Educational baby videos: Smart or a scam?

Parents shell out hundreds of millions of dollars for products designed to make their children smarter. But what do videos like "Baby Einstein" really teach kids?

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Published December 15, 2005 1:52PM (EST)

Ah, the "gifted" child -- every parent's dream. Indeed, in the hopes of rearing a generation of geniuses, today's parents have given rise to a booming trade in infant educational videos. By purporting to mold newborns into Sir Issac Newtons, series like "Baby Bumblebee," "Baby Chatterbox" and "Baby Einstein" -- now owned by Disney -- rake in more than $100 million in annual sales, reports Business Week.

But do educational videos really boost kid's IQs? A skeptical article in yesterday's Chicago Tribune (registration required) says probably not. Citing recent Kaiser Family Foundation research on the media and very young children, reporter and "Media Mom" Nell Minow finds that there has been little study of the positive effects and long-term influences of early educational videos. In fact, she notes, in recent years there have been two developments that would seem to deflate many of the products' claims: First, "the discrediting of the 'Mozart effect' (the idea that listening to classical music will make a child smarter)" and, second, a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that children under 2 should not spend any -- that's right, zero -- time in front of TVs, videos or computers.

"It's hard to figure out what these products do," writes Minow. "Are they entertainment? Are they educational? Something between a baby-sitter and a hold button to give tired parents a break?" Parent testimonials seem to indicate that it's more the latter than the former. On the "Baby Einstein" Web site, one mother exclaims, "Thank you so much for making something that my baby is interested in because I cannot get him to sit down and watch anything else."

No one wants to begrudge moms a few moments of peace, Minow says. But "these DVDs don't teach babies nearly as much about colors or words or shapes or the world outside as they teach them this: Watching television is and will be a major occupation ... Do we really want babies to learn that the best way to find something interesting to do, or to calm themselves down, is to watch a television screen?"

Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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