Group criticizes baby learning apps

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The Walt Disney Co.'s "Baby Einstein" videos do not turn babies into prodigies. And despite marketing claims by Fisher-Price, its popular "Laugh & Learn" mobile apps may not teach babies language or counting skills, according to a complaint filed Wednesday with the Federal Trade Commission.

As mobile devices supplant TV as entertainment vehicles for younger children, media and software firms increasingly see opportunities in the baby learning app market. But the complaint to the FTC by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the same nonprofit that helped prompt Disney to backtrack from Baby Einstein's educational claims, challenges the idea that such apps provide more than simple entertainment value.

In addition to the complaint against Fisher-Price "Laugh & Learn" apps, which have been downloaded more than 2.8 million times, the advocacy group filed a similar complaint Wednesday against apps for babies marketed by Open Solutions, a software developer.

According to the complaints, the firms' marketing materials say their apps teach infants spatial skills, numbers, language or motor skills. But there is no rigorous scientific evidence, the complaints claim, to prove such products provide those benefits.

"The baby genius industry is notorious for marketing products as educational, when, in fact, there is no evidence that they are," said Susan Linn, director of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "Parents deserve honest information about the educational value of the activities they choose for their children, and they are not getting it from these companies."

The group's complaints also contend that using such apps "may be detrimental to very young children." Ms. Linn said the programs could take time away from activities, such as hands-on creative play or face-time with caring adults, that have proven beneficial for infant learning. She noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents avoid screen media for children under 2.

Stefan Babinec, an executive at Open Solutions, based in Bratislava, Slovakia, said the children's advocacy group that filed the complaint had never contacted his company with its concerns.

Marketing material for Open Solutions does not make claims such as "get this game and let it teach your child everything," Mr. Babinec wrote in an email. Rather, the company thinks its apps "can help parents with babies, either by entertaining babies or help them see new things, animals, hear their sounds, etc." It agrees that digital screens are no replacement for live interactions with humans, he said, and assumes that children use its apps together with a parent, sibling or baby sitter.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood pointed to seven iPhone or iPad apps marketed by Fisher-Price, along with eight by Open Solutions, available for download on the Apple App or iTunes stores. The apps feature animated or high-definition illustrations of animal characters who invite young children to listen to phrases or animal noises or point to the animals' ears, noses and other body parts. They are marketed as having educational value for very young children.

The information page for a Fisher-Price iPad app called "Laugh & Learn Let's Count Animals for Baby," for instance, says the app "teaches numbers and counting, 1-10, animals, first words and action/reaction."

An information page for an app from Open Solutions called "Baby Hear and Read Verbs" makes more elaborate claims: "Here comes a new and innovative form of kids' education. The application provides learning opportunity to learn how to read, pronounce and spell basic verbs. We have tested this app, and the kids and parents simply love it!"

Several years ago, the commercial-free group filed a similar complaint against "Baby Einstein," the popular videos for infants; Disney, which owns the Baby Einstein Co., ultimately offered refunds to consumers who had bought the products.



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