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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Educational videos for babies and toddlers have exploded in popularity in the last few years. From "Baby Einstein" to "Brainy Baby," there are more than 300 new titles on the market. Many of them claim to give children a jump-start or to stimulate cognitive development. A new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation says those claims have never been tested. Here's NPR's Allison Aubrey.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

The media company Brainy Baby produces some of the best-selling videos. One called "Left Brain" is designed to inspire logical thinking in babies six months and older. Set to this classical sound, the screen shows brightly colored objects that move around, and a narrator helps make sense of them.

(Soundbite of "Left Brain")

Unidentified Woman: What are these animals?

AUBREY: Brainy Baby producer Marsha Grimsley says in this scene, the animals become a puzzle game, which builds what she calls left-brain thinking.

Ms. MARSHA GRIMSLEY (Producer, Brainy Baby): That's ...(unintelligible) left-brain thinking by engaging the child in the logical thinking; you'll see the two puzzle pieces switched around.

AUBREY: The narrator will then ask...

(Soundbite of "Left Brain")

Unidentified Woman: Is that correct? Oops, that's not right.

AUBREY: Then images move around the screen again until they fit into the right spot.

(Soundbite of "Left Brain")

Unidentified Woman: There, that's right. It's a frog and a mouse.

AUBREY: Babies and toddlers can be mesmerized by these images, and many parents assume this means their child is learning or benefiting from the video. The Kaiser Family Foundation and pediatrician Dmitri Christakis wanted to look into these assumptions, particularly since preliminary research suggests exposure to screen media in children under two might be bad.

Dr. DMITRI CHRISTAKIS (Pediatrician): There's at least a theoretical reason to be concerned that exposure to these kinds of products might actually be harmful.

AUBREY: Babies look mesmerized by the video because, Christakis says, they're using what's known as the orienting reflex. This is the `What's that?' instinct that prompts the brain to focus on a new sight or sound.

Dr. CHRISTAKIS: These programs directed at young infants exploit the orienting reflex. By constantly changing themes, having flashing lights and sound, they keep the child focused on the screen. They have to do that, in effect, because infants don't understand the content, right? They don't actually know what they're looking at. They're stimulated by the constant changing scenery.

AUBREY: Prior research has shown that the more TV children watch before the age of three, the more likely they are to have attentional problems by seven. Given these studies and the popularity of baby videos, the Kaiser Family Foundation commissioned a review of 29 of the most popular educational media products. Vicky Rideout is a foundation vice president.

Ms. VICKY RIDEOUT (Vice President, Kaiser Family Foundation): We found there was no published research on any of the commercially available, educational media products for kids, nothing to document in a scientific way whether they do or don't benefit kids.

AUBREY: So next the Kaiser researchers went to the companies that produced the videos and asked them how they evaluate whether their educational claims hold up. Marsha Grimsley at Brainy Baby says her company relies on feedback from customers.

Ms. GRIMSLEY: Our evidence is based on the testimonials that we hear from our customers. We have thousands of testimonials from parents telling us exactly what their children have learned.

Dr. CHRISTAKIS: Parental testimonials are not proof that the product actually works, by any stretch.

AUBREY: Pediatrician Dmitri Christakis says the way to really measure learning outcomes is to compare one group of children that watches educational media products with another group that doesn't.

Ms. RIDEOUT: You would measure both of them before and after a certain amount of time of using the product, and you would see whether the kids who used it actually learned their letters or their numbers better than the other kids.

AUBREY: Kaiser's Vicky Rideout says it's entirely possible that some educational media are beneficial. Studies have shown, for instance, that the "Sesame Street" television show enhances the verbal skills of preschool-aged kids. But these researchers say the message to parents is that they should be skeptical of claims that baby videos enhance learning.

Dr. CHRISTAKIS: There truly is a national neurosis that your child will be left behind if they're not watching "Baby Einstein" and neighbor kids are.

AUBREY: Christakis says what research has nailed down is that human interaction with young children in the form of reading and playing does make a difference. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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