August 13, 2007

Whoa. Baby Einstein's Got A Posse, Too.

angry_donald_duck-t.jpgAnd that posse wants to meet the University of Washington behind the Magic Kingdom after school. Or Else.

Let it be a lesson to you, junior publicists of academia: if you call out a marquee product of a major corporation by name and recommend people avoid it, you can expect a direct response from said corporation. So you better make damn sure that your headline-grabbing press release accurately reflects the results of the study you're publicizing.

Well, Consumerist reports that Baby Einstein's parent company Disney released a scathing open letter from CEO Bob Iger to UofW President Mark Emmert, criticizing and refuting last week's UofW "Baby Einstein makes your kid stupid" study--and especially the school's press release that was the only available source of information about the researchers' findings.

I'm no Baby Einstein fan, but I'm no fan of making parenting decisions based on sloppy, hyperbolic science reporting, either, so I hope you'll understand when I say that this Iger letter is freakin' awesome. It's got more logical coherence and fact-based arguments than the last 25 years of JPMA press releases put together. I can only hope they release the whole saga on DVD some day, including the sequel AJ's waiting for, where Baby Einstein reveals all their secret research backing their own decade-plus of amorphous claims of developmental benefits. This is going to be great:

The study combines very different content into a single category of "Baby Video", even though the types of videos lumped into this category vary widely. In effect, the study assumes that neither the specific content nor the manner in which it is consumed can influence the nature of the experience. The study does nothing to prove this proposition which is contradicted by other published studies of infant viewing (not even mentioned in the report) which find that the specific nature of content and the way it is consumed are vitally important.

· Applying the same misleading standards that the press release used, the study could be said to advise parents to be sure that infants watch television -- for the study finds that not watching television is associated with reduced vocabulary[1] -- but to avoid having infants watch baby videos. That is to say, watching American Idol is better for infants than no television at all.

Hey! That's just the way Daddy Types reported it!
Of course, such advice is absurd.
Oh. I mean, Right!

The UofW has released the actual study [pdf], and the full Iger letter is after the jump. Seriously, print it all out and take it to the beach, :

Disney's press release:

August 13, 2007

Mark A. Emmert, Ph.D.
President
University of Washington
301 Gerberding Hall
Box 351230
Seattle, Washington 98195

Re: University of Washington Press Release Concerning Study on Children's Language Development and Media Viewing

Dear Dr. Emmert:

On behalf of The Walt Disney Company, and our subsidiary The Baby Einstein Company LLC, I write to demand the immediate retraction and clarification of a misleading, irresponsible and derogatory press statement issued by the University of Washington on Monday, August 6, and thereafter posted on the University's website, regarding the publication of a study by three University researchers entitled "Associations Between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years."

At the outset, let me make clear that we have no quarrel with the notion of conducting research into how infants respond to media products in general or "Baby Einstein" videos in particular. We welcome well conceived and well executed research of all kinds, particularly involving media products and children. We are always seeking to improve our products as we continue The Walt Disney Company's proud tradition of providing wholesome and enriching experiences to children and families.

Nevertheless, one may well question whether the study by Professor Zimmerman, Dr. Christakis, and Professor Meltzoff was indeed well conceived and well executed. Our assessment, based on what we have been able to learn thus far, is that its methodology is doubtful, its data seem anomalous and the inferences it posits unreliable. To state just a few points:

· The study combines very different content into a single category of "Baby Video", even though the types of videos lumped into this category vary widely. In effect, the study assumes that neither the specific content nor the manner in which it is consumed can influence the nature of the experience. The study does nothing to prove this proposition which is contradicted by other published studies of infant viewing (not even mentioned in the report) which find that the specific nature of content and the way it is consumed are vitally important.

· Applying the same misleading standards that the press release used, the study could be said to advise parents to be sure that infants watch television -- for the study finds that not watching television is associated with reduced vocabulary[1] -- but to avoid having infants watch baby videos. That is to say, watching American Idol is better for infants than no television at all. Of course, such advice is absurd.

· The study fails to account for, let alone assess, the interactive nature of products such as Baby Einstein, seemingly dismisses the importance of interactivity as a factor by assuming without proof that interaction is equally important regardless of content design, and then undermines even that unproven assumption by conceding that the study "cannot capture the quality of [parent-child] interactions, which surely vary."

· While it is indisputable that children develop at different rates and differ in their innate abilities, there is no attempt to control for these differences which are particularly important in the sample of younger babies.

