Don’t hand the baby the remote

Are infants in danger of becoming TV couch potatoes?


Agnes Jasinski

Spotlight  Baby Owen is always on the go. From an hour of stroller strides with his mom, Kimberly Peterson, every morning to playgroups and field trips in the afternoon, the 1-year-old is on the move.

Owen doesn’t have time for TV. When he’s not playing with other babies, he’s playing with toys or mom and dad. "We’re just really busy with other activities," says Peterson of Libertyville. "There are all these conflicting reports of what’s good for baby, what’s not good for baby. We just haven’t really needed it."

Peterson is making the right choice, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says children under age 2 should never be put in front of television screens. But many parents aren’t listening because babies are good business and business is booming for products—numerous DVDs and even a television station—aimed at the very young.

More parents using media

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study points to an increase in the use of media by parents trying to cope with busy schedules, dueling siblings or children who get antsy around bedtime.

More than eight in 10 children under 6 use screen media such as television, computers and video games. Among children under 2, more than four in 10 watch television every day. In a study released last year by Dan Anderson, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Tiffany Pempek, his doctoral student, several parents reported allowing their infants to watch more than 18 hours of television a day.

The Kaiser foundation sponsored a panel discussion on media and babies when it released the study. Some on the panel, particularly those in the business of television and DVDs, said the same thing: New technologies are here to stay, so parents may as well get used to them.

BabyFirstTV is the most recent entry in a string of marketing strategies aimed at frazzled parents and those who think their children will learn more if they subscribe to the 24-hour cable network.

"The ship has sailed. These technologies aren’t going away," says Alice Cahn, vice president of programming and development with the Cartoon Network. "Parents need to become gatekeepers."

It started with Barney

In the 1990s, Barney the dinosaur made the commercial world take notice of preschoolers. Baby Einstein videos and Teletubbies followed, all designed for the under-2 set.

"It’s worrisome that while these young minds are forming, they’re sitting in front of the boob tube," says Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School. "Parents are misguided by the information out there."

What builds healthy minds, Greenspan says, are naturally-occurring interactive experiences tailored to the differences in each child. Television is one-way communication between the set and the mesmerized child, while healthy communication involves the parents and the child actively participating.

Greenspan opposes any media use among the very young, and even preschoolers should have limited access to television, he says.

"There’s no research that shows babies need it all," says Sharon Syc, clinical assistant professor at the Erikson Institute. "If we focus on using the media with young children, what is it that we’re not doing with them?"

Do kids learn from TV?

But what about parents’ claims that BabyFirstTV teaches their infants sign language, which could help parents communicate with their babies on a level outside of coos and gurgles?

"That baby would not be communicating those signs just by watching TV," Syc says.

So are parents being duped? Susan Linn thinks so—so much so that her group filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in May against Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby for false claims that the videos they produce are educational for babies.

"What the industry’s doing is convincing parents fairly successfully that they need these videos in order to be parents," says Linn, a psychologist and co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "What parents have to recognize is that at this point, almost all that children are exposed to has as one of its goals to sell kids stuff."

Children may not know about branding, but the marketplace does. At an increasingly younger age, children are surrounded by images of happy faces on "Sesame Street," cartoon girls teaching them Spanish phrases and other commercials.

Take the 18-month-old whose mother was part of the Kaiser study. The baby hums the McDonald’s theme song whenever his parents drive past the golden arches. The child can’t speak yet, but he knows he wants a Happy Meal.

"These kids are being parked in front of the TV. Their parents call it the ‘arsenic hour’ because of all the things they have to do," says Elinor Ochs, director of the Center on Everyday Lives of Families. "The time in front of the television makes up a big chunk of family time together."

So who should parents believe? Most proponents of media use for infants are making money from it. And what little research has been done, points to the opponents strategy—better safe, than sorry when it comes to babies’ brains.

For Kimberly Peterson, the choice is easy.

"Sure, sometimes not all the housework gets done. But I feel like I’m lucky just to be home with him," Peterson says.

Agnes Jasinski is a student in the graduate program at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.


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