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Baby videos deceptive, advocacy group argues

A Boston-based child advocacy group filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission yesterday charging the makers of the popular Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos with false and deceptive advertising. The complaint says there is no evidence the programs are educational, despite the claims on their packaging and websites.

It is the second time in two months that the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has taken on the growing baby-video industry, whose sales so far are estimated at $1 billion.

In the complaint, CCFC said Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby lure parents into thinking babies will be smarter if they watch the videos. The complaint asks the FTC to stop the companies from making educational claims and to require a disclaimer on websites, videos, and DVD packaging -- similar to the ones on cigarette packs -- telling parents that television may be harmful to a baby's health. It cites the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children 2 and younger not watch any TV.

''There is no research to show that watching a screen is beneficial to a baby in any way, educational or otherwise. If anything, it may be putting babies at risk," said child psychiatrist Alvin F. Poussaint, a member of the CCFC steering committee who is a director of Judge Baker's Children Center in Boston. ''A two-dimensional screen can never replace a real environment, rich in all five senses. Holistic play is what develops all the pathways to the brain."

Dennis Fedoruk, president, founder and CEO of Atlanta-based Brainy Baby Company, says he agrees with CCFC that ''companies should not make ridiculous claims for any product. We're just not one of those companies. We say babies will learn their ABCs and 123s. That's not a claim. I see that as being accurate." He cited parents' testimonials as evidence.

Fedoruk said the pediatrics academy is overreaching. ''It assumes parents can't make an intelligent decision on the subject," he said.

A publicist for Baby Einstein said the company could not comment yesterday.

Last month CCFC ignited a national debate when it denounced Zero to Three, a nonprofit devoted to healthy baby and toddler development, for its collaboration on ''Sesame Beginnings," a new line of DVDs for babies as young as 6 months and their parents.

''We have an ongoing concern that parents and babies are being exploited by the media and market industries," said Susan Linn, a psychologist who is a cofounder of CCFC. ''Parents have a right to honest information, and they aren't getting it from these baby-video companies." Research has linked early TV viewing to diminished deductive reasoning and childhood obesity, she said.

Brainy Baby -- whose slogan is ''a little genius in the making" -- says on its website that its videos are ''an entertaining way to help little ones learn educational basics, stimulate cognitive development and gain a smart start to learning." Baby Einstein makes similar claims, describing the ''Baby Wordsworth: First Words Around the House" video as ''a fun and fascinating interactive tool that fosters the development of your toddler's speech and language skills."

''The videos' names alone, Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, are deceptive," said Angela Campbell, the attorney who filed the complaint on behalf of CCFC. ''They create an overall impression from the start that this will make your kid smarter."

Brainy Baby was founded in 1995, Baby Einstein in 1997, both by parents of young children. Baby Einstein, which has a 90 percent share of the baby-video market, was acquired in 2001 by the Walt Disney Co. According to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 25 percent of babies under 2 have baby videos, and 49 percent of parents of babies think such videos are ''very important."

Testimonials from parents on the Baby Einstein website tap into parents' hopes that they can give their baby an advantage. ''I don't let my kids watch TV, but this is good for them. I want my kids to get ahead," reads one.

Donald Shifrin, a Seattle pediatrician who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on the impact of media on children, said fewer than 10 percent of parents are aware that television viewing is not recommended for children under 2. ''Marketing for Baby Einstein has allowed it to develop a cachet that encourages parents to think their baby is missing out on something if they don't use them," he said. ''We do not know that to be true. I tell parents, 'Feel free not to use them.' "

On its website, Baby Einstein disputes the pediatrics academy's recommendation, saying it fails to distinguish between TV and videos, particularly those with content made specifically for babies.

It's unlikely there will ever be definitive research, said pediatrician Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston.

''It's unethical," he said. ''What parent would willingly want their child to be part of the experimental group? What board of ethics would approve the research? As a practitioner, the best you can do is go with the best available research, which, in this case, tells us that to do more complete research could put into jeopardy the children we would be studying."

Sadly, he added, ''parents are creating a natural laboratory for future research every time they put a baby in front of one of these videos."

Barbara Meltz can be reached at meltz@globe.com.

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