‘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.

 

iPads + questionable judgment = these products

iPad bouncy seat You may have heard about the new bouncy chair for infants that enables parents to mount an iPad directly in front of the baby’s face. This product from Fisher Price has raised the eyebrows of a lot of skeptical parents, and rightfully so. In my observations of parent-friends, a bouncy chair is best for infants, and toddlers generally won’t sit still in them. Presumably, then, this product is meant to encourage tablet use by children under age two. But the American Academy of Pediatrics makes the following recommendation:

Television and other entertainment media should be avoided for infants and children under age 2. A child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.

 

This wisdom, based on common sense as well as research on brain development, seems to be no barrier to the makers (and purchasers) of several other similar products.

 

iLatch tablet mounting deviceThe iLatch is designed to clip on to a stroller cross bar, a shopping cart, or any other horizontal mounting surface, to keep the tablet screen in front of the child’s face. I can certainly understand the need to occupy a child’s attention on long car trips and such. But when you’re out for a walk in a park, or another place filled with visual stimuli to engage the child’s mind, is it really necessary to block that view with a screen?

 

iPotty, a training toilet with a built-in iPad mountThe iPotty keeps a tablet accessible to a child while s/he is potty training. My parent-friends have used books, songs, and other distractions to encourage a child to stay seated until the business is done, but a tablet mounted right in front of him? What if the child learns to associate bathroom trips with tablets, and can only go #1 or #2 if he has an iPad with him?

 

I get it: parenting is incredibly difficult at times, and iPads provide a valuable distraction at crucial moments. But these products seem to make it far too easy to keep a screen in front of a child’s face, when she could be wondering, daydreaming, asking questions, and learning from the people and world around her.

 

Infants, toddlers, and screen use: What the research says

Infant onesie reading "Do not touch my iPad"


Should this be on a onesie? (credit)
 

Children’s media use is making headlines this week. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued recommendations for physicians to routinely ask about their young patients’ digital media use, and Common Sense Media released a study that shows 38% of children under age 2 have used a mobile device.

Many parents are aware of the AAP’s advice to keep children screen-free until age two. This statistic gets tossed about frequently, but the research behind it often gets lost in the shuffle. What do we know about media use by young children, and why are pediatricians concerned? Here are some highlights of the research:

Heavy TV viewing in early childhood is associated with attentional problems at age 7. In this study, children viewed an average of 2.2 hours of television per day at age 1 and 3.6 hours per day at age 3. The association between heavy television viewing and later attentional problems remained even when other factors were accounted for, such as prenatal substance use and gestational age, measures of maternal psychopathology, and socioeconomic status.

Heavy TV viewing in early childhood is associated with decreased cognitive development. In this study, ‘each hour of average daily television viewing before age 3 years was associated with’ slightly lower scores on tests given at age 6 or 7 of reading recognition, reading comprehension, and short-term memory.

Heavy viewing of baby-oriented DVDs is associated with decreased language development. The ‘baby-oriented’ media in this study included DVDs such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, and the children studied were 8 to 16 months old.

Like all scientific studies, these are not perfect – they do not necessarily account for all the other factors that may influence children’s learning and behavior. In addition, these studies do not address interactive screens that young children are increasingly using, such as tablets and smartphones. The technology is so new, we won’t likely see solid research on it for another year or so.

But few pediatricians disagree with the essential message of the AAP: very young children learn more from interactions with people than they do from watching or interacting with screens.