First published for the Psychology in Action newsletter, this was written by my colleague at UCLA, Lauren Burakowski, I really think it’s great information, so I asked her if I could post here.
Most parents want their baby to be as smart as possible. If a company claims that its products will make babies smarter, many of these parents will jump at the chance to provide an advantage for their baby. Simply watching a video is all it would take to make a child smarter, according to producers of baby videos. However, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. Baby Einstein, a line of products marketed to parents with children under three-years-old, has come under fire lately for claims that its products will lead to increased intelligence in babies. According to the New York Times, Disney, the parent company of Baby Einstein, is offering a refund to parents who bought videos from the company as these videos did not turn babies into mini-Einsteins.
Perhaps this is not so surprising. The videos are interesting and engaging, but babies receive incredibly rich input from their parents and environment. When children sit in front of a screen they don’t receive this input to develop motor, perceptual, or language skills. This time could be used to develop those and many other skills if the child is engaged with her environment and especially with her parents. There may be a cost to viewing videos; Frederick Zimmerman and Dimitri Christakis, at the University of Washington, found the infants who watched baby videos learned six to eight fewer new vocabulary words for each hour spent watching, as compared to infants who were not exposed to the videos. Language skills are most effectively learned by face-to-face interactions with parents and other caretakers. For example, these videos often lack parent-ese, which is characterized by higher pitched sounds, a greater emphasis on word boundaries and short words, and rising inflection at the end of sentences (more questions). Parent-ese aids infants’ ability to identify and learn words, and eventually a language. A video does not replace face-to-face, social input for babies learning language.
The fast pace of exposure of the Baby Einstein videos, and television in general, may also put children at a disadvantage. Images on TV are flashed rapidly across the visual field as compared to everyday life. Babies become accustomed to this fast pace and are quickly bored when reality is not as exciting and varied.
Baby Einstein’s current mission statement emphasizes that its products encourage babies and parents to interact during an important developmental period and to facilitate babies’ curiosity with developmentally appropriate products. Social interaction is key to learning at all ages, and this is especially true for babies. So if you want your baby to be as smart as she can be, think about spending more time interacting with her and less time searching for other ways to increase her intelligence.