The above-linked article, written by Natasha Singer for the online New York Times on 08/07/13 (a version of the article appeared in print on 08/08/13 on page B8 of the New York edition with the headline: Group Criticizes Learning Apps for Babies), warns parents of infants and toddlers to be savvy, informed consumers of digital media. Singer reveals false marketing claims by companies such as The Walt Disney Company and Fisher-Price which say in their marketing materials that their products can teach infants skills (e.g., spatial skills, numbers skills, language skills, motor skills, etc.), despite the fact that there is no rigorous scientific evidence to prove these kinds of products provide those benefits.
In her article, Singer tells us about the non-profit group called Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood which filed a complaint Wednesday with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Fisher-Price for claiming that the company’s “Laugh & Learn” mobile apps may not teach babies language or counting skills. The non-profit group helped prompt “Baby Einstein ” to backtrack from its educational claims several years ago, causing the Walt Disney Company to offer refunds to consumers who had bought the products. Singer tells us that in 2011, the group filed a complaint against the marketers of another popular video product, “Your Baby Can Read,” because “ads for the videos suggested the products could teach infants as young as nine months old to read. The company that produced, marketed and sold the products, called Your Baby Can, agreed to settle charges of false advertising brought by the FTC. The complaints indicate the importance of the non-profit group’s efforts to inform parents about false marketing claims made by companies producing electronic learning products aimed at infants and toddlers.
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood also filed a claim Wednesday against apps for babies marketed by Open Solutions, a software development company based in Bratislava, Slovakia. Singer reveals some of the elaborate claims made on an information page for an Open Solutions app called “Baby Hear and Read Verbs”:
“Here comes a new and innovative form of kids’ education. The application provides learning opportunity to learn how to read, pronounce and spell basic verbs. We have tested this app and the kids and parents simply love it!”
Susan Linn, the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which is based in Boston, tells us that electronic products and programs which make unfounded claims could “take time away from activities, like hands-on creative play or face-time with caring adults, that have proved beneficial for infant learning.” Linn reminds parents that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents avoid screen media for children under 2. She also had this to say:
“The baby genius industry is notorious for marketing products as educational, when in fact there is no evidence that they are. Parents deserve honest information about the educational value of the activities they choose for their children and they are not getting it from these companies.”
In the end, Singer writes in her article that the companies do end up shifting their claims about turning babies into geniuses. Kathleen Alfano, the senior director of child research at Fisher-Price, which is owned by Mattel, said the company conducts extensive research for their non-digital products, but added the caveat that the company “extended these well researched play patterns into the digital space,” without having done the actual research on the digital “versions” of their actual toys that are based on research that shows how children play, discover and learn. Singer reports that Stefan Babinec, an executive at Open Solutions, agreed that “digital screens are not a replacement for live interactions with humans” and that he assumes that children use Open Solutions’ apps “together with a parent, sibling or baby sitter.”
As parents, it is so easy for us to fall prey to advertising that promises a product will make our children smarter or more successful in school and life. Russ Crupnick, senior vice president for the industry analysis at the NPD Group, a market research firm, believes parents download apps because they feel the technology makes learning more entertaining and easier for their children, especially for younger children. If parents come to that conclusion on their own, because they observe their own child learning easily and successfully while being entertained, then that’s one thing. However, if parents are being led to believe false claims by way of slick, powerful advertising from “trust-worthy” companies such as the Walt Disney Company and Fisher-Price, spending money on apps and electronic products that are making false claims in lieu of better (i.e., more basic or traditional) toys that actually do build skills, and decreasing face-to-face time engaging and interacting with their babies and toddlers because they believe the products are helping their child learn, then we should all care enough to file complaints against any company that seems to have more interest in their profits than in the well-being and development of infants and toddlers.
Infants and toddlers are students and citizens in-the-making, not simply consumers. Their future, and our future as a nation, depends on their development from birth to 3, when the brain circuitry for language skills, emotional skills, social skills, and sensory processing abilities is hard-wired and difficult to change later, no matter how much effort is given towards making for permanent change.