‘Your Baby Can Read’ was a waste of money, research confirms

Screenshot of commercial for 'Your Baby Can Read"You might remember the best-selling DVD set, ‘Your Baby Can Read.’ The multi-volume kit came with flash cards and a picture book presumably meant to reinforce the lessons on screen. TV commercials for the product used pseudo-scientific diagrams to suggest that babies’ fast-developing brains are ripe for this kind of instruction. The company implied that infants as young as 9 months could recognize words after watching the videos and using the accompanying materials.

The makers of ‘Your Baby Can Read’ went out of business in 2012, after a complaint was filed with the Federal Trade Commission by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. NBC’s Today show featured an investigative report that questioned claims made about the product. In the midst of all the controversy, researchers at NYU conducted a randomized trial to see if the product lived up to its claims, and – because academic publishing moves at a snail’s pace – those results have just come out.

The study tracked 117 infants (ages 9 to 18 months) over a period of 7 months. Parents of infants in the test group used ‘Your Baby Can Read’ according to the makers’ instructions, so each infant would watch 70 hours of DVD training and receive 45 hours of interaction using the flash cards and picture books. The researchers measured the outcomes in multiple ways, and found no significant difference in developmental reading skills between the test group and the control group.

Claims implied in the TV commercials, that babies who had used the program could recognize words and respond to written directions (e.g., ‘clap your hands!’) were not supported by the study’s findings.

Did the program likely do any damage to infants? Probably not, but sitting a baby in front of a DVD for 20 minutes a day goes against recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics not to use screen media for children under age 2.

The next time you see an ‘educational’ media product making claims that seem too good to be true, remember: they probably are.

 

For one mom, previews and context are key

Annie likes her kids to know what to expect in media. And she prefers to know what they’ll encounter in advance. She screens and previews most of the content seen or heard by her 15-year-old son Eli and her 11-year-old daughter, Margaret.

NPR does not come on while they’re in the car with her, she said, because she doesn’t want them to be surprised by things they may not be prepared to hear.

Approved for Annie's 15-year-old son, but she reads it first

Approved for Annie’s 15-year-old son, but only if she reads it first

Annie said she previews in part because she knows how much inappropriate content is out there and it worries her.

“Everything concerns me about media!” Annie said.  “There’s so much access to stuff that I wouldn’t have seen until my mid-20s, and now an 8-year-old can access it.”

Annie’s family does not have cable service and they only receive two TV channels. Her kids have fairly open access to the Internet, and they’re allowed to watch shows on PBS and via Netflix, as long as Annie knows what they are.

Context is very important to her, she said, especially regarding the social situations in which her kids encounter certain media messages. When her son wanted to read Game of Thrones and see the TV series adaptation, she speed-read the first book and then stayed one book ahead of him as he read it. She then watched the TV show with him, so they could talk about some of the more mature elements in it.

“I wouldn’t have let him watch it on his own, or with a bunch of his friends,” Annie said.

She added that she tries to strike a balance between monitoring and keeping channels of communication open with him.

“Do I risk having him sneak around and read it anyway,” she said, “or do I actively participate it in with him?”

Context in the story is also important to her. She took Eli to see the movie Skyfall, and she said she was comfortable with the violent content because it was relevant within the narrative of a spy story. This standard applies to both violence and sex, she said.

“I don’t forbid my kids from seeing it, but it needs to be relevant to the storyline.”

Annie added that she thinks the amount of sexual content in the Game of Thrones books is excessive.

Her kids are also on social media. Eli uses Facebook and Reddit, and follows several blogs. Margaret uses Club Penguin, but she’s only allowed to send pre-written ‘postcards’ to other users, and she may not share personal information about herself.

Annie credits Margaret’s school for teaching kids about trust, respect, and not posting photos of themselves or others in bad situations. She is impressed with the guidance they provide, and said it boosts her confidence in her kids’ ability to manage online interactions.

She anticipates her kids becoming a bit more secretive as they get older, but she is confident that they’ll come and talk with her about issues they encounter. She occasionally glances at Eli’s laptop if he leaves it open, but she said she has never seen anything that concerns her.

“It’s a very open communication thing,” she said, “and it involves a lot of trust.”