With my interest in both children and education you knew it wouldn't be long before I commented on the latest "Baby Einstein" controversy. A study (based on telephone surveys) published in The Journal of Pediatrics found that babies between eight and sixteen months experienced a significant decrease in language development for every hour spent per day viewing baby videos.
Now those who ridicule parents' attempts to enrich their children's early educational enviroments are having an I-told-you-so field day, and those who profit from the business are crying foul. The responses that bother me most, however, are those of the defenders of baby videos. They are giving answers to the wrong questions, and reassurances for the wrong concerns.
Commentators rushing to the defense of parents readily cede the ground of infant stimulation and assure us that it doesn't really matter what the videos do or don't do to our children; all parents need a break now and then and letting a video entertain your baby is a perfectly good way to achieve that goal, just another form of baby swing, bouncer or other device designed to give parents a little distance from the demands of parenthood.
I don't deny the need of parents for some respite, though I may disagree on what constitutes a good approach to the problem. But that's hardly the main issue here; I don't think it would even make the top ten of my questions, which include:
- When is an infant's visual system sufficiently developed to make sense of the image on a television screen, which is not the same as seeing a physical object?
- What effect does this unnatural visual experience have on the baby's developing eyes and brain?
- What type of video experience did the babies have? Are all baby videos equally bad?
- What is the effect of small amounts of video exposure, say less than 15 minutes per day in the context of a great deal of other experiences and personal interaction—a more likely situation in a household where parents are not looking for an electronic babysitter but are actively trying to enrich their baby's learning experience? The study rated the effect in terms of hours of video exposure per day—I can't even imagine how a parent could set his child in front of a television screen for that much time and think it to be a good thing.
- What is the best use of a baby's time when it comes to mental development? Is watching a video better than sitting in a dark room but worse than crawling for a toy? Is being carried in a sling, close to Mom, still better? Would the opportunity to see a very short video (content is still another question) plus plenty of time for crawling plus lots of time being carried around best of all?
I've never had a Baby Einstein video, never bought one for nephews or grandchildren, and as far as I know never seen one. I certainly have no vested interest in them. But if we're going to discuss such important issues as babies' mental development, let's consider the critical questions and not be sidetracked by defending business interests and assuaging parental guilt feelings.