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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Children’s Advocacy Group Faults Learning Apps for Babies

In a challenge to the electronic learning market for infants and toddlers, a well-known children’s advocacy group on Wednesday morning filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission against certain popular mobile apps for babies made by Fisher-Price and Open Solutions, a software developer.

According to the complaints filed by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a nonprofit in Boston, the companies say in marketing material that their learning apps teach infants spatial skills, numbers, language or motor skills. But, the complaints say, there is no rigorous scientific evidence that these kinds of products provide those benefits.

The complaints also contend that using such apps “may be detrimental to very young children.” Susan Linn, the director of the advocacy group, said the programs could take time away from activities, like hands-on creative play or face-time with caring adults, that have proven benefits for infant learning. She noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends parents avoid screen media for children under two.

“The baby genius industry is notorious for marketing products as educational, when in fact there is no evidence that they are,” Ms. Linn said. “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.”

Reached by phone, the public relations team for Fisher-Price, a unit of the Mattel toy company, did not provide an immediate comment on the complaint.

Stefan Babinec, an executive at Open Solutions, which is based in Bratislava, Slovakia, said that the childrens’ advocacy group had never contacted his company with its concerns.

Open Solution’s marketing material does not make extreme claims like “get this game and let it teach your child everything,” Mr. Babinec wrote in an e-mail. 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.”

The company agrees with the idea that digital screens are not a replacement for live interactions with humans, he added, and assumes that a child uses its apps together with a parent, sibling or baby sitter.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood singled out seven iPhone or iPad apps marketed by Fisher-Price, along with eight by Open Solutions, which have been available for download on the Apple App or iTunes stores. The colorful apps feature animated or high-definition illustrations of animal characters who invite young children to listen to phrases or point to the animals’ ears, noses and other body parts. The apps 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!”

The complaints against the app companies are only the latest salvo by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood against the electronic learning market aimed at infants and young toddlers.

In 2006, the children’s advocacy group filed a similar complaint with the F.T.C. against videos marketed by Baby Einstein, a giant in the electronic media market for infants. After the complaint, The Walt Disney Company, which owns Baby Einstein, amended the educational claims it had made about the videos and in 2009 agreed to offer refunds to consumers who had bought the videos.

In 2011, the group filed a complaint against the marketers of another popular video product, “Your Baby Can Read,” whose ads suggested the products could teach infants as young as nine months old to read. Last year, the company, called Your Baby Can, agreed to settle charges of false advertising brought by the F.T.C.

Now app developers are marketing the same kinds of baby learning programs in mobile formats, Ms. Linn says, with the potential to increase the amount of time that infants spend in front of screens and effect their brain development.

“This is one of our main concerns and why we take this industry on,” Ms. Linn says.