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Time for babies to say bye-bye to Baby Einstein (and to TV itself)

Recently, Disney announced that it would refund parents for Baby Einstein DVDs — you know, the ones aimed at the under-2 set and whose creator was praised and feted by Oprah and President George W. Bush alike.

The company vehemently denies, however, that this action is a tacit acknowledgement that it ever misled parents into believing the DVDs would make their babies smart — or even into thinking that they’re educational.

Hmmm …. I guess branding the products with the “Einstein” name is … what? A coincidence?  And then there’s the initial claim — admittedly no longer made by Disney, but out there in the zeitgeist nevertheless — that the Baby Einstein DVDs “have roots in important cognitive research” and can “facilitate the development of the brain in infants ages one through 12 months.”

Actually, research suggests the opposite. For example, a 2007 study involving children (some in Minnesota) aged 8 to 16 months found that for every hour a child spent watching a Baby Einstein or other type of baby-oriented DVD or video, the child understood six to eight fewer words than same-aged babies who didn’t watch them.

Other research has found that children who start watching TV before they’re a year old and who watch it for more than two hours a day are about six times more likely to have language delays.

TV and children’s aggression
Then there’s the study released this month in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that found an association between TV exposure and aggression in young children.

Again, for every hour of either direct or indirect daily TV viewing, 3-year-olds displayed a slight but statistically significant increase in aggressive behavior. And this association held even when the researchers controlled for other factors known to increase children’s aggression, such as living in an unsafe neighborhood, having a mother who’s depressed, or being spanked.

(The study has its limitations — most notably, the mothers self-reported their households’ TV habits. Self-reporting is, obviously, an unreliable means of gathering data.)

But, parents, don’t think that this study isn’t about you and your child just because you restrict your child’s TV viewing to nonviolent shows.

“Without knowing the content of the programs viewed, we cannot say for certain whether it is violent TV content that causes children to behave more aggressively, as there is a lot of nonviolent educational content available on TV, which may be beneficial to children and is unlikely to lead to aggressive behavior,” wrote the study’s authors. “Yet even when children are primarily watching such programming, they may be exposed to violence through TV commercials or even G-rated movies according to findings from prior research.”

In any event, what your child watches on TV isn’t the only thing you should be focusing on. Your television habits are also part of the problem.

“A recent study found that background TV negatively affects the quantity and quality of interactions between parents and children, and TV viewing by young children is characterized by less frequent interactions with parents,” the researchers pointed out. “Parents who are focused on TV programs may pay less attention to their children, be less engaged in play, and/or may react negatively toward the children if their TV viewing is interrupted.”

Parents in denial
Many people are in denial about the effects of TV — particularly violent TV — on their children’s and on their own behavior, notes Michael Potegal, PhD, an associate professor of pediatrics and neurology at the University of Minnesota.

“There’s an enormous amount of data collected over the years that shows quite conclusively that exposure to violent media increases the propensity for thinking about aggression and being aggressive,” he says.

Yet most people claim such data has nothing to do with them.

“Part of the reason, to put the nicest face on it,” says Potegal, “is that it’s not immediately obvious to people involved in these situations that it’s happening to them. They’ll say things like, ‘I play violent video games and I haven’t killed anybody.’”

But the effects of violent media are much more subtle, says Potegal.

“If you do close histories of those people and look at the arguments and fights they’ve gotten into, you’d see some effect. It’s under the surface, though,” he says.

What should parents do? “Turn off the TV and get the kids involved in other activities, particularly physical activities,” says Potegal. “And when they’re watching TV, have them watch less violent activities.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than two hours of media time daily for children aged 3 and older. And the recommendation for younger children? No media at all.

Time to wave bye-bye to Baby Einstein.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Annalise Cudahy on 11/05/2009 - 04:27 pm.

    There’s still no substitute for old fashioned quantity time.

    But I still think Nickelodeon’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is pretty darned mind-expanding, all the same.

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