August 22, 2008

Overstimulation Part I: Baby Einstein

I just finished reading a very interesting book, Parenting, Inc. by Pamela Paul, about the Baby Industrial Complex. Well back up a second--I actually just went shopping with my friend Sherri to Babies R Us to set up a baby registry (which I then transferred most items to our Amazon registry because if we buy a certain amount from our Amazon registry we can get 6 months of free diapers). Lord have mercy, there is so much shit you can buy for a baby! As Paul breaks down in her book, most of that stuff was created not out of filling a need the baby already has, but creating a need to sell a product.

One thing Paul spends a lot of time talking about is the recent need of parents to have smart babies. Not just smart babies--genius babies. I know from having this discussion with many other mothers that a lot of parents will buy just about anything if it claims to be educational. A primary example of this would be the Baby Einstein videos (and accompanying toys and whatnot). For those of you not in the know, Baby Einstein is a set of videos with various themes marketed toward the under 3 crowd with the express purpose of teaching the infant about valuable things such as music and reading. I've always been skeptical of Baby Einstein, so I was not surprised in the least to read an article from, published last year, about how not only is Baby Einstein not helpful, it actually can be harmful. Some excerpts:

Led by Frederick Zimmerman and Dr. Dimitri Christakis, both at the University of Washington, the research team found that with every hour per day spent watching baby DVDs and videos, infants learned six to eight fewer new vocabulary words than babies who never watched the videos. These products had the strongest detrimental effect on babies 8 to 16 months old, the age at which language skills are starting to form. "The more videos they watched, the fewer words they knew," says Christakis. "These babies scored about 10% lower on language skills than infants who had not watched these videos."

This doesn't surprise me, because a video does not provide feedback. Every hour a baby spends in front of the tv screen is one less hour he or she spends face-to-face with a human speaker who can not only speak, but validate and reinforce a child's efforts.

Mounting evidence suggests that passive screen sucking not only doesn't help children learn, but could also set back their development. Last spring, Christakis and his colleagues found that by three months, 40% of babies are regular viewers of DVDs, videos or television; by the time they are two years old, almost 90% are spending two to three hours each day in front of a screen. Three studies have shown that watching television, even if it includes educational programming such as Sesame Street, delays language development. "Babies require face-to-face interaction to learn," says Dr. Vic Strasburger, professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "They don't get that interaction from watching TV or videos. In fact, the watching probably interferes with the crucial wiring being laid down in their brains during early development."

No surprises here either. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2 watch zero television.

As far as Christakis and his colleagues can determine, the only thing that baby videos are doing is producing a generation of overstimulated kids. "There is an assumption that stimulation is good, so more is better," he says. "But that's not true; there is such a thing as overstimulation." His group has found that the more television children watch, the shorter their attention spans later in life. "Their minds come to expect a high level of stimulation, and view that as normal," says Christakis, "and by comparison, reality is boring."

Overstimulation is something I've been thinking about a lot lately. Why is it that kids these days can't sit still? And how can I raise one who can? I think overstimulation from a very young age is a big part of the problem. More on that later.

Posted by Shelby at August 22, 2008 12:44 PM

I think/worry about overstimulation as well. Right now my thinking is that the very best thing I can do for Veronica is interact with her as much as I can - nothing replaces good, old-fashioned human interaction.

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