Videos aim to boost precious baby's IQ

Parents buy into the marketing, hoping to nurture a little genius

April 24, 2005|By Marlon Manuel | Marlon Manuel,New York Times News Service

Like many first-time moms, Sarah Cutright read every book, every magazine on child care she could find while she was pregnant. She couldn't escape the ads for baby videos.

The titles implied that viewing might later propel infants, say, to an Ivy League university: Baby Einstein, Baby Genius, Baby Laureate, Brainy Baby.

Cutright couldn't help herself. While shopping at Toys "R" Us, Target and other stores around Greensboro, N.C., two years ago, she bought the entire Baby Einstein collection before her son, Noah, was even born.

"There's definitely a lot of marketing and a lot of pressure to buy them," said Cutright, now the director for after-school programs for Primrose Schools, based in Acworth, Ga.

While the video market for children has ballooned -- purchases of so-called "kidvids" hit $4.4 billion in 2004, according to market research publisher Packaged Facts -- there remains a gap between marketing claims and verifiable benefits.

The sales boom -- a mix of big-screen releases like Finding Nemo along with toddler infotainment like "Numbers Nursery" -- continues despite an advisory from the American Association of Pediatrics that kids under 2-years-old should watch no television.

And there's no end to the onslaught. When Baby Einstein, the biggest of the baby video giants, was acquired by the Walt Disney Co. in 2001, the company was a $25 million retail brand. By 2004, the brand -- including sales of DVDs, music, books and toys -- reached $170 million. Come July, Baby Einstein will launch Baby Wordsworth, a partnership with Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin to expose infants and toddlers to various communication forms, including sign language.

"Not one parent has said, 'Gee, your product has made my child dumber,' " said Dennis Fedoruck, president and founder of Brainy Baby, a chief competitor of Baby Einstein based in Alpharetta, Ga.

Since its debut in 1995, Brainy Baby has at least doubled -- sometimes tripled -- previous year sales, Fedoruck said.

Many infant and toddler videos are bathed in primary colors as characters -- sometimes a sock puppet, sometimes another toddler -- count trains or balls. Languid pictures of animals flash on the screen as kids sing the alphabet. Some videos are marketed as Spanish tutorials.

Increasing numbers

Two years after Brainy Baby, Baby Einstein hit the market in 1997 just as the so-called Mozart Effect -- coined by a study that suggested that listening to classical music enhanced learning -- made the rounds. Other researchers later debunked the theory, but not before Georgia Gov. Zell Miller made classical CDs available to new parents.

Today, companies aim an increasing number of videos at kids from infancy to 7 years old, because demographers project that will be the fastest-growing segment of kids under 19 between now and 2010.

Kelli Stagich lives squarely in that sweet spot.

The second-grade teacher let her daughter, Kaleigh, watch Baby Einstein videos when she was 2 months old. Now a 20-month-old toddler, Kaleigh still watches with her playgroup, sometimes "mesmerized by what's on the screen."

Stagich said she's at times had to turn it off because the playgroup kids begin fixating on the screen instead of playing with one another. Still, she liked how it settled down Kaleigh, who now says, "Choo, choo" when the train appears on screen.

Kaleigh is already speaking in complete sentences: "Mama, there's a school bus." She can count to 10, though colors are still a bit iffy.

"If it's on, she'll stop and pay attention to them," Stagich said.

On the cover of its Right Brain DVD -- aimed at kids 6 months to 3 years old -- Brainy Baby entices parents by boasting that the product "can help give your child a learning advantage."

Such claims are "dubious at best," says Elizabeth Vandewater, director of the Center for Research on Interactive Technology, Television and Children at the University of Texas.

"Parents should understand that all of that marketing is just that -- marketing," Vandewater said. "There's no evaluative research. We have no idea what the effects are, let alone that they are educational."

No supporting evidence

Don Shifrin, a member of the education committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said there's no evidence that "children who watch Baby Einstein will become charter members of MENSA when they grow up."

Despite the academy's advisories about limiting screen time for kids -- who are growing increasingly obese because of poor diets and physical inactivity -- there's been little impact on parents' appetites for toddler videos. Fedoruck acknowledges that there's been no research to support videos as learning devices for toddlers, but dismisses the academy's reproach. He said thousands of anecdotes from customers indicates that the videos help.

"My opinion is that the AAP is throwing the baby out with the bathwater," Fedoruck said. "They were addressing children watching mindless broadcast TV and vegging out. They weren't understanding that there are products out there to expand a child's mind."

When Cutright purchased her Einstein products, she was motivated like many first-time parents: "I didn't want to make a mistake."

But the young mother quickly learned that while her son liked the music, he was "more engaged with me than the video."

Which is the crux of research showing that the most important developmental key for young children is a positive relationship forged with parents or primary caregivers.

"Attachment develops from the relationship experience with loved ones -- mother, father or whoever the caregiver is," said Stephanie Leeds, director of the Education and Child Studies Program at Cazenovia College in upstate New York. "That is the major avenue of development in all areas."

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