Buyer beware: Videos aimed at improving infant and toddler language skills are not as beneficial for language learning as they claim to be, according to a new study. Rather than helping youngsters, such products may actually hurt their vocabularies.
Videos like Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein have been marketed to parents since 1997. They feature simple lessons in music, math, and vocabulary, and their makers tout them as important educational tools that will help young children build skills in each of these areas. But none of these claims has ever been verified, says Frederick Zimmerman, who studies the relationship between child development and the economy at the University of Washington, Seattle. "In many cases, the corporations making the educational videos are not even testing their own products," he says.
So Zimmerman and colleagues decided to test the videos themselves. The researchers interviewed the parents of more than 1000 U.S. children between the ages of 8 and 16 months, gathering information on the children's vocabulary and how frequently they watched videos like Baby Einstein. When the team controlled for factors such as socioeconomic status, race, and parental education, it found that Baby Einstein and his ilk are not the geniuses they're cracked up to be. For every hour per day spent watching the videos, children understood an average of six to eight fewer words than did those of the same age who did not watch them--a 17-percentile drop in vocabulary, the team reports online tomorrow in the Journal of Pediatrics. "There is no clear evidence of a benefit coming from these videos, and there is some suggestion of harm," says Zimmerman.
As for why the videos hurt vocabulary when they're supposed to help it, Zimmerman can only speculate. One possibility, he says, is that the videos simply pacify children without teaching them anything. "It's like empty calories for the mind," Zimmerman says. Meanwhile, children not watching the videos are reading, interacting with their parents, or building with blocks.
"The negative effect is a real surprise," says Rebecca Collins, a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, California. "There is so much consumption of these videos, and nobody has any idea how effective they are."