Are Disney's Current Claims for Baby Einstein Any Better?

We got a lot of letters yesterday like this one, from a mother in Texas:

I am the mother of identical twin girls who are almost 11. When they were infants, I would sit them in their bouncy seats and let them watch the 3 Baby Einstein VHS videos I bought online from Julie Aigner all those years ago (Baby Einstein, Baby Bach and Baby Mozart).

My daughters were absolutely mesmerized by these videos. It was the only break I got in my day to actually get something done when they were so small and demanding. I did not have them watch as I thought it would make THEM smarter. I had then watch as it made ME a better and less stressed out mother. Those silly videos saved my sanity. They watched them everyday!

I do not feel that they caused any harm to my children. Both are in the Duke TIP program, are in the Talented & Gifted program at school since Kindergarten, get straight "A's," and are Commended on all Texas TAKS tests they ever took. Was this nature or nurture-who knows?

No, I don't like false advertising claims, but I also do not like these studies that say watching those videos caused a decrease in language acquisition. Clearly the videos did not hurt them.

The thing is, my mother smoked during her pregnancies. As did my wife's mother. And we turned out great! We got straight A's as children, et cetera. Clearly we were not harmed, long term, by the smoking. But that doesn't mean the science of smoking and infant birth weight isn't valid and important. Smoking and Baby Einstein aren't equivalent – but I'm using this exaggerated example to clarify the point.

It's surprising how often we see parents reject a scientific finding's validity – even express hostility toward the science – because their own children don't conform to the scientifically-verified average. On average, tots who watched Baby DVDs a lot had smaller and delayed vocabularies – but that doesn't mean every kid had below-average vocabularies. Nor does it mean these kids didn't catch up to their peers later. Tons of kids who watched the videos have turned out great.

The University of Washington scholars behind this study assumed that most parents didn't really buy the language-enhancement claims of Baby Einstein – they assumed most parents were just using it as a momentary babysitter, so moms could take a shower or make lunch. Their first study was simply to find out why parents bought the videos. They talked to 1,009 families in Washington and Minnesota. The "need a moment to get something done" was a very common response, but not the most common. The most common reason parents were having their tots watch the Baby DVDs was they believed doing so was good for their infants' brains. Almost a third of parents completely believed the marketing claims of the Baby Einstein company.

Today, Disney's marketing of Baby Einstein has nothing to do with language development or brain enhancement. Instead, the Baby Einstein DVD line is marketed as a tool to help infant-parent interactions. This is a great improvement, in theory – they're encouraging parents to watch the DVDs together, while holding their baby, all the while talking, dancing, and singing. If all parents did that, the DVDs could possibly be associated with advanced development, because – as we wrote in NurtureShock – parent/child responsiveness is what actually drives language development during a child's first two years.

But are parents following this advice? Or are they still using the DVDs as babysitters? Well, in yet another follow-up study, by the same lead scholar as before, the UW's Dmitri Christakis, followed 329 babies and toddlers for up to two years (most kids were in the study for about eight months.) On a random day each month, the children wore a digital recorder from the moment they woke up until the moment they went to bed that night. These recordings were fed into a computer, which used speech-identification technology to pick out how often the kids vocalized, and how many words the child heard spoken by nearby adult mothers and fathers. This speech-identification technology also has a very accurate algorithm for discerning when the television is on (television speech has slightly altered pitch contours). So Christakis' team was able to determine exactly how much parent-tot interaction was happening when the tv was on versus off.

It's not surprising that interaction went down when the television was on. Parents talk to their kids less, and tots, in turn, vocalize less too. Conversational turns drop significantly. The exact numbers are interesting – during an hour of television, kids heard 770 less words spoken by parents.

Now, this study didn't isolate Baby DVD watching alone. But the lesson from it is clear – while kids might need some downtime, be thoughtful about how tv is used to replace human interaction.

My children are older now. Our son is eight, our daughter five. And as I've read more about the science of media exposure – not just on language development, but the science on prevalence of insults, relational aggression, and sexual situations – I've become ever more sensitive to the variable of parents watching with kids. I still do let my kids watch some television without us, if I really know the show and what commercials tend to air during the show. But more and more, I'm trying to sit down and watch with them, and talk to them about what we're seeing.