Can mobile apps help babies learn their A, B, C's and 1, 2, 3s?
Doubtful, say several child development and educational experts from Harvard, Columbia and other universities in opinions that could hobble the break-neck growth of the online "baby genius" market. A slew of apps, some among the most popular on the iTunes and Android marketplaces, have captured the aspirations of parents hoping to give their babies -- as young as newborns -- an early start on education.
But despite claims by Fisher-Price and other creators of the baby genius apps, there has never been conclusive research to prove that putting a baby in front of an app is educational.
On Thursday, the consumer advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood submitted the opinions of six experts on early childhood development and education to the Federal Trade Commission. The group was following up on a complaint last summer against Fisher Price for allegedly deceiving parents about the educational value of their Laugh & Learn apps for infants and small children.
"Based on scientific evidence on how infants learn, I believe that claims that a two-dimensional touch screen app can teach alphabet letters, numbers, and counting from 1 to 10 to babies (including those as young as 6 months) are inaccurate, seriously misleading to parents and potentially detrimental to infant development," said Laura Berk, a professor of psychology at Illinois State University.
"Advertising claims that touch screen devices can successfully teach number concepts and counting to babies as young as 6 months are deceptive," wrote Herbert Ginsburg, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University's Teacher's College.
He added that very young children aren't capable of learning numbers in the way Fisher-Price promises.
"Existing research suggests that infants and very young children are not cognitively ready to learn key abstract ideas about numbers. Although some children at the upper bounds of this age range might learn to parrot some number words they are highly unlikely to learn important concepts of numbers."
Fisher-Price didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The FTC didn't confirm whether it was investigating the CCFC's claim against the toy maker. FTC staff met with CCFC director Susan Linn in September and asked the group if concerns arose from the use of mobile devices as educational tools or from claims that the apps were capable of teaching reading and math concepts.
Linn said the opinions by six experts show both the use of devices by infants and the educational claims about the apps were troubling.
"In addition to persuading parents to waste money on useless products, marketing products for babies as teaching numbers and letters sends a troubling and potentially harmful message to parents about learning and how babies should spend their time," Linn said. Instead of parking babies in front of devices, she said, parents should be encouraged to engage in "hands-on creative play, active play, and active engagement with the adults who love them."
The thoughts echo those of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says that any screen media should be discouraged for children under age 2. The AAP suggests more research should be done on the potential benefits or harms of mobile devices for young children.
On Apple’s iTunes store, Fisher-Price notes that it sells a stuffed toy monkey to be used with its Laugh & Learn app. “Place your Apple device in the Monkey and press his paws to interact with the content on screen,” the instructions read. When a child taps on a letter, the monkey dances and sings the numbers aloud.
At the center of the CCFC's complaint filed to the FTC last summer is Fisher-Price’s claim that its suite of Laugh & Learn apps “teaches letters A-Z, numbers & counting 1-10, shapes, colors and action/re-action.”