One friend swears that Baby Einstein and other educational baby videos gave her child the head start that he needed. Another friend warns you that babies should never, ever watch videos! You do some research and find out that there was a recall on the videos a little while ago. So what’s the real scoop on Baby Einstein? Here’s a behind the scenes look at what happened.

According to Susan Linn, cofounder and director of the national coalition Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood (CCFC), she had been appalled at the marketing of Disney’s Baby Einstein videos, as well as similar videos on the market. “There is absolutely no credible research behind these videos’ claims of being ‘educational,’” she explains. Surprisingly, about 56 percent of parents believe that baby videos can positively affect their baby’s development. That’s why in 2009, the CCFC filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint towards Brainy Baby, Baby First TV, and Baby Einstein, three leading producers of “educational” videos for infants and toddlers.

What happened as a result of those complaints? Due to pressure from the FTC, the three companies changed their marketing techniques, dropping all claims about being “educational” from their literature. But Linn and the rest of our organization weren't satisfied. “Although the companies had changed their marketing, there was no public acknowledgement of it,” she explains. “So the damage that the companies had done for years—claiming that their videos were educational without any evidence—was still continuing. People still believed they were educational, even though they were not being marketed that way.”

Therefore, Linn’s organization backed a parent’s attempt to threaten Baby Einstein with a class action suit. In response, Disney decided to offer refunds for the videos if parents wanted to return them, a move that the New York Times called “a tacit admission that they did not increase intellect.” According to Baby Einstein’s website, however, the company never made any claim that their videos were educational, that the refund policy was “already in place,” and that it simply represents “a company’s willingness to stand behind its product.” They describe Linn’s campaign as “a sensational, headline-grabbing publicity campaign that seeks to twist and spin a simple, customer satisfaction action into a false admission of guilt.” Despite this tirade, Linn was much more satisfied that the CCFC’s message about baby videos was being publicized, since some parents looked further into the issue due to the refund.

But can babies actually learn from so-called “educational" videos? Study participants don’t seem to think so. “Research shows that babies don’t learn well from a video before the age of two-and-a-half or three,” says Linn. “We might speculate that this is because babies learn both kinesthetically and in relationship to real people. Studies that show that if an infant or toddler is given instructions to do a task, they can do the task if it’s a real person doing it, but they have to watch the video several times. Psychologists called this phenomenon a ‘video deficit.’”

Studies definitely reveal that screen time isn't benefitting babies or toddlers. But can videos like Baby Einstein actually harm a child’s intellect? The research is unclear, but analysis does show that screen media has the following negative effects:

  • sleep disturbances
  • possible language delays
  • poor performance in school in children under age three
  • childhood obesity and increased BMI

In addition, plopping your kid in front of the television can be habit forming. “Some research suggests that the more babies watch, the harder time they have turning off the TV when they’re older,” explains Linn.

Since the Baby Einstein recall, the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood has filed another FTC complaint against a company called Your Baby Can Read. “Their claims were really egregious,” attests Linn. “There was absolutely no research behind them.” Although the FTC operates mostly in secrecy, there seem to be no more television ads for Your Baby Can Read soon after the complaint was filed—as opposed to the previous year, where there were a hundred TV ads for the baby-centered company in just one month.

Why does Linn care so much about companies like Baby Einstein? “We want parents to be able to make informed decisions about the media that they allow their babies and toddlers to view,” she says. “Companies should not be allowed to falsely advertise that these videos are educational.” After all, by the age of three months, many babies are regularly placed in front of screens. Forty-seven percent of infants (children one year and under) watch television and videos, and 30 percent actually have a television set in their bedroom. On average, these very young children watch these forms of media for almost two hours each day. But if their parents think they’re creating little Einsteins by sitting their infants in front of the screen, this recall may prod them to think again.