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Study finds 'educational' products can't make babies geniuses, or give them an advantage

Published: Wednesday, March 5 2014 3:20 p.m. MST

A new study finds no evidence to believe claims that babies gain an edge when using "educational" products. This probably will not bring the infant education industry to a halt, though, as some parents still believe their infants learn more than they would have.

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Parents are besieged by claims that it is within their power to acquire the resources to help their babies develop needed cognitive skills, and a growing “genius baby” industry has been preying upon anxious parents for the past decade, according to a recent article in The Atlantic.

“Teaching your baby to read is easy,” promises MonkiSee. Intellbaby assures parents “your baby can actually learn to read beginning at 3 months of age.”

The article highlights a new study led by Susan Neuman of New York University that demonstrated parents can be highly susceptible to this kind of messaging and sometimes actually believe in the efficacy of the products, even though “children do not have the internal capability to learn how to read at this young of age.”

Parents and their infants were divided into two groups. One group did not use any “genius baby” goods; the other group of infants used commercial products packaged with bold educational claims each day with their parents. After seven months, the infants went through a battery of 14 reliable and state-of-the-art tests designed to measure early and emergent learning. Researchers also interviewed the parents.

The first group of parents reported that their babies could not read, just as before. The second group believed that their infants learned reading skills, “despite countervailing evidence,” according to Neuman.

All babies performed the same on the tests and indeed are too young to be able to read. While the study found no evidentiary basis for the corporations’ claims, it recorded that educational or not, the advertisements were powerful enough to shape parents beliefs about their babies.

The exit interviews seem to reflect what The Atlantic calls “the blinding power of parental ambition.”

The NYU study is the latest in a line indicating that the baby media products have no demonstrable educational value. A 2010 University of Virginia study found that infants between 12 and 18 months learned roughly the same vocabulary regardless of whether they used materials.

“Parents have great confidence in the impact of these products on their children,” writes Neuman. “This sentiment is misplaced.”

Effective advertising can have the potential to cause parents to act, and even change their beliefs, according to Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Linn told the New York Times that Fisher-Price advertises that its apps teach language and other skills, and have been downloaded from the iTunes store millions of times.

Linn's complaints to the Federal Trade Commission about such advertising forced companies to drop "educational" claims from their marketing and that armed a group of lawyers to threaten a class-action suit against Baby Einstein, a Disney company, the Times reported.

The company responded by offering refunds to millions of parents in 2009, according to the Consumerist, while accusing the CCFC of mounting a propaganda campaign against Baby Einstein.

But outside the claims of misleading information, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents not expose children under 2 years of age to any digital media.

"A child's brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens," the AAP stated.

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