WASHINGTON – Smartphones don’t make smart babies, an advocacy group declared Wednesday in a complaint to the government about mobile apps that claim to help babies learn.
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, whose allegations against “Baby Einstein” videos eventually led to nationwide consumer refunds, is urging federal regulators to examine the marketing practices of Fisher-Price’s “Laugh & Learn” mobile apps and Open Solutions’ games, such as “Baby Hear and Read” and “Baby First Puzzle.”
The Boston-based group says developers are trying to dupe parents into thinking apps are more educational than entertaining. It’s the campaign’s first complaint to the Federal Trade Commission against the mobile app industry as part of its broader push to hold businesses accountable for marketing claims about their technology to very young children and their parents.
“Everything we know about brain research and child development points away from using screens to educate babies,” said Susan Linn, the group’s director. “The research shows that machines and screen media are a really ineffective way of teaching a baby language. What babies need for healthy brain development is active play, hands-on creative play and face-to-face” interaction.
The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any electronic “screen time” for infants and toddlers under 2, while older children should be limited to one to two hours a day. It cites one study that found infant videos can delay language development, and warns that no studies have documented a benefit of early viewing.
In a statement provided to the Associated Press, Open Solutions said it agrees that electronics are not a substitute for human interaction. But it noted the many positive reviews its apps have received by customers.
“We also don’t say ‘get this game and let it teach your child everything,’ ” wrote the company, based in Bratislava, Slovakia. “We assume (the) child is playing the game with parent/sister/baby sitter. We think we have apps that can help parents with babies, either by entertaining babies or help them see new things, animals, hear their sounds, etc.”
Fisher-Price of East Aurora, N.Y., which the AP contacted by phone and email, did not respond to questions.
Linn’s group alleges that the companies violate truth-in-advertising laws when they claim to “teach” babies skills. For example, Fisher-Price claims that its Laugh & Learn “Where’s Puppy’s Nose?” app can teach a baby about body parts and language, while its “Learning Letters Puppy” app educates babies on the alphabet and counting to 10. Open Solutions says its mobile apps offer a “new and innovative form of education” by allowing babies to “practice logic and motor skills.”
“Given that there’s no evidence that (mobile apps are) beneficial, and some evidence that it may actually be harmful, that’s concerning,” Linn said.
In 2006, the group asked the FTC to prohibit the makers of Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos from making claims about educational benefits. The FTC eventually declined to act after the companies, owned by the Walt Disney Co., agreed to remove some marketing promises from its packages and took down testimonials that claimed educational benefits. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood still pressed a group of lawyers to threaten a class-action lawsuit, and Disney began offering cash refunds for videos purchased.
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