Consumer Group Files FTC Complaint Over Educational Apps for Babies

A group has filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission saying that two makers of the most popular apps aimed at babies are lying to parents when they claim that these applications will make their children smarter.

According to the Associated Press, by moving against the app makers, the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is hoping to replicate its successful campaign against Baby Einstein videos. The group's initial complaints against the videos, which claimed to increase children's IQ, eventually forced the company to issue refunds. This time, it has Fisher Price's Laugh & Learn series of apps and Open Solutions' games like Baby First Puzzle in its crosshairs.

It's the campaign's first complaint against the mobile app industry as part of its broader push to hold accountable businesses that market 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.

Research has shown that using screens and similar media to teach language to babies is not effective, Linn notes — and especially when using the apps comes at the expense of creative and face-to-face play which is considered the best way for infants to learn. So, when app makers claim that their apps will improve language acquisition in children, they're violating truth-in-advertising laws – or so the group alleges.

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, a developer based in Bratislava, Slovakia, says its mobile apps offer a "new and innovative form of education" by allowing babies to "practice logic and motor skills".

Not so, says Linn. There's no evidence that these apps help at all, and some indication that using them will actually be counterproductive and harmful. Linn and her allies say that the companies should be forced to give refunds and change their ad copy.

US federal law says advertising can't mislead consumers and, in some cases, must be backed by scientific evidence. In 2012, the FTC – which enforces truth-in-advertising laws – agreed with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood that the developer of Your Baby Can Read lied when it promised consumers it could teach babies as young as 9 months to read. That business shuttered after the FTC imposed a $US185 million ($206 million) settlement.

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