Einstein Not: The Fraud of Educational Videos Aimed at Young Children

Like most parents, I am skeptical when it comes to ritual television viewing for young children. Actually, let me rephrase that: I am wholly against it, and judging from empirical experience along with the loads of data out there, I see no real reason to sit your young child in front of the TV, other than maybe to carve our a half-hour for yourself (pale justification that it is). But I realize I am in the minority, as most parents, either accept TV into their children’s lives with abandon, or treat it like a necessary evil that will keep the children out of trouble for short bursts of time (think of it as an electronic babysitter). Over the last few years, instead of just cynically marketing toys and consumer goods to children, big media conglomerates have also been cynically marketing “developmental and educational” videos to parents with young children. The most popular of these have been the phenomenal Baby Einstein DVDs, selling upwards of $200 million dollars worth of media annually.

That figure is subject to change.

Baby Einstein, founded in 1997, was one of the earliest players in what became a huge electronic media market for babies and toddlers, espousing the vast developmental benefits of parking your child in front of these televisual parades of stimuli. As the companies PR claimed that the Baby Einstein products “were designed as music-focused developmental tools to stimulate babies’ brains (prompted by research proving that exposure to classical melodies can improve verbal ability, spatial intelligence, creativity, and memory in youngsters).” Now parents who faithfully plunked down money for Baby Einstein DVD’s, erroneously believing the videos would make their babies and toddlers more intelligent, can now recoup their money. The Baby Einstein Company (now owned by Disney) is providing a tacit admission of sorts, that their product has fallen fall short of the inflated claims the company initially made to make their riches.

Last year, lawyers, representing concerned parents and consumer groups, threatened a class-action lawsuit for unfair and deceptive practices unless Disney agreed to refund the full purchase price to all who bought the videos since 2004. Now Disney has reluctantly offered refunds (a decent thing to do), and somewhat toned down the “educational” claims of their product, without issuing a real mea culpa.

I guess this could be seen as a victory for parents and consumer groups alike, if it were just an issue about taking a media conglomerate to task for exaggerated claims. However, as it has been documented in Europe as well as by the American Academy of Pediatrics, frequent screen time for children under two is highly ill-advised, due to the fact that it poses a certain number of risks, encouraging passivity, slow language acquisition, over-excitedness, troubles with sleep and concentration as well as dependence on screens. So parents, who were faithfully looking to enhance their children’s development, likely were just keeping their children sedated under the glow of televisual shapes and colors, or worse, they were stunting their developmental growth.

Whether to invite TV into the lives of your children is somewhat of a hot button issue. Many caring and involved parents believe moderate TV viewing is fine for children. Other parents see any amount of TV as the devil and indicator of parental neglect.

Where do you stand on TV for yourself and your family? Is it realistic to ban it from your family life? Will it just become taboo? Is it OK if you watch in moderation with parental supervision? Did Disney (and the Baby Einstein people) get off easy with this voluntary refund offer? Should companies that cynically market to children (and parents) be prosecuted and/or shuttered?

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


Bo Box
Bopha X6 years ago

Loved reading this. I too was a latch-key kid and considered TV to be my babysitter. I'd plant myself in front of that screen everyday after school and every Saturday/Sunday morning. I am not a parent, but when I do become one, I plan on having my children watch television in moderation. I think 3-4 hours a day should be the max. I think there are many good television programs for children on public access channels like PBS. I personally think it's important to spend one on one time with kids outdoors and I wish the adults in my life had more time for this when I was a kid.

Kerin Lee
Kerin Lee6 years ago

Never though a video with irritating music and bright flashing primary colors could make my child smarter.

Sara N.
Sara N7 years ago

all that being said, i watched tv as a kid - sesame street, reading rainbow, mr. rogers, disney movies, and other kids programs of that ilk.

I grew up to love tv, but to love reading books more, having above average intelligence (according to the IQ scores they've sent to my parents every time i've taken them in school), and hanging out and working outside.

