On Saturday, Tamar Lewin of the New York Times reported that the Walt Disney Company is now offering refunds for its popular but controversial Baby Einstein videos.
According to the article, Baby Einstein was founded in 1997; Disney acquired the company in 2001 and expanded it to offer a full line of DVDs, books, toys, flash cards and apparel aimed at infants and toddlers. It’s estimated that Baby Einstein now controls 90 percent of the baby media market, selling $200 million worth of products annually.
The move comes after a heated battle over the marketing claims Disney has used to sell the line. Lewin, for instance, quotes Susan Linn, the director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which has been pushing Disney and other baby media companies to acknowledge that the videos are not, indeed, educational. “The unusual video refunds appear to be a tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect,” Lewin writes.
Perhaps this will serve as a death knell to the marketing hype that began when the so-called “Mozart effect” was first reported in a 1993 letter published in the journal Nature. The paper claimed that college students exposed to classical music had better spatial reasoning skills, which are important to success in math and science. Scientists, however, have not reliably replicated the phenomenon. And there is little hard evidence for the effectiveness of any of the products available commercially.
The lack of science-based data, however, is being rectified by scientists doing more quantifiable studies in arts training. In the “Learning, Arts, and the Brain” report, the Dana Foundation’s Arts and Cognition Consortium reported on some of the initial studies looking at the connections between media, education and the brain. Since then researchers have gained a more sophisticated understanding of how young minds develop and learn, including new findings reported this May at a summit in Baltimore. Acknowledging that much more research needs to be done, neuroscientists also recently outlined plans to grow and unify work in the field.
In the meantime, for lack of a better alternative, many parents have gone with their intuition and concluded that the best teaching “device” for brain development is low-tech. Parental involvement with one’s child, whether in the form of conversation, games and book reading, may provide the best stimulation for growing brains and minds.
Neuroscientists and pediatricians back this idea up. Lewin notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV time at all for children under age 2. In the Ten Guideposts for Parents chapter in Dana Press book A Good Start in Life, Norbert Herschkowitz and Elinore Chapman Herschkowitz make a similar suggestion.