· While the press release highlights that the study is based on a survey of 1008 parents of children aged 2 to 24 months, a closer examination shows that the study based its critical conclusions about the impact of baby videos on infants 8 to 16 months on a disturbingly smaller sample of just 384 children. Of this group, 44% watched no television of any kind, leaving a total of 215 infants with some television viewing -- and with no indication whatsoever as to how many of this smaller number watch any baby videos at all.

Whether your University is comfortable associating its name with analysis of this quality is, of course, your decision. And I would not be reaching out to you if all that was at stake was a poorly done academic study. But the actions of the University have caused much more to be at stake. Wholly apart from the merits of the study, the press release issued by your University blatantly misrepresented what the study was about, distorted the actual findings and conclusions that the study purported to make, and ignored the study's own explicit acknowledgment of its limitations and shortcomings. And even worse, the University issued the release and triggered the fully foreseeable press cycle before the study itself could be analyzed. In short, the University's press release was grossly unfair, extremely damaging, and, to be blunt, just plain wrong in every conceivable sense.

The press release begins as follows:

"Despite marketing claims, parents who want to give their infants a boost in learning language probably should limit the amount of time they expose their children to DVD's and videos such as 'Baby Einstein' and 'Brainy Baby'. Rather than helping babies, the over-use of such productions actually may slow down infants eight to 16 months of age when it comes to acquiring vocabulary, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital Research Institute."

There are at least three fundamental problems with these statements.

1. Contrary to the clear and deliberate impression created by the press release, the researchers did not attempt or purport to study the effect of watching "Baby Einstein" videos. So far as we can tell from the published study itself, the researchers asked parents in telephone interviews only to identify their children's television viewing in broad categories -- one of which was "Baby DVD's/videos" -- without specifically identifying the particular videos or video brands they had viewed. Thus, there is no way to know how much -- if any -- of the viewing reported in this general category was in fact of "Baby Einstein" videos. The study made no pretense of studying the particular impact of "Baby Einstein" video watching, the unique attributes of "Baby Einstein" videos, or the ways in which children and parents use and interact with "Baby Einstein" videos. By lumping "Baby Einstein" videos with all other "Baby DVD's/videos" -- including many, such as "Teletubbies," which offer a vastly different viewing experience -- the study provides absolutely no basis for making any findings or conclusions about the particular impact that viewing "Baby Einstein" videos may have on children.[2] Yet, in the very first sentence of the release, "Baby Einstein" videos are called out by name.

2. Contrary to the clear implication in the first sentence of the press release, the study did not evaluate the truthfulness or, indeed, address at all any "marketing claims" made by or on behalf of "Baby Einstein" videos. The study does not even seek to identify such "claims" or to consider at all whether such unidentified "claims" might conflict with the study's findings in any fashion. There simply is no basis in the study for the press release's gratuitous slap at Baby Einstein's "marketing claims."

3. The press release bluntly states that "parents who want to give their infants a boost in learning language probably should limit the amount of time they expose their children to DVD's and videos such as "Baby Einstein." This is a very serious statement, one which has now been widely picked up in the press. It is also a statement that grossly misstates the study's extremely limited findings and conclusions. While the study hypothesizes that "it is possible that heavy viewing of baby DVDs/videos has a deleterious effect on early language development," the authors present this as only one of several possible alternative ways of evaluating the results; other alternatives do not involve this causal relationship. The authors go on to acknowledge, forthrightly, that "our study has several major limitations." These include, in the authors' own words:

· "the study's co relational nature precludes drawing causal inferences."

· "we used only 1 developmental measure -- language development, as defined by vocabulary."

· "the sample is not representative of the general population."

Indeed, in conclusion, the authors further acknowledge that,

"The analysis presented here is not a direct test of the developmental impact of viewing baby DVDs/videos. We did not test through experimental manipulation whether viewing baby DVDs/videos has a positive or negative impact on vocabulary acquisition."

For the University to issue a press release making reckless charges warning parents to avoid using Baby Einstein products, and post them on its website, in the face of these clear and explicit disclaimers is totally irresponsible.

There is no question that the press release is having a broad and entirely foreseeable impact. Assuming that a press release from a well respected University would fairly reflect the substance and conclusions of the underlying study, media outlets are widely citing the study as demonstrating that use of "Baby Einstein" videos harms infants. This disparaging assessment -- directly provoked by your University's press release -- is not supported by any credible study of which we are aware, let alone the flawed study on which the release was purportedly based.

