Friday, June 30, 2006

Questioning "educational" media

I love the Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya. Ironic, because out of the seven floors of the store, I can only read the books in the foreign-language section. The English books make up maybe one-half of that floor, but it's a fantastic selection, somehow managing to pick the cream of the crop and introduce me to things I wouldn't see otherwise.

I had a craving for English the other night so I bought The Atlantic. I can never resist the pull of good English magazines while I am traveling, even though it felt ridiculous to pay $12 for it. I thought I'd better check out the article Extreme Parenting: Does the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex Enrich Your Child's Mind--or Stifle It? by Alissa Quart. [Yes, now I see I could have read it online for free, but I wanted the real magazine anyway.] This excerpt from Quart's upcoming book Hothouse Kids: The Dilemma of the Gifted Child was thoughtful and well-researched. Imagine my surprise, reading this in Tokyo at 3 am when my jet-lagged brain would not sleep, to find my old acquaintance Bradley Schlaggar, MD PhD quoted. I knew Brad back in my neuroscience days, when in fact I was very interested in educational media. I thought at the time that it would be cool to develop neuroscientifically-sound language programs to help very young kids develop a native accent for a foreign languague. Since then the whole Baby Einstein phenomenon has exploded, propelled in part by one study, never persuasively reproduced, that claimed to show that listening to classical music improved college students' short-term spatial thinking. The so-called "Mozart effect" and a billion-dollar Baby Genius Edutainment complex were born. My own neuroscience research focused on "critical periods" and environmental factors in brain development, and I am sorry to see those concepts blown out of proportion when they are brought to the general public. Yes, the first three years of life are very important, but that is more in terms of setting an adequate level of care and stimulation, rather than "getting ahead." So Head Start: yes, absoutely needed. Baby genius: save your money, and don't worry about it at all, in my professional opinion. Language acquisition is one area where it helps to learn early, as in before adolescence, and the best way to learn is in person, spending time with a native speaker if possible.

But what I think is very funny, now that I have been through the baby years myself, is that while Quart interviewed a ton of experts about the pros and cons of educational baby products, she never proposed what I believe to be the most likely explanation for their popularity. Rather than truly becoming invested in the idea that these videos will give kids a required edge, I think that busy parents are just looking for something they can put on without feeling totally guilty to buy some time to get things done. Television is the ultimate parental crutch--one I cop to using more than I'd like. I think that most of us know that we aren't creating geniuses by plopping kids in front of a video, but I think we will gladly shell out money for programming that might not hurt. The jury is still out even on that, and I look back and realize that my daughter had plenty of screen time from a ridiculously young age. Here's what the American Academy of Pediatrics has to say on TV and very young kids:

A word about...TV for toddlers from the AAP

"Children of all ages are constantly learning new things. The first 2 years of life are especially important in the growth and development of your child's brain. During this time, children need good, positive interaction with other children and adults. Too much television can negatively affect early brain development. This is especially true at younger ages, when learning to talk and play with others is so important.

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. For older children, the Academy recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs."

I'm not saying I could stick to this if I had another child, but I'd like to think that I'd try. Now that my daughter can read, by the way, much of our "self-entertaining" challenge has been solved in a positive way. Hooray!

Comments? I'd love to know what you think on this one.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amy -

I absolutely love your blog. How do I get the podcast? I left a comment for you last week about television and this post seems to have addressed that (thank you!). TV does tend to become a crutch sometimes but I know there is "family-friendly" content out there that matters. Video seems to be the only thing (thus far) that I can have confidence in these days.

Never really watched any of the "baby genius" type videos so no comment there.

While I was surfing the internet over the holiday weekend, I noticed an ad for tivo KidZone - do you know anything about this (or tivo in general?). I'm not very tech-savvy.

Bettie Bellows -

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Sheryl said...

Bettie -

One new resource that addresses TV content is the Motherhood Manifesto, a new book put out by Here's a link to the chapter on afterschool programs and TV:

I haven't read through the chapter from start to finish, but I love their common sense approach to media. I think it's my favorite angle on families and TV, and it's worth reading if only for the sidebar: Ten Commonsense Media Beliefs by

Another thing I've learned in my own wayward reading is that much of the children's programming comes from Canada, where the government subsidizes much of the production contents, making it possible for companies to produce non-commercially driven shows. I'm not sure how accurate this is, but I believe that those programs have to abide by very high standards of educational content in order to get funded.

The trick is to only watch what we want our kids to watch, and not let the TV seduce us into "checking out." We let our son watch one hour of screen time a day, and it never fails to amaze me how fast those 60 minutes go.


11:33 AM  

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