Baby Buttafuocos?

Sexing up a study, stoking parental angst

Parents! Big news! You know those videos you show your babies to make them smart? Well, hold onto your diaper bags: “Baby Einstein will turn your kid into anything but,” writes Salon. “Educational DVDs ‘slow infant learning,’” warns The New Scientist. And “Baby Einstein,” declares the Seattlest blog, “sucks the vocabulary out of your kid’s brain.”

Which — yikes! — would all be pretty scary…except that those headlines aren’t entirely accurate. The study whose results they describe, published last week by a team of University of Washington researchers in the Journal of Pediatrics, found, specifically, that videos in the so-called Baby Genius Edutainment Complex may be detrimental to language acquisition in infants. The researchers, through phone interviews with parents, measured which kid-common vocabulary words (“mommy,” “cookie,” “nose”) children seemed to recognize — and found that babies eight to sixteen months old, for every hour they watched Baby Einstein and similar videos, recognized on average six to eight fewer words than those who didn’t watch the videos. (Infants have generally learned about thirty words by sixteen months, according to the journal Science.)

Here’s the big “however,” though: the other half of the 1,000-baby-plus sample group was toddlers aged seventeen to twenty-four months — and this older group showed no measurable difference in language ability than their non-Baby Einstein-watching peers.

But wait! Waah! This finding complicates the easy, eye-catching Brainy Baby-breeds-just-the-opposite story angle to which many articles so eagerly reduced this study. What’s a publication to do? TIME’s assessment, for one, simply ignores it. (Hey, the press release announcing the study downplays the toddler data. Why slog through the entire study when you can take your cues from publicists?)

And why highlight for readers that “the jury is still out on whether [the videos] are harmful” — as the study’s lead author, Frederick Zimmerman, said — when you can write crackling copy about how these videos are turning our baby geniuses into “baby Homer Simpsons” (the L.A. Times) and “baby Buttafuocos” (NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me)? Lucky for reporters, another of the study’s authors provided a quote much zippier than Zimmerman’s, one that begs for lead-or-kicker placement: “I would rather babies watch American Idol than these videos,” said Dimitri Christakis. By which he meant — though most articles gloss over this point, as well — that, since in-person contact is key to babies’ language acquisition, and since families often view Idol together (whereas Baby Einstein is often used in loco parentis), watching the talent show might yield more developmental benefits than watching the supposedly educational videos.

So what’s going on here? Is this just another case of reporters oversimplifying and hyping an inconclusive scientific study in order to grab eyeballs (in this case, ever-anxious parental eyeballs)?

Perhaps. And there could be another element here: the media may well be indulging in a baby-sized bit of journalistic schadenfreude. The Baby Einstein series, after all, since it first emerged on the market ten years ago, has met as much ridicule as praise for its promise of effortless genius — a kind of get-rich-quick scheme for the yuppie-parent set. It has also been decried as a symptom of a larger trend: that, when it comes to our children, we are simultaneously raising the bar for socio-intellectual achievement and lowering the age for the benchmarks we impose. The familiar cliché has some truth to it: while past generations of children spent their free time playing kickball in the street, today’s kids spend their “free time” getting shuttled from math tutoring (intellectual development? check!) to piano lessons (artistic development? check!) to soccer practice (physical conditioning? socialization? check and check!). Baby Einstein and similar videos imply that intelligence-protection insurance can be bought in policies of $19.99 a pop (and only $369.99 for the entire Ultimate DVD Collection, plus shipping and handling!)—and that the old “but guys, I’m still in diapers” excuse for academic mediocrity is one that only naïve or lazy parents accept from their Mini-Mes.

The Baby Einstein study seems, at first blush, to fling a science-stamped told-you-so at the high expectations for — and endorsers of — these videos. (Incidentally, one of the videos’ highest-profile supporters has been the president himself: Bush invited Baby Einstein creator Julie Aigner-Clark to this year’s State of the Union, honoring both the videos and their designer in his speech.) And many of the articles announcing the study’s findings fairly chortle in their glee at the (supposed) fallacy of the Buying Brilliant Babies myth. “Baby Einsteins: Not So Smart After All,” TIME announces. “Parents aiming to put their babies on the fast track, even if they are still working on walking, each year buy hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of the videos. Unfortunately it’s all money down the tubes,” writes the L.A. Times. And Gawker, exercising its famed dexterity with Reductive Snark, gawks this way: “Study: Babies Raised By Videos Approximately As Dumb As Expected.” (The kicker? “Hahahaha, your kids are going to grow up stupid! Hope that extra time you spent on your Blackberry was worth the lifetime of stagnant wages and mediocre employment to which you’ve doomed your offspring.”)

So what can we learn from all of this? One more time for those of us who watched too much TV as babies: Scientific studies are easily cherry-picked for their sexiest bits. And headlines are often better at seducing than summarizing. After all, “Baby Einstein Videos Ineffective, Study Finds” — NPR’s ho-hum yet accurate header — just doesn’t have the same crazy-making urgency as, say, “Your Video-Watching Baby May Never Speak, Study Finds.”

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.