The cloud cast by the University's actions is truly regrettable. We strongly believe that our "Baby Einstein" videos provide a positive experience for children and families, one which encourages parent-child interaction and provides children with enriching and stimulating images and sounds drawn from real life. Millions of parents who have shared and enjoyed "Baby Einstein" videos with their children agree.

The press release unfairly disparaged that product by grossly misrepresenting the focus and extremely limited findings and conclusions of the study your University has issued in its name and endorsed. I hope you agree that as a respected academic institution you cannot allow that situation to continue. We therefore demand that the University immediately issue a retraction of the press release, and delete the release from its website, while emphasizing at least the following points, all of which are clear from the study itself:

1. The study collected no specific data concerning -- and conducted no specific evaluation of -- the viewing of "Baby Einstein" videos or their specific impact on children, and therefore no valid conclusions can be drawn from the study about the impact of the "Baby Einstein" videos on language acquisition or any other developmental measure;

2. The very limited nature of the study precluded the drawing of any causal inferences.

We further ask that the retraction and clarification be disseminated as widely as the original press release.

I look forward to discussing this matter further with you on our scheduled call.

Sincerely,

Robert A. Iger

12 Comments

Instead of criticizing researchers (they're not the first to say videos for toddlers are bad, it's even a policy position by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the AAP goes so far as to target all screen time no matter what form)... instead of yelling at the tidal wave before it, I'd like to hear Disney divulge what research-based evidence it has that its videos are educational. Let's then verify Disney's claims.

(Oops, Disney should immediately release not just its research studies that indicate educational value, but also the lack of harmful effects on toddlers.)

[I'm pretty sure it'll all be on the bonus disc. -ed.]

To me this is just an example of turnabout is fair play. Baby Einstein is promoted as a learning experience, not as a pleasant way for a baby to while a way a few minutes (hours). The truth is that almost every study that is not a meta analysis of hundreds of other studies is flawed on the same way this one is. Most of the assumptions we make about childhood development are based on studies like this. But when I read it, I thought the important takeaway was: babies acquire language through hearing language. Does it matter if they speak earlier than later? I don't think any study has proven it matters in adult life. But what does matter is that the marketing of B.E. is bullshit. Why not turn American Idol on for free? Personally, I think the Simpsons have given my kids a better education than any educational video ever could. But if I'm wrong--at least it wasn't being sold to me as "promoting irony at an early age" or the "culture literacy the painless way." In other words, I think the study rocked if it makes people think twice about trying to jump start their babies intelligence by purchasing a really boring video and setting their babies in front of it. Oh, plus "The Scientist in the Crib" is an awesomely great book co-authored by one of the studies main researchers and I'd been willing to stake anything in the world on the fact that he cares more about and has given more thought to early childhood development than Robert Iger.

[good points, Judy. Though there is a study somewhere showing that kids who learned to do something by watching it on video learned significantly more slowly than those who learned from watching a live person. I think the reality is that TV teaches, but not as well as actual human interaction. The BE pitch is always for watching and interacting with your child, though I think everyone knows that the real dealcloser is the veneer of educational goodness that absolves parents of guilt for leaving their kid in front of a screen. -ed.]

I agree with the request for Disney to refute -- with data -- claims that the videos ain't good for kids. Extra points for explaining how the "mozart effect" is supported by these little videos.

skepdic.com/mozart.html explains more how media companies have co-opted and misused the concept for commercial gain.

judy, love the 'promoting irony at an early age' line - lol. for like 5 minutes. We didn't have a tv in nyc, but here in new zealand there is like 2 hours of simpsons a day, and we all sit in pleasant rapture. i can wait to see the movie. i like to think that she is learning from lisa.
there are also a bunch of music video channels here, and as the nubbin is an avid dancer it is a good way to keep her occupied whilst doing the dishes etc. bound to be teaching her something. until that 'beautiful girl' song comes on, yikes. its #1 here, too.

[nice use of whilst, btw. glad to see you're assimilating. some b-school friends came into town, and their 9-yo son was just learning sarcasm, and it was hilarious, like hearing a baby learn to talk all over again. So while I try to get the kid to say, 'I am familiar. with the work of Pablo Neruda,' I think for a few more years at least, it'll only be amusing to ME, not her. still, damn funny. -ed.]

"I am familiar. with the work of Pablo Neruda" -- niiice. I've recently gotten my daughter to stick her thumbs up and go, "ayyyyy!" at any mention of The Fonz.