Sara N.
Sara N7 years ago

Since i'm not a parent i don't know that i can state whether or not I will allow (haha to the allow in the older years) my children to watch television. I don't think that my children under the age of 3 will be watching much television (though if they have an actual babysitter or are in day care, that might be out of my control). I think after the age of three its ok for kids to be exposed to some level of television, though i do not believe it's necessary, but like i said my attitude may change when i have children.

however I do think that it's interesting that Disney did a refund, in my opinion they didn't have to do that. did they make outrageous unsubstantiated claims, absolutley but lets be honest don't most commercials do just that? if parents aren't interested in doing the research and/or looking into the products then they should take the "minor" finacial hit of buying a video. Sorry, i mean if people sued everytime a product didn't live up to what the commercials touted the civil court would be all crammed up with these types of court cases. I don't mean to offend I just think that if parents were stupid enough to believe what the commercials fed them, then they don't deserve to get there money back.

Jesse C.
Jesse C7 years ago

wow... i definetly dont want my baby watching tv really at all except for some classic movies that i found creative ... like the labyrinth....hmmmm.... i agree with this thanks for the further insight .... I have seen my sister in laws watching lots of educational tv... and their parents were all for it... i was always sceptical!!!

Eric Steinman
Eric Steinman7 years ago

Worth checking out as a mass media critical follow up to this exchange. Funny - http://onthemedia.org/transcripts/2009/11/13/05

Kaitlyn K.
Kaitlyn K7 years ago

I'm an 18 year old girl who's been really bothered by the amount of tv I notice kids I've babysat as well as the children of friends watching . I loved this article it spoke to many of my fears on the subject , maybe knowing things like this will make people decide to change .

Amanda M.
Amanda M7 years ago

Aviva, that's why I didn't buy my kids' clothing at Wal-Mart or had to carefully screen what was available at yard sales too-trying to find kids' clothes that had characters from shows my children aren't allowed to watch is almost impossible sometimes!

And the lack of TV viewing isn't hurting them in the slightest-my older daughter has learning skills above her grade level, and the younger one prefers listening to music on the stereo (she loves the greats like Sinatra and Glenn Miller) or reading books with actual pages. She doesn't tear the books like most two-year-olds do...she actually takes looking through them seriously!

Amanda M.
Amanda M7 years ago

I too, prefer that my kids live "semi-unplugged." My older daughter was raised on Magic School Bus, Mr. Rogers, Reading Rainbow, and even a little bit of the new Sesame Street, which I hate to say has been dumbed down to the point of imbecility when compared to the classic episodes. We've gotten the Old School Sesame Street DVDs, and I can definitely see the difference between the two styles! Both kids (the younger one is 2 1/2) prefer the Old School SS to the newer version, and they like the classic Disney animated movies and classic movies such as "Singin' In the Rain" and "Seven Brides For Seven Brothers" for weekend movie night fare. Sadly, PBS has taken away shows such as Mr. Rogers and Reading Rainbow from its daily lineup, so my younger daughter is watching mostly Old School or classic Disney cartoons for her entertainment (she's limited to one per day). We also have Fraggle Rock on DVD, the Muppet Show, and other things like that. Older daughter likes the Electric Company, and she also enjoys MythBusters, Dirty Jobs, and even Parking Wars (my fault; I was watching it one day and she got hooked). However, it sure beats the dreck on NickTrash these days! That channel and Cartoon Network are absolutely banned in our house, although my husband thinks there's nothing wrong with Nickelodeon (but then, he doesn't have to deal with the bad manners and backtalk that results from watching the trash on that channel, either!).

Teresa T.
Teresa T7 years ago

I think a certain amount of television for kids is okay; however you as the parent should have the final say on what, when and how much. My kids, now all young adults, watched Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Today's Special and Barney (they range in age from 18 to 28 so they didn't watch the same shows). My kids (and now my grandkids) were exposed to age appropriate books from the time they were babies, and they all love books. They were all good readers. Like everything else in life "moderation" is they key word; along with parental behavior. If you read and like books chances are your kids will too.