Friday, August 31, 2007

Baby Einstein, Hack Journalism

There's a short, terrible article by Alice Park in Time magazine this month. I will quote it here in full:

"How Not to Raise a Genius: Is Baby Einstein doing your child more harm than good?

"There are no shortcuts when it comes to learning, and that applies to becoming a prodigy as well. Popular videos such as the Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby series have attracted millions of parents eager to give their babies an intellectual leg up. But a recent study shows that these products might be doing more harm than good. Experts at the University of Washington reported early in August that for every hour each day that infants watched the kaleidoscope of changing images and music on these DVDs, they understood an average of seven fewer words than babies who did not use such products. 'The assumption is that stimulation is good, so more is better,' says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician and co-author of the study. 'But all the research to date shows that there is no such benefit.'

"That's hardly reassuring to parents who last year spent 200 million on the Baby Einstein series. They might consider instead the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends that infants under 2 not watch anything on a screen and instead just interact with parents."

If Alice Park had actually read the study mentioned in her article, instead of skipping right to the University of Washington's press release on it, she would understand that it did not specifically evaluate any Baby Einstein products at all. The authors of the study asked questions pertaining to the general category of "baby videos," rather than Baby Einstein in particular. Regardless of whether Park did not read the study or she simply did not understand it, this is still piss-poor journalism. I've come to expect nothing less from Time, which has disappointed me with every issue I've picked up in the last several months.

Additionally, there are a few other problems with the article worth pointing out. The pompously phrased idea that "there are no shortcuts when it comes to learning" is basically incoherent. It's not even possible to conceive of a "shortcut to learning" that would not itself warrant the description of "learning," albeit of a more efficient kind. Consider, for example, a sci-fi scenario in which babies have USB ports installed in their skulls allowing Disney to simply jack information directly into their brains via a neural-cybernetic interface. It's hard to imagine a shorter "shortcut" than this, but if the information were absent at first and then present afterward, the act by which the brain acquired it would still be called "learning."

My family owns one Baby Einstein video. I have watched My First Signs: See and Sign with Baby from beginning to end with my son, Jack, several times. Park's description of the video as a "kaleidoscope of changing images and music" hardly does it justice, except insofar as this might apply to any commonplace multimedia presentation (as seen, perhaps, by a time-travelling visitor from the 18th century). This mischaracterization further reveals the lack of care and attention with which the author has reviewed her source material.

A co-author of the study, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, is quoted as saying, "The assumption is that stimulation is good, so more is better." To whom does this assumption belong? To Disney? To parents? To the researchers who designed the study? It is not clear whether Christakis or Park gets credit for the irresponsible ambiguity of this statement, but when it is combined with the article's murky, unqualified use of data and the idea of a "kaleidscope of changing images" the impression made on the reader is like something out of A Clockwork Orange--a harrowing, psychedelic experience so unwholesome that it actually causes children to unlearn language at the rate of 1 word every 8.5 minutes.

Alice Park and Dr. Dimitri Christakis are right to claim that children are better off being spoken and read to by attentive mothers and fathers rather than plunked in front of the television set all day. To any thoughtful parent, this information should be self-evident and accessible by plain common sense. People who require an opportunistic, manipulative and ill-informed magazine article to convince them of its validity should probably think twice about having babies in the first place before they start worrying about raising geniuses.

I don't particularly care for the garish theme parks and neutered fairy tales of the Walt Disney corporation, but I have even less time for bad writing and bad thinking. I don't think Baby Einstein is going to raise our son in lieu of his mother and me--it's basically Sesame Street with classical music. Speaking more generally, I don't think watching a "baby video" once in a while is going to hurt him, either.

I would be more concerned if he wanted to start reading recent issues of Time magazine.


Glenn said...

I like when you say that a "kaleidescope of moving images" is an apt description for a video if you're a time traveler from the 18th century.

On a related note, Borders (where I work now for some reason) sells videos like Baby Einstein, except they are titles like "Baby NASCAR" or "Baby NBA," and are designed to get your baby to like NASCAR or basketball from as early as possible. That sort of sickens me a little bit. Training for consumerism starts immediately out of the womb? Well, maybe Budweiser would stop sponsoring Dale Jr. in favor of Similac or something.

Amanda said...

Bwahahahaha. I love your rants. And I agree about Time. God, it's horrible.