Creative Destruction

August 11, 2007

Unintended Consequences

Filed under: Blogosphere,Education — Brutus @ 12:50 pm

Newsday.com has a brief article about Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos marketed by Brainy Baby Co. and Walt Disney Co. Commentary has been all over the blogosphere for the past few days. In short, the article says that children exposed to visual stimulation fare worse than those exposed to storytelling and reading as determined by the size of the children’s vocabularies.

Um, could this be any more obvious? Teach words and kids learn vocabulary. Teach images and kids learn … what … more images? It also seems rather obvious that kids would prefer visual to verbal stimulation, much as they prefer sugary foods to veggies. The ironic thing, funny perhaps if it weren’t so insipid, is that parents who take their cues from corporations selling this junk innocently believe they’re doing their kids a favor when in fact the kids are being stunted — a classic case of unintended consequences.

One of my favorite authors, Neil Postman, recommends that even primary education be suffused with semantic analysis of the information environment. Why? So that we can better understand this:

To oversimplify more than is probably justified, we might say that (1) because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different media have different intellectual and emotional biases; (2) because of the accessibility and speed of their information, different media have different political biases; (3) because of the physical form, different media have different sensory biases; (4) because of the conditions in which we attend to them, different media have different social biases; (5) because of the technical and economic structure, different media have different content biases. [from Postman's Teaching as a Conserving Activity]

If teachers and parents better understood the various biases of information to which children are exposed, would they ever even consider admitting things such as TV, video games, iPods, and various other electronics into children’s daily lives, much less buying into the fatuous notion that these things are educational tools?

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8 Comments »

  1. Eh. We gave our kid Baby Einstein videos. She enjoyed them. Her vocabulary is fine.

    Although we let her watch “Hercules” on Mom’s iPod during the flight to Mississippi last week, and I noticed a definite reduction in her LSAT score. And she pronounces it “Perkules”, so there’s probably been some brain damage.

    Comment by Robert — August 11, 2007 @ 2:01 pm | Reply

  2. Robert wrote:

    We gave our kid Baby Einstein videos. She enjoyed them. Her vocabulary is fine.

    It’s not like Baby Einstein videos will immediately set about rotting one’s brain. It’s more like the cumulative effects of bad diet or smoking. I don’t know what the threshold for allowable exposure to damaging material is, and I don’t think a wholesale prohibition is wise. But I do think that the downside of attending to garbage media manifests much sooner than we realize.

    Comment by Brutus — August 11, 2007 @ 7:14 pm | Reply

  3. We limit her to a pack a day, and no fried foods at breakfast.

    You have to set good boundaries for them.

    Comment by Robert — August 11, 2007 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

  4. Intelligence is not just measured by the size of one’s vocabulary. Some people are more visually oriented than verbally oriented. Some illegal drugs damage people’s brains. Visually witnessing traumatic events can damage a person’s brain. Watching Baby Einstein videos do not damage children’s brains, though they might make mommy and daddy throw up. Some Baby Einstein classical music CDs are okay, though they are quite watered down. Can be soothing if not sleep-inducing for the adult listener, especially Mozart and Bach. Babies learn more by looking at things than by reading during their first year. Some mommies read to their babies, and some babies will pay attention for the first 2 seconds before wanting to swallow the book instead.

    Watching television can “rot” the kid’s brain, but not all visual stimulations are damaging. Some babies like to look at colorful works of art. Some like to look at fish tanks. Some like to look at moving furry animals and want to chase after them and pull their hair and tails.

    I think what you are opposed to, Brutus, is the “dumbing” down of Baby Einstein videos. No one likes to be talked down to. Talk to a baby like a baby, and the baby will act like a baby.

    Comment by greywhitie — August 14, 2007 @ 8:44 pm | Reply

  5. greywhitie wrote:

    Watching television can “rot” the kid’s brain, but not all visual stimulations are damaging. Some babies like to look at colorful works of art. Some like to look at fish tanks. Some like to look at moving furry animals and want to chase after them and pull their hair and tails.

    A child’s world begins with incoherent visual and aural stimuli. As he begins to learn language, verbal symbols (gathered a variety of ways) form the basis for what we think of as normal cognition. If children experience too little verbal stimulation, their language acquisition is stunted. That may not represent a permanent deficit, I don’t really know.

    The point is that parents who load up on videos may please the child, but they aren’t in fact doing the child any favor. No, not all images are bad, but then, no one is arguing that. Think of it instead as media ecology. There needs to be balance and diversity, and if anything is priviledged, then it probably ought to be language, not imagery.

    Comment by Brutus — August 15, 2007 @ 10:26 am | Reply

  6. It seems to be that video-watching could be just a stand-in for another factor, such as how often a child is read to or spoken to. Parents who choose not to have their children watch videos could, on average, be parents who spend more time reading and talking to their infants.

    The real question is, between child A who watches B.E. an hour a day and is read to for an hour a day, and child B who is not allowed to watch videos and who is also read to an hour a day, whose vocabulary is greater? It wouldn’t surprise me if the vocabularies are about equal. (Of course, maybe the study accounted for this already.)

    Plus, how reliable is the correlation between a 5% or so deficit in word knowledge at 24 months, and a significant lack of facility with language in later years? It may be that the difference this study detects is statistically significant without having much practical significance.

    A lot of early-childhood studies are based on parsing data looking for very slight differences, which the press then reports as a deficit. But not all differences matter in the long run.

    Comment by Ampersand — August 30, 2007 @ 1:06 am | Reply

  7. my one-year-old prefers teletubbies en espanol to baby einstein en engleis. baby einstein is too cerebral for her, and talks down to her.

    “es la hora de los teletubbies!”
    “es la hora de los teletubbies!”
    “es la hora de los teletubbies!”
    “es la hora de los teletubbies!”
    “es la hora de los teletubbies!”

    Comment by greywhitie — September 30, 2007 @ 7:17 pm | Reply

  8. [...] have blogged on children and TV in the past. Only the intellectually lazy could possibly believe that if a little bit of something [...]

    Pingback by Waning of the Typographic Mind « The Spiral Staircase — January 7, 2008 @ 1:56 am | Reply


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