TV, Video Programming for the Under-2 Market Grows
Despite Lack of Clear Educational Benefit
By Annys Shin
February 24, 2007
Madelyn McKeon has a lot to do. There's the tea
cup on the floor that has to be picked up, then a
pen to examine. Mom's lap always needs climbing
into. And then there are the mice on the TV.
At 11 months, Madelyn can't tell you their names
-- Tizzy, Tog and Toot -- but when she hears them
start to sing, she turns her head toward the
television and starts to sway.
Between napping, eating, being read to, gnawing
on her hand and playing with toys, Madelyn watches
anywhere from a half-hour to two hours of television
a day. This places her among the estimated 43
percent of babies younger than 1 who watch
television every day, according to the Kaiser Family
Tapping into the diapered demographic are
established media players such as the
Walt Disney Co. and Sesame Workshop, and
newcomers such as BabyFirstTV, a 24-hour cable
channel based in Los Angeles. And demand for such
programming appears strong, despite an 8-year-old
recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics
of no screen time for children younger than 2.
Less than a year after its debut on the Dish
Network and DirecTV, BabyFirst is launching on 10
cable television systems in the next six months. A
British-based rival, BabyTV, which has expanded to
45 countries in two years, plans to come to the
United States in the fall. Beyond premium channels,
videos and DVDs made for infants and toddlers rack
up more than $100 million in sales a year.
While almost all marketers of baby media promote
their products as beneficial to a baby's
development, little is known about the impact of
television viewing on very young children.
"We're in the midst of a huge national experiment
on the next generation of children," said Dimitri
Christakis, a pediatric researcher at the University
of Washington. "We don't know the effects and we're
letting them watch."
The notion that television can be educational for
preschoolers has been around at least since "Sesame
Street" debuted in 1969, aimed at kids 2 and older.
It wasn't until the 1990s that marketers began
promoting programming for those younger than 2.
The company that created Brainy Baby videos was
founded in 1995. The Teletubbies, a British show
meant for toddlers, premiered Stateside in 1998,
after building a daily audience of 2 million at home
and generating $50 million in sales of tie-in
products. Three years later, Disney bought Baby
Einstein, increasing sales of Baby Einstein products
from $25 million to $250 million. Today, there are
even video games for infants as young as 6 months.
"What people meant by stimulation was talking to
your baby and hanging out -- things people naturally
do. Somehow the gravitas of having neuroscience tell
us we have to have stimulation has been translated
into beeping toys and flashing lights and computers
and the television," said Susan Gregory Thomas,
author of "Buy Buy Baby," a book on marketing to
babies due out in May.
Marketers almost always pitch their products as
brain food. A Brainy Baby video, for example,
promises to "stimulate cognitive development." The
Dish TV channel guide lists BabyFirstTV shows only
as "developmental programs for baby."
But rarely are educational claims for baby media
products backed by clinical trials or other
outcome-based research, child development experts
said. Rather, their creators are guided by child
development principles and feedback from child
Some critics of baby media complain that
educational claims are false and misleading. "They
are hard-wiring dependence on media before babies
get a chance to grow and develop," said Susan Linn,
co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free
Childhood, a Boston-based advocacy group. The
campaign has petitioned the Federal Trade Commission
to treat claims made by Baby Einstein and Brainy
Baby as deceptive advertising.
Baby media marketers contend they're catering to
an existing need and their products are another tool
for parents to use to interact with their children.
"We're not putting babies in front of television.
We're giving them a cleaner, safer alternative,"
said BabyFirstTV co-founder Sharon Rechter. The
channel, which costs $10 a month, offers slow-paced,
five-minute shows with no advertising. Parents are
reminded regularly in subtitles and short messages
to take the time to point out shapes, colors and
Demand for shows for infants and toddlers isn't
limited to the United States. In Israel, BabyTV's
first market, the premium channel "sold as well as
Playboy," spokeswoman Maya Talit said. BabyTV is now
carried in Latin America, Asia, the Middle East,
Canada and Europe.
The appeal, it seems, is universal: "It's
guilt-free electronic baby sitting," said Michael
Rich, a Harvard pediatrics professor and director of
the Center on Media and Child Health. In reality, he
said, most parents do not interact with their
children while watching television.
He and other researchers cite several recent
studies that suggest the tube may not be an
effective teacher, such as one 2004 experiment that
found that infants and toddlers can imitate a task
such as removing a mitten after one live
demonstration, but need to watch the same
demonstration six times on video before they get it.
Watching a screen is "much more difficult for
babies than we think," said Rachel Barr, a
Georgetown University psychologist and study
A 2004 analysis by Christakis concluded the more
time 1 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-olds spent watching
television, the more likely they were to have
attention problems at age 7.
"There's no question babies are engaged in the
screen . . . but that should not be confused with
either the child liking it or the child deriving
benefit from it," he said.
Programmers, however, counter that existing
studies, including Christakis's 2004 analysis, don't
look at content.
Take "Sesame Street." Research has shown regular
viewers aged 2 and older learned words more quickly
than children who watched less. But one study has
also indicated that watching the show may slow
language acquisition in those younger than 2.
"Content does matter. Television is not
monolithic, and there's no evidence the box is
inherently evil," said Rosemarie Truglio, vice
president of education and research for Sesame
In the absence of more definitive findings,
parents are left to weigh claims by marketers -- and
their critics -- against the day-to-day realities of
living far from extended-family support, spending
long hours at work, needing a shower and getting
baby to sleep at 3 a.m.
Andrea McKeon of Owings, Md., never considered
herself "a big proponent of kids and television."
Then, during Mother's Day weekend, she and her
mother, Francine Abell, stumbled across BabyFirstTV
on DirecTV. Madelyn, then nearly 3 months old,
responded almost immediately.
"Her little face had a look of surprise, followed
by intense scrutiny," Abell said.
On a recent weekday morning, McKeon and Abell
looked on as Madelyn meandered around the living
room, stopping occasionally to look at "her
stories," as McKeon calls them.
"Who's at the door?" Abell quizzed Madelyn as the
sound of someone knocking rang out from the TV
Madelyn walked up to the screen and banged it, a
sign she liked what was on. Another show about
squirrels hiding an acorn, however, couldn't compete
with a mug on the floor.
In fact, since Madelyn has become mobile, she
watches less -- one of several reactions that have
convinced her mother that her time in front of the
tube has largely been good for her.
"She's very alert. It hasn't affected her
activity level. It's not as if where other kids are
out running around, she's just sitting there. That's
not the case," McKeon said.
By 11 a.m., Madelyn's eyelids were getting a
little droopy. In her mother's arms, she left for
her morning nap.
"I can see where parents are apprehensive about
letting kids go down this road," Abell said. "As
long as it teaches her something, I don't see the
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