I noticed with disgust that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was back to scaring parents last week. For the third time, it discouraged screen time for children under 2 years old. The latest version of this recommendation relies in part on two studies conducted at the University of Washington in 2004 and 2007 which concluded that television for children under the age of 2 is harmful.
When I started Baby Einstein in 1996, I wasn’t a screen-time mommy — having left teaching to stay home with my baby — but in between reading, trips to the museum, play group, diapers and Gymboree, I did occasionally leave my daughter in her bouncy seat in front of the television. Given that she and her sister, now both teenagers, are smart, happy and creative people I am led to believe that I didn’t cause them too much harm.
But my skepticism with the AAP report isn’t simply based on how my daughters turned out. Instead, my objection stems from my four-year legal battle with the University of Washington for access to the raw data of the 2007 study, which was supported with public funds and conducted at a public university. Even though I sold Baby Einstein in 2001, I still cared very much about its legacy, reputation and mission.
When the 2004 study was published — associating television viewing with subsequent attention problems — Baby Einstein was thriving, based almost entirely on word of mouth, because babies and parents loved it. The study made me wonder, had I really started a company that was harming babies? Is there anything worse than the thought of that? Despite the disturbing findings, Baby Einstein continued to produce educational content for children.
But in 2007, University of Washington’s researchers struck again. The new study associated a vocabulary-development deficit in infants, ages eight months to 16 months, who watched Baby Einstein videos compared to those who didn’t watch. At last, an unambiguous smoking gun. The study instantly became a media sensation. Op-eds in the New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post, live segments on morning talk shows, and postings on home pages of major news outlets echoed the words of the researchers. I wanted to see the proof.
It wasn’t easy to get. Although guidelines state that federally supported research be made available to the public, it took four long years, and more than $200,000 in legal fees, for me to finally get the 2007 data from the University of Washington. During litigation, we discovered that one researcher destroyed his records of the study without approval, that the study had received a “serious non-compliance” citation from the university for deviating from its approved design, and at least two raw datasets for the study existed — one of the biggest ‘no-nos’ in scientific research. Upon closer evaluation, an analyst I hired found discrepancies between the datasets. (The university attributed the differences to a computer glitch.)
So how is it possible that this study was published in a peer-reviewed journal, cited in dozens of research papers, reported on in hundreds of news reports, and relied on by a group as prestigious as the AAP? The easy answer is this: Nobody bothered to check the facts.
Although it’s been more than a decade since I ran Baby Einstein, I still believe in what I created. The debate about the use of media by children is an important one. No child of any age should spend hours in front of a screen (and very few babies do). But good content, even when it comes from a television screen, can be enriching and positive. It can even teach. If your baby enjoys an appropriate video once in awhile, give yourself a moment to catch your breath. I’m more comfortable relying on my instincts as a mom than on an unreliable study. I hope you are, too.
[When asked to comment, a spokesperson from the University of Washington said, “We as an institution were trying to comply with public-record guidelines. But we also we had to protect the identity of the subjects.”]