My favorite quote:

"By lumping "Baby Einstein" videos with all other "Baby DVD's/videos" -- including many, such as "Teletubbies," which offer a vastly different viewing experience"

The difference in content being that PBS sets out to make their shows educational:

http://pbskids.org/teletubbies/parentsteachers/progsummary.html

Not that I'm a huge teletubbies fan, but at least you can always find out the reasoning behind why PBS' shows are so irritating.

daniel: don't be bothered if you haven't seen the movie yet, it's basically a very long episode that is very short on funny. my wife and i watched it and i chuckled a couple times while she cracked a smile on occasion.

i won't spoil it but basically homer screws up, homer screws up while trying to fix it, and homer makes good while fixing the two screwups. this could have been a 1 hour episode with commercials instead of a two hour movie.

[actually, it had commercials in it. I have to agree, Homer was right when he said that paying for something you can get for free on TV is stupid. -ed.]

Was there any outrage over Penn & Teller's show on Showtime when they covered this a long time ago?

Granted, it covered many topics besides baby videos, but it seems that this time Disney only responded (of course) because this was picked up in mainstream media.

[wow, I gotta admit, I had no idea P&T even had a show, so yeah, point taken. Also, there's a difference in impact between cranky magicians on Showtime and university-backed scientists publishing in a peer-reviewed journal. -ed.]

regardless of whether einstein DVDs "harm infants" - Disney's arguing that the press release is misleading and does't reflect what the study covers. Disney's right. Having read the press release (and the study), one can easily see that the press release was the University's attempt to garner national attention for some reason. Unfortunately, 90% of the population (aka Cows) will never look beyond the headlines read to them by their local newscaster, and thus will assume that this study proves that Einstein DVDs "harm infants." In fact, this may or may not be true - but the study doesn't prove it one way or the other and thus, the University is SERIOUSLY derelict in releasing this statement.

[I kind of agree, but the University has since released a defense of the press release, saying the researchers agree with its commentary. The survey actually DID mention Baby Einstein by name to parent participants, and the vocabulary-related findings of the study are clear and statistically significant. Ultimately, I have to think that Disney's goal is to throw up as much dust as possible on the subject, and I think they're succeeding. sorry for getting caught up in the excitement of the brawl. -ed.]

What I think is funny about the whole brouhaha is how Iger makes a big deal about not being able to draw "causal inferences" because of the study design. He's right of course, without a true randomized controlled study where you randomly assign some babies to BE and others to playing with parents or watching other TV for an hour a day, you'll never have anything more than an association.

Which, along with the other data on learning theory, is fine with me, the same way the associational data is good enough to convince me about the dangers of smoking. Incomplete proof is something you have to accept in certain instances b/c no one wants their baby experimented on.

But let's just pretend that Iger is right and it is nothing more than an association, i.e., that parents who subject their kids to BE are the kind of parents who raise kids who take longer to learn how to speak. All of a sudden, BE goes from a symbol of how much you value education to a marker for what a bad parent you are... kind of like TV dinners. Not an entirely crazy idea when you think about it. Maybe the videos have nothing to do with the language acquisition problems, they just happen to appeal to parents who don't have (or are unwilling to make) enough time to spend with their kids teaching them to speak.

Ooooh, I like the frisson of guilt.

[an elegant rhetorical move, HGL. The reality is that the unresearched associative claims of BE's benefits provide guilt-absolving cover for parents who are going to stick their kid in front of a screen for a fair chunk of the day anyway. -ed.]

One more thing. I think if you really care about kids you should write to Disney and Iger and tell them to show their evidence and stop trying to intimidate the medical-scientific community from reporting data that they don't like. Drug companies already try and intimidate researchers and that's bad enough, but toy companies?

Also, you should be very, very cautious about anything you read in the newspaper about medicine. The vast majority of science-writers are not actual scientists, i.e., they haven't produced new knowledge on their own, are not familiar with the literature on the subject, don't have the time or the inclination to read the literature, don't have enough background knowledge to understand whether the experimental approach is suitable, don't have the statistical background to determine whether the analysis is defensible. They often write from press releases (which tend to be hyperbolic), then plug in a few of their own quotes. Not what I'd call a critical thinking approach.

Don't get me wrong I love the Science Times as a screen for interesting papers outside of field, but you have to read the actual journal article and maybe even a review before drawing serious conclusions. If you're looking for high quality science for intelligent non-scientists then I'd take a look at (in order of decreasing complexity) the News and Views section of Nature, The American Scientist or Scientific American.

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