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The Sham of Educational TV for Toddlers

The Sham of Educational TV for Toddlers

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 out 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.

Back in 2008, 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?

Read more: Babies, Blogs, Caregiving, Children, Family, Parenting at the Crossroads, Videos, , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

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


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4:15PM PDT on May 19, 2015

Thanks Eric.

6:43AM PDT on Oct 16, 2013


2:43PM PST on Mar 3, 2012

I'm glad to hear steps were taken against Baby Einstein. I hate them so much, because they pretend to be science-based when they are not. The study they are based on was performed on college students. I suppose technically college students are "youngsters", but it's a huge leap to say that what is beneficial to a college student is beneficial to an infant or toddler. Also, those college students weren't watching television, they were just listening to classical music. And it looks like the actual finding is likely to be that listening to music you enjoy shortly before taking a test will often help you perform better on a test. Well, good to know, but not a reason to buy special videos for a baby to watch.

7:17AM PST on Feb 21, 2012

Thank you for this read! Its hard for a new mom to really judge what is good and what isnt. I dont let my son watch too much tv. He is almost 5 now and honestly is more interested in being outside, or making a fort out of all the towels and sheets in the house :) Though, i do have a friend who has a son who has watched baby einstein since he was a few months old. I think she should focus more on teaching him herself rather than letting the tv do it.

3:02PM PST on Feb 18, 2012


10:35AM PST on Feb 16, 2012

The risks cited the the American Academy of Pediatrics are very disturbing. Guess I wouldn't risk frequent screen time for the kids.

8:28PM PST on Feb 15, 2012

Being actively involved in your child's education is the most important thing. The problem is not with the parents who let their kid watch 20 minutes of Baby Einstein while catching a quick shower or paying a few bills. It's with the parents and daycares that have a television on all day long, and the child is not given the attention or opportunities to practice skills that they need.

If you're using the video as a 15-20 minute break in the day, it's better to use Baby Einstein and PBS or a nature documentary with pretty butterflies and flowers and bees or the ocean's colorful creatures than to put them in front of a show that has commercials on it shouting at the kids about what they need to ask their parents to buy and what fattening food should be their favorite, or a show with violence and adult situations in it.

It's best to provide kids with a whole range of activities, and that might include 20 minutes of a show a few times a week, but it should not be an all-day "educational television" marathon.

I've worked at several daycares. ASK YOUR DAYCARE PROVIDER IF THE KIDS WATCH TV, AND IF SO HOW MUCH. It's one thing to put on a movie for the kids when rain keeps them from going outside. It's another thing to turn on the television and leave the kids there because it's easier than doing real activities. Same goes for babysitters and nannies.

6:21AM PST on Feb 15, 2012

Thanks for the perspectives....

9:12PM PST on Feb 14, 2012

I had always thought an occasional movie or program like the Wiggles were OK for kids. Assumptions, amazing what they get you into.

10:13PM PST on Feb 13, 2012

My son does watch the occasional TV show. Anyway, I would usually get stuff like videos, and limit to certain shows. Even though shows such as Dora, Seseme Street, etc are good shows, I didn't like the switch to commercials that kept happening to where it would distract the already short attention of toddlers and disperse it from the show. It took away the fact that the kids were supposed to learn.

So, on rainy days where we couldn't go out, it was Animal Planet, Science Channel, Discovery Kids, etc... It's amazing what a little science guy I have. On nice days? Go out, look at the ants. Get a bug box to collect caterpillars. Go to the river and look at the frogs. Anything to put that use from Animal Planet to apply to real life.

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Thank you Annie.


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