For further information see the following:
*New Scientist 'Educational DVDs slow infant learning' http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn12437-educational-dvds-slow-infant-learning.html
*Time Magazine 'Want a Brainier baby? Loading up on tapes,games and videos may not be a smart move' http://ilabs.washington.edu/news/TIME_BrainierBaby_Jan_06.pdf
It should also be noted that the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood has an online letter writing campaign to the Mouse, the Disney Corporation, demanding that they show the proof that their products actually benefit children. Go over to that website to read more and put more pressure on the Mouse.