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Disney Fights Back Over 'Flawed' Baby DVD Study

16 Aug, 2007 By: Chris Tribbey

The Walt Disney Company and The Baby Einstein Company LLC demanded Aug. 13 the University of Washington retract and clarify a press release the university issued Aug. 6 for a study that concluded watching baby DVDs may hinder infants' language development. The university rejected the request Aug. 16.

Disney CEO Bob Iger also questioned the validity of the study's findings in a strongly worded letter to UW president Mark A. Emmert.

“One may well question whether the study by Professor (Frederick) Zimmerman, Dr. (Dimitri) Christakis, and Professor (Andrew) Meltzoff was indeed well conceived and well executed,” Iger wrote. “Our assessment, based on what we have been able to learn thus far, is that its methodology is doubtful, its data seem anomalous and the inferences it posits unreliable.”

The study, “Associations Between Media Viewing and Language Development in Children Under Age 2 Years,” asked 1,008 parents of children born in the past two years a series of questions regarding media their children watch, and asked the parents to name how many words their children knew off a list of about 90 words. The study concluded that children who watched baby videos knew fewer words than infants who didn't watch baby videos.

But while the press release specifically names “Baby Einstein” and “Brainy Baby” DVDs as potentially being detrimental to an infant's language learning development, the study concludes by saying that researchers did not directly test the developmental impact of viewing baby DVDs and videos.

And while the press release summarizing the study was widely circulated and posted on UW's Web site, and the study's authors spoke at length on talk shows and to print media, a copy of the study itself was not posted online nor was it made available to the public at large or all media that requested it.

In rejecting the request, president Emmert defended both the study and the press release in a letter to Iger.“The researchers find no inconsistencies between the content of the news release and their paper. They believe the release accurately reflects the paper's conclusions and their commentary,” he wrote. “For these reasons, the University of Washington will not retract its news release.”Iger and other companies that produce baby DVDs have pointed out that the study does not make any distinction between pure entertainment baby videos, and DVDs that are specifically tailored for language learning, or those that require parent-infant interaction, such as “Baby Einstein.”

“For the university to issue a press release making reckless charges warning parents to avoid using ‘Baby Einstein' products, and post them on its Web site … is totally irresponsible,” Iger said. “Media outlets are widely citing the study as demonstrating that use of ‘Baby Einstein' videos harms infants. This discouraging assessment — directly provoked by your university's press release — is not supported by any credible study of which we are aware, let alone the flawed study on which the release was purportedly based.

“The cloud cast by the university's actions is truly regrettable.”

“We do not view this study as the last word on the subject of the influence baby DVDs have on child development,” Emmert wrote. “The findings were considered significant enough to be reported in a major journal (Journal of Pediatrics), and as a public institution we feel duty-bound to make the public aware of these findings.”

The press release is available at UW's Web site, at http://uwnews.washington.edu/ni/article.asp?articleID=35898.

A Disney press release and a copy of Iger's letter can be read at http://www.babyeinstein.com/Common/Documents/BobIgerPressRelease.pdf.

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