‘Like Crack for Babies’: Kids Love Baby Einstein, But They Don’t Learn From It

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When scientific studies first began suggesting that “Baby Einstein” videos might make children more like Einstein himself — as a child, he was taciturn and not especially verbal — rather than creating literary prodigies, proponents of the videos countered that the methods used in said studies couldn’t really prove that the videos themselves were the problem. One weakness of the research was that it tended to rely on parental reports, obtained through phone surveys, about the use of the educational videos.

Now, randomized, controlled studies put that criticism to bed and back up the early findings of researchers. The evidence also prompted Disney, producer of “Baby Einstein” to eventually offer refunds to parents whose children didn’t see improvement from video exposure.

Adding to the growing body of data, a new study, slated to appear in the journal Psychological Science, compared 72 12-to-18-month-olds, who were divided into four experimental groups: those who watched an educational video aimed at improving vocabulary at least five times a week for a month; those who watched the video with a parent; those whose parents were instructed to teach the 25 previously unknown words featured in the video in whatever way they preferred, without a video; and those who got no instruction or video at all.

The children who were taught by their parents, without video aid, learned the most words — about half of the words on the list. Researchers say that’s because kids learn vocabulary words through meaningful gestures and interactive communication with parents — things you can’t get by watching a video screen. There was no difference among the other three groups in the study, though all of them improved slightly, learning about a third of the words.

But the video did capture the babies’ attention. As Bruce Bower writes in Science News:

Logs kept by parents during the study often included descriptions of their children’s intense DVD-viewing habits, [lead researcher Judy] DeLoache notes. “She loves the blasted thing,” one mother wrote. “It’s like crack for babies.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for children under age 2, since no studies show that it actually helps babies learn. However, studies — including the new one — also don’t show that watching educational videos or TV causes a loss of vocabulary, so at least harried parents who need the electronic babysitter to keep their sanity don’t have to feel guilty about that.

(H/t Noah Grey at Nature @noahwg)