Tuesday, January 23, 2007

President Bush's State of the Union Ignores Science At Your Children's Peril

From Ash:

During last night's State of the Union address, President Bush lauded Julie Aigner-Clark, the founder of Baby Einstein, the maker of videos for infants and toddlers. During his commercial across-every-network (which is good for Disney because they need free air time), telling the tale of her company's humble beginnings making videos to the day she became a big enough company to sell out to Disney, the President concluded that, with such a success story, Aigner-Clark "represents the great enterprising spirit of America."

And compared to the other things he spoke about, this probably seems like a small potato to comment upon. But I think the President's remark may represent the great disregard he has for anything that might protect people at the loss of an enterpriser's dollar.

To wit – the American Academy of Pediatrics still says, and I quote: "Until more research is done about the effects of TV on very young children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend television for children age 2 or younger."

From the research I've seen, there hasn't been any consistent proof that viewing such videos is beneficial. On the contrary, even researchers paid by Sesame Street (to advise them on their own toddler-video line) have written that it is "critical" that more research be done on the effects of videos on children under the age of two.

Further, they find that children under two learn less from TV than from real life, and they can't apply what they learn from TV to the real world. These paid-by-Sesame Street consultants say that there are at least some studies finding a relationship – if not yet causation – between infants' television watching and having shorter attention-spans when they are older children.

(Oh, and while there doesn't yet seem to be definitive research on the impact of TV on a child's brain development, there's already agreement that watching TV is related to increased children's obesity, decreased reading, and even decreased interaction with parents and siblings. Again, that's from the paid consultants.)

Still other independent researchers have basically said that there's no proof that infants and toddlers receive any benefit from watching television: for them, the issue isn't what benefit there might be but what harm such TV watching could bring. (Check out NPR's Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered.)

Now, if somehow the White House can be excused from having heard of this years-long controversy, I find it impossible that there isn't a single person in the White House or Department of Health and Human Services who couldn't have taken the time to read the company's own website before heralding the company with such accolades. On its site, the company states:

"And, while we respect the American Academy of Pediatrics, we do not believe that their recommendation of no television for children under the age of two reflects the reality of today’s parents, families and households. . . . The Baby Einstein Company believes that when used appropriately, television can be a useful learning tool that parents and little ones can enjoy together."

So the Baby Einstein Company admits there's a controversy. It does not dispute the AAP's warning. (Conversely, the company "respects" the Academy.) And the company offers no research to back up their claim that that their products are useful: all they say is that there's a really big market for their product, and that's sufficient.

That logic is no different than Big Tobacco's old claim that a lot of people smoke and they aren't all dead yet, therefore, it must not be bad.

If I hadn't been upset enough by the President's remarks right away – it was his pitch for Aigner-Clark's work on a forthcoming line of safety-video products that really sent me over the edge. Now, I don't know anything more than what he'd said, so maybe the videos aren't hysterical. Maybe there will be some value in them. But as I explained in my post last week, the President's own Department of Justice says that a lot of the concerns over kidnappings and missing children are based in unfounded media-driven hype.

Of course, this isn't the first time that the Administration has willfully ignored the warnings of experts to promote its agenda: the Union of Concerned Scientists is constantly concerned. But tonight's speech underscores the point that what makes a success for the President is a billion-dollar bottom-line: the damage that may result from such profitability isn't even a consideration to slow him down.

At which point I realized what may be attracting the President to the Baby Einstein story.

His Administration has been conducting wars, violating Congressional statutes and arguably acting outside the Constitution, at the cost of billions of dollars and lives – all on the basis of unfounded facts that fly in the face of the experts' data and dire warnings: it's an Administration that's made itself on selling fear to frightened citizens desperate to do anything to be safe.

Baby Einstein uses unsupported claims that fly in the face of experts' data and dire warnings – it's a company that's made itself a fortune selling videos to panicked parents desperate to do anything to ensure their children's futures.

Ah, yes, we all know there's one tactic Bush Adminstration values above all else – fearmongering. Apparently, they love it even when it's someone else who's doing it.


Blogger Po Bronson said...

