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Is Baby Einstein so smart?

Experts have raised important questions about young children's media exposure. Disney and other companies should be listening.

By Maxwell King

Ever since little David smote Goliath and the mighty giant fell with a thud to earth, he has served as the symbol of small, overmatched combatants who are somehow able to defeat much greater powers. Now, in a surprising 21st-century rendition of the tale, we have a Goliath who is complaining loudly that David is the bully.

In this telling, the David is Susan Linn, an unassuming puppeteer and children's rights advocate who is associate director of the media center at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston. She is also a founder and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy group that takes a severe position on commercials aimed at young children.

If we are to believe the Goliath of this story, the Walt Disney Co., Linn has its well-known Baby Einstein product "under attack" and is "taking extreme positions that try to dictate what parents should do, say, and buy." According to Susan McLain, general manager of the Baby Einstein Co. (a Disney subsidiary), Linn's nonprofit is a "propaganda group" that has resorted to "sensational, headline-grabbing" tactics and is engaged in a "smear campaign."

That sounds like pretty rough treatment of poor old Goliath. That slingshot really stung, didn't it?

Linn has complained that Disney grossly exaggerated the value of its Baby Einstein, Baby Mozart, and Baby Galileo media offerings for infants. Linn's so-called assault took the form of urging federal regulatory agencies to discipline the company for marketing its product as educational. Disney agreed not to use the word educational anymore, but Linn wasn't satisfied. She hired some public-health lawyers to pursue the company further, and Disney finally agreed to provide refunds to any parents who felt dissatisfied or misled.

The resulting news stories, portraying Linn as having humbled Disney and Baby Einstein, apparently wounded the media giant's pride.

The company has portrayed its Baby Einstein products as building babies' intellectual and creative capacity. The marketing would have had you believe that they could help babies begin the journey to edification and, just maybe, a state of genius.

This despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies have no "screen experience" whatsoever - no television, videos, Baby Einstein, or any of his baby genius cousins - before age 2.

What's more, most child-development specialists agree that very young children do all their serious learning through close relationships with caring adults and through their own serendipitous play. Screen media products most often interfere with those relationships and with play, and many educators are seriously concerned about their impact on babies.

To use the words of the late Fred Rogers, "Children should be encouraged to use their own resources, not to be made to feel that in order to play they need a certain something. ... Children need to be helped to discover their own worth." Rogers declined numerous offers to commercialize the puppets from his television show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, because of his concern about the effect of commercialization on young children. His succinct words were: "Popularity at the expense of a young mind is a hollow thing."

Rogers was always careful not to set himself up as judge and jury of what's appropriate for children, and I want to be careful to follow that line. Baby Einstein products may well have value, and Disney certainly has a history of being conscientious about family values.

But whether or not one agrees with Linn's severe position - she wants a ban on television commercials targeting young children - the underlying issue is critical. The impact of media on children is a new and little-understood phenomenon in need of more research.

The Nielsen Co. released data a few weeks ago indicating that the average American child between the ages of 2 and 5 is watching a staggering 32 hours of television - including a slew of commercials - every week. Whatever one's opinion of media and advertising for children, they are clearly pervasive and require a great deal more study and thought. We need to have a robust debate about what media are appropriate for children and how those media are commercialized. Disney should lead such a debate, not try to quash it, and it should stop leveling puffed-up accusations at Linn.

After all, the only slingshots she brought to her fight with Disney were her intelligence and her integrity. Whether she is right or wrong, those qualities deserve to be treated with respect by Disney - particularly given that the company is appropriating the name of Albert Einstein, the 20th century's exemplar of intelligence and integrity.