Daily Dispatches
Framegrab from the Fisher-Price website shows Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn mobile apps.
Associated Press
Framegrab from the Fisher-Price website shows Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn mobile apps.

Are smartphones making babies dumber?

Technology

Baby-related apps for smartphones and tablets give parents everything from nutrition advice to an electronic analysis of a baby’s cry. But a child advocacy group said Wednesday that apps claiming to teach babies counting and reading skills have gone too far. 

The Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) is pressuring the government for increased attention to advertising of “educational” baby apps. It claims advertising for the apps, which promise cognitive benefits for babies, is deceptive and illegal. 

In 2006, the CCFC challenged the Walt Disney company’s “Baby Einstein” videos and the Brainy Baby company, both of which advertised educational television time for babies. Before the case made it to court, the videos’ makers agreed to remove some of their marketing claims and offered refunds to customers. 

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The apps CCFC is now challenging belong to Fisher-Price and Open Solutions. Both advertise they teach babies alphabet recognition, how to count, and how to identify parts of the body. According to Fisher-Price, “The best thing about our apps for kids: they’re based on learning concepts. So you can feel good about their playtime.”

Open Solutions claims its apps are not designed to teach babies skills on their own, but can “help parents with babies, either by entertaining babies or helping them see new things, animals, hear their sounds, etc.” 

Many parents who use the apps say they like them because they keep children’s attention. They like that a  mobile device with a learning app can help fidgety little ones stay occupied and provide productive entertainment. Parents usually think the the apps are educational—in a study by the Kaiser Foundation 72 percent of parents said they thought using a computer “mostly helps” children’s learning.

But the CCFC warns the apps are not as great as they seem. It pointed to research by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which found that too much time in front of a screen delayed language development for many infants. The AAP recommends screen time for children under the age of 2 be extremely limited. Many studies have linked increased time in front of a computer or TV screen to higher rates of childhood obesity and poorer academic performance.

In its formal complaint to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the CCFC wrote, “Not a single credible scientific study has yet shown that babies can acquire the skills these apps claim to teach by interacting with screens.” 

CCFC’s director, Susan Linn, said “Everything we know about brain research and child development points away from using screens to educate babies. What babies need for healthy brain development is active play, hands-on creative play, and face-to-face interaction.” 

CCFC requested specifically that the FTC increase enforcement and clarify that marketers must have “evidence to support substantive claims that their products are, in fact, educational for this age group.”

The FTC’s response will depend partially on whether the advertising claims are deemed to be factual statements or “puffery.” The app makers cannot legally make factual statements about their apps which they can’t prove. But they are allowed to make exaggerations about the quality of their products which would not be taken literally by a “reasonable person,” and which can’t be objectively proved true or false. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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