I know Ashley's post here is about George Bush ignoring the science on video watching, and not really on whether tv is bad for kids - as she quotes the doctors, they know better than me. But I feel like adding why I've let my kids watch some television anyway. I first started with videotaping the dogs at the dog park. We'd go to the dog park - this was before we had our own dog - and my son just loved it. So I'd videotape it, and he was enthralled at the way it could be reproduced on screen. When he was 21 months old, I went on tv a lot for WSIDWML, and it freaked him out to watch. He wanted to be able to climb in and touch his dad. So creating this understanding of tv as a representation of reality, a copy, rather than the real thing was important. Not to mention "Uncle Noah" writes Bones on Fox with Dad's other friends, Gary Glassberg and Jeff Rake. So we didn't just watch movies. By the time he was 2.5, we'd make little videos with his characters. I wanted him to think of TV as an active medium, one he could contribute to and control, not a passive medium that's only ported into his head from somewhere else. By the time he was 3, he and his cousin would act out the parts in 1 minute Rescue Heroes movies.

I never showed them Baby Einstein stuff though. I just think that stuff is boring and has no plot and might tickle the eye, but not challenge the mind.

3:05 PM  
Anonymous Norman Council said...

You quote and reference a good deal of inconclusive and speculative material, so I thought I might throw in some anecdotal evidence, just to show that I can do bad science as good as the next person.

My 16 month old daughter has been watching a half an hour to an hour of baby Einstein a day for about six months now. I intersperse this actvity with a variety of other activities through the day and my experience is that the videos have helped her learn language and encouraged her to move, dance, jump and play. I can also state specifically that these skills have generalized to day to day life.

As Clark's website states, Infotainment is the way things are now and there is nothing wrong with children learning that the TV can be A (as in one) source of information and entertainment in their lives.

Clearly my child has benefited from the Baby Einstein stuff and I applaud Ms. Clark's work.

Two points though. I am less thrilled with the franchise now that the Evil Empire has taken it over, it has clearly become more commercial and is being used as a lead in to other Disney products.

Second. I agree with the your point about her new venture. It seems a venture to capitalize on the over blown, media-generated fears of over-involved parents.


Norman Council

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Eric Lapp said...

Great post. At first I thought you might be referencing the much bigger issue in the speech re: 'your children' - oil/climate. As the UCS website and myriad others note, this is yet another area of (the administrations'/industries') attack on science behind the issues.

5:07 AM  
Anonymous greg from daddytypes said...

you know Jeff Rake? I know Jeff Rake!

It's a small world after a-- d'oh.

Personally, I blame Sesame Street, which I have fond memories of from my own small child-hood, which is precisely the point. These shows are being sold to the first generation of parents raised on educational television.

Whatever their purported educational or developmental objectives, these baby&toddler programs seem to teach HOW to watch and consume screen entertainment. The 'Street uses all the constructs of real world [sic] TV shows: commercials, "sponsored by the leter 'N'", etc. The "Blues Clues/Einstein/Dora/Elmo model steps it up by simulating an interactive experience, creating a relationship with the box.

When I watch my 2yo kid watch television even for a few minutes, she gets a glazed, hypnotized fixation that, I swear, I didn't learn until high school. Technically, that makes her advanced for her age, but uh, it doesn't strike me as a good thing.

7:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding Po's comments about TV with his kids, I thought "Wow! That is a very creative way to get them to see the TV as an active medium".

Regarding the original post, I have seen Baby Einstein videos in the chain bookstores but never watched them so I do not really know.

The original post raised several questions for me. I wonder about kids who watch TV. Are they less likely to participate in sports and become less active?

What is the American Academy of Pediatrics' take on the use of English subtitles on TV? If parents turned on the subtitles, would it encourage the kids to develop reading skills?


6:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In some way I thought maybe someone like Mrs. Fields (Debbie Fields, of Mrs. Fields cookies) should have been another candidate for honor. It was, in a way kind of cheesy and patriarchal - pandering to the notion that even women can become corporate successes. The truth is, she sold her "name" to Disney, and who knows what Disney will now market. Their new "Little Einsteins" is a hyper, fast moving, technologically advanced cartoon, that makes one giddy, dizzy, and wondering if this is somehow an education "Sponge Bob" cartoon. So just like Mrs. Field's cookies, which used to be made with butter, and are now made with various hydrogenated oils, so will the Baby Einstein videos be saturated with things that children just don't need...

12:04 AM  

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