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AT&T’s BabyFirst Interactive Service Called ‘Worst Baby App Ever’

7 minute read

To a ringing, upbeat soundtrack overlaid by the seductive phrase “Baby Geniuses,” a cheerful narrator in the promotional video below introduces a new interactive AT&T app for babies that grabs imagery from a tablet and pipes it in real time to a U-Verse-equipped TV.

Instead of tracking just one screen, in other words, the app encourages babies to juggle two.

There’s Mom, smiling and holding her baby, who in turn clutches an iPad and hammers away at coloring-book-style pictures that then appear on the big screen. The babies on the TV screen laugh and clap as cartoonish dogs, raccoons and kittens fill their view. The child watching seems delighted and engaged as Mom co-pilots.

“I would tell other moms to give it a try,” says the ardent mom. “I think you’ll really see that your kids will enjoy it.”

The hook is that AT&T’s app ties into something called BabyFirst, a satellite network launched in 2003 that describes its free-to-all programming as “specifically tailored for babies three years and younger.” Note the circumspect language used in that phrase — there’s no cutoff starting age, and the word “baby” can refer to anything from a young child in the throes of up-and-about toddlerhood, to a swaddled, barely interactive newborn.

If that’s setting off warning bells, it’s probably because you’ve heard somewhere along the line about the American Academy of Pediatrics, which makes it clear, based on the research to date, that children under two years of age should avoid exposure to “television and other entertainment media.” That, says the AAP, is because “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.”

The latter’s a generalization, to be fair, and one that hinges on nascent, unsettled research, but it references neuroscience’s conceptualization of early brain development wherein the brain is still physically changing for years after birth. How that development plays out, according to researchers, is impacted by the nature of the input the brain receives.

One of those researchers, Susan Linn, a Harvard Medical School instructor who directs the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood advocacy group, has been writing about the effects of media on children for years. She’s probably best known for leading the charge against Baby Einstein, the once Disney-owned company that produced popular videos like “Baby Mozart” and “Baby Shakespeare” back when the videos were being marketed to the parents of very young children as educational.

The CCFC on Wednesday launched a campaign to protest AT&T’s BabyFirst interactive app, demanding that the company end its partnership with BabyFirstTV, referencing infant learning and development researchers who the CCFC says believe adding a second screen to a baby’s learning environment is “a worrisome escalation.”

I had a chance to ask Dr. Linn a few questions by email Tuesday night. Here’s what she told me.

The question of one screen aside, is there a presumption being made, absent research, that two screens must be additively worse than one? Can you clarify what the research tells us about this?

There’s a great deal of research about what babies need for healthy brain development. They need to explore their world with all of their senses, hands-on play, active play, and to be talked to, played with, read to and cuddled by the adults who love them. There’s no evidence that watching television is beneficial for babies, and some evidence that, for infants and toddlers, it’s linked to delayed language development, sleep disturbance, obesity, and poor school performance when they’re older.

We also know that the experiences babies have and don’t have profoundly affect brain development and can create biologically compelled habits. There is evidence that early screen time is habit forming—the more children under three watch, the harder time they have turning screens off when they’re older and the more time they spend with screens.

There’s also evidence that multi-tasking results in doing whatever the tasks are less well. While the phenomenon of multi-tasking babies is too new to have been researched, given the plasticity of their brains, the impact of infant experiences on brain development, and what we already know about the problems associated with multi-tasking, it’s fair to assume that it’s not a good idea for babies.

The AAP’s recommendation aside, is there a way for a child under two to use an interactive screen that research indicates might be appropriate? Research in this area (and sufficient amounts of longitudinal data and controls) is still in its infancy, isn’t it?

Touchscreens are so new that we don’t have information about their impact on babies. Given what we do know about how babies learn and what they need for healthy development, and given growing concerns about the habit-forming nature of new technologies, it seems prudent to postpone screen time for infants and toddlers until they’re older. There’s no evidence that introducing babies to touchscreens will make them any better at using new technologies later in life.

Does any of the research indicate that use of a (supervised) interactive screen is fundamentally different, say, from reading a picture book, playing with a musical toy or drawing on paper?

There’s research showing that reading to babies is important for literacy and that talking to babies is important for language development. There is also research showing that the bells and whistles associated with ebooks interfere with the kind of parent/child discussions that are important for literacy and that babies can’t learn language from a machine. The difference between drawing on paper or playing with a non-electronic musical toy has to do with the sensory experience, the manipulative skills necessary, and the amount of effort needed to produce a particular result. There’s no research about this yet, but, again, given what we know about how babies learn and the importance of varied, multi-sensory experiences, there is reason to proceed with caution.

When we say “screen time,” do we mean all screen time, or just certain kinds of screen time? Do we know that reading the tablet version of a picture book (which after all is a 3D, physical object in its own right) is any more harmful (or helpful) than engaging with the paper version?

I expect that, except for the physical act of turning pages, there’s not much difference between just reading a book on a tablet and reading a physical book. The problem is that ebooks are often not just reproductions of picture books—they include a lot of distractions that interfere with comprehension of the story and with the kind of conversation between adults and children that’s important for literacy.

Does the research indicate the problem is with screen time, or with screens used in lieu of parental interaction? Might we eventually see scenarios in which screens become complementary to healthy parental engagement (assuming parents never use the screens as mere distraction tools)?

Given what we know about how babies learn, it’s hard to see how screen time of any kind could be more beneficial than hands-on play, active play, and exploring the world with all of their senses—even with parental involvement.

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Write to Matt Peckham at matt.peckham@time.com