Sunday, October 25, 2009

Baby Einstein Not So Brainy: Disney Refunds for Disgraced DVDs


So Baby Einstein's parent company, Disney, is now offering refunds to parents who bought their supposed brain-boosting Baby Mozart DVDs and the like according to Saturday's New York Times (No Einstein in the Your Crib? Get a Refund). 

Did any parent really and truly believe plopping their infant in front of those mind-numbing merry-go-rounds and creepy mute stuffed animals would actually accelerate cognitive development?

Of course not.  A woman filmed the first one in her basement in for goodness sake.

Did a lot of parents, myself included, think it might be one more handy tool in the parenting arsenal that might provide a few moments of entertainment (the baby) and rest (mommy and daddy)?  Yes.

Did we WISH something so simple could accelerate our child's learning? Yes.

So the now infamous Mozart Effect (classical music makes kids smarter) behind the Baby Einstein Empire has been debunked for quite some time.  Basically the most famous of the studies involved NOT BABIES or even children but college students who listened to ten minutes of Mozart then completed a very very specific cognitive task on the Stanford-Binet IQ test.  The 1993 study has never been successfully replicated though many researchers have tried. 

Around the same time developments in brain imaging led to a flurry of super cool pediatric research projects that captured the imaginations not to mention credit cards of parents eager to stimulate tiny minds.  It was just so darned exciting hearing about the various parts of the brain that fire up when research participants listen to music and watch images.  If we could see baby brains reacting so clearly to stimuli then the more stimulation, the earlier the stimulation, the better.  It was only a few neat studies from wow, look at how active and responsive those little brains are to hey, let me buy those flashcards and DVDS and soon my two-year old will be reading.   

So Disney fudged the claims.  That's not the worse part according to the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood who brought suit against Disney and another company promising to build baby brains.

The real damage?  Watching the disgraced DVDS might have actually harmed kids.  And the American Academy of Pediatrics, that recommends no screen time for kids under two, would probably agree.

Ah, the dreaded tv.

The research cited?  A less than stellar correlational study showing young children who watch a lot of television had the vaguely worded "attentional problems" by age 7.  I reported on this research on this blog a while ago when it got headlines.  It's old data and by old I mean a couple decades.  The numbers come from a much larger research project (the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth) so it wasn't specifically designed to get at the negative fall-out from the boob tube.  The outcome measure, attentional problems, also includes mental confusion and obsessive behavior, in other words, traits that don't exactly appear to be attentional in nature.  Moreover, this was not a tightly controlled study, meaning we have no idea why there's a correlation between lots of tv and lack of attention.  Is it possible children who were more difficult, who possibly had inattention problems (not to mention irrational and obsessive thought and behaviors) at age 1 or 2, were allowed to watch more tv?  Could it be something about the parenting involved and not the television? 

Absolutely. 

Something the media missed and Christakis and the other authors didn't mention in the results perhaps because they wanted us to forget it: maternal self-esteem better predicted later attention problems than television viewing.  Hmm.  Are we still sure this is about the tv?

What's more troubling, this is the same piece of research the AAP has on its website in support of their toddler tv ban. 

 Personally, if we're going to take companies, and hey, why not entire organizations to task for inaccurate claims related to children then I'd like a refund on all the other products that I've bought (literally and figuratively).

Like the Swiss water bottles that I purchased on the premise that bisphenol-a (BPA) is a terrible carcinogen putting my children in real danger.

(FYI the European equivalent of the FDA has actually raised the daily allowable threshold of BPA by a factor of 5) 

And the organic bath products. 

The double-breast pump.

The mommy and me classes.

The baby sling.

And countless more that have been jettisoned to the basement and the Salvation Army.

And then I'd move on to the authorities that have misled parents based on imperfect data thus spawning fear, worry, and rampant internet rumors.  Let's start with the AAP and it's no-tv for 2 year olds.  Or it's stringent breasfeeding recommendations. 

Or the New York Times, among other media, that have published biased stories.  Like the 2006 "Breast Is Best" that still irks me and those who believe the benefits of breastfeeding have been greatly exaggerated.   And all the other pediatrians, medical professionals and journalists and others who have misled parents over the "harm" of formula. 

Or the Lancet, the British medical journal that published that incredibly awful and falsified (perhaps criminal) study that launced the decade-long vaccines-cause-autism scare.  And the others behind other really crappy autism research that fueled this faulty link. 

Now, those, the last two groups, I would really like to see make amends.  Those organizations and individuals helped disseminate inaccurate information with incalcuably large consequences.   And that's what should make parents angry.  That's what we should be shouting about.  Demanding answers and actions.

Not wasting our time getting money back from some bogus boxed set of DVDS.

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