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Stage Prop for the Today Show
What’s Become of Relevant Information Dissemination for Parents?

Gloria De Gaetano, Founder and CEO, The Parent Coaching Institute

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) “discourages television viewing for children younger than two years of age,” Zero to Three, a respected organization, decided to partner with Sesame Street and create DVDs for babies and toddlers. This decision stirred a tsunami of protest within the community of experts and professionals who support parents, including the AAP, and spurred a nation-wide effort to stop the project by the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood.

Because confusion often accompanies controversy, I decided to accept the invitation to be a guest on the Today Show to discuss the issue, hoping to help parents understand why it’s so important for children and advantageous for parents to heed the American Academy of Pediatrics advice.

A parent educator since 1987, I know that a large body of research over the last two decades demonstrates that 2-D entertainment is completely unnecessary for humans averaging 14 pounds or under. Screen technology is a great tool as we all know, but it’s definitely not the best tool for babies. And toddlers should be busy moving, examining every inch of the 3-D spaces around them, not sitting for two hours every day, as they currently do, tethered to a screen. (If we raised puppies the way we do our toddlers in this country, PETA would be raising riots.) It’s not that parents treat their youngsters like caged animals intentionally. It’s that most parents simply do not have clear information that would compel them to be more vigilant when it comes to setting limits around TV and video consumption. For instance, only 6% of American parents know that the AAP has recommended no TV for children birth through age 2. Parents can only make decisions based on what they know. It is so sad that the average mom and dad doesn’t know that overuse of screen technology in the younger years leads ultimately to cognitive, emotional, and social problems as the child matures and certainly less ease in parenting. So much suffering, so needlessly.

“My, you are passionate about this subject,” observed a Today Show producer who was going over the segment with me the day before it would take place.

“Yes,” I said. “I am so frustrated that for over forty years now parents can’t easily get the relevant information they need to make wise choices for their families. If we introduced TV and video in a timely way when children are four or five and their brains are more developed, if we kept TV out of their bedrooms, and off in other parts of the house when no one is watching, if we kept viewing to 5-7 hours a week throughout childhood, we could transform our educational system and life would be much easier for parents.” She listened intently and shared that she is the mother of an 11-month old and 13 year old.

As she asked me the questions that I could expect during the interview, I found myself thinking, “This is cool. I am talking to a real mother about real-world issues and she is honestly interested in what I have to say. How refreshing!” I respected her.

“You will be going up against Dr. Deborah Linebarger from the University of Pennsylvania,” she informed me.

“It seems like the discussion has turned into a debate?” I asked.

“Yes, excuse me a minute, I have to take this other call.”

When she came back, she told me, “That was strange. It was my GM and he was saying, ‘You’re not going to be talking against TV are you?’”

We both agreed it seemed strange that he had called her with that question.

“Look,” she said suddenly, “you’re talking too fast, I’m going to record this conversation. I can’t get everything down,” She seemed earnest… and since we had just been sharing so many heart-to-hearts as moms, I agreed, ignoring the looming feeling of doom in my gut.

“OK,” I said, but you’re not going to share what I say with Dr. Linebarger, are you?”

“No, of course not,” she assured me.

“Who will be doing the interview?”

“We don’t know yet.”

The next day, as I sat staring at the monitor and adjusting my way-ward earpiece at the NBC Seattle-affiliate station waiting, I was informed that Al Roker would be doing the interview. Oh no, the weatherman for such an important issue! Who takes Al Roker seriously?

Then I noticed the promos for the interview. All slanted in favor of babies watching TV.

The hell with what the experts have to say, we moms and dads are so hurried and harried with our important life-styles, we need these wonderful DVDs to cope with life on the edge—the usual argument perpetuated by the media. As if moms and dads have been bonked on the head, left unconscious, and now can’t remember why they had kids in the first place. WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO WITH THE CHILDREN?

In my two decades of working with thousands of parents, I found not one who wants to intentionally lessen their load at their kids’ expense. I pondered bringing up that point in the interview.

Al began with me and asked, “What’s wrong with TV for babies and children under 2, even in moderation?” I referred to the significant body of neuroscience research that demonstrates screen time for very young children isn’t a good idea. Deborah, who partners with PBS on researching children and television, responded with her opinion that screen time in moderation is OK.

What is moderation? 68% of infants and toddlers who are watching TV, videos, and DVDs are watching two hours a day. Two hours a day is not moderation. I thought of pointing out how difficult it is to use screen technology in moderation with vulnerable young brains that mesmerize so quickly in front of it. We are currently in a situation in our society where kids spend 6.5 hours with a screen machine. Do we really want our children to begin their life with so much exposure, when it is evidently so difficult to keep screens under wraps the older they get? I decided this argument may need too much time to explain.

Instead, I came back with an important question I think parents need to consider. “Whose needs are being served here? Videos for babies is a billion dollar a year industry. Yet, only 6% of parents know about the AAP recommendation. The AAP doesn’t have a $100,000 marketing campaign. Parents can…”

Al cut me off. I was going to say, “Parents can only make decisions based on what they know. Are parents and children’s needs really being served?”

But Al wouldn’t let me finish. Deborah then cited research conducted after 1999, the year the AAP recommendation came out, that she believes justifies screen time for babies and toddlers. She pointed out that anyone who calls themselves an expert should know about this research.

My turn, I thought. I did know the research and wanted to address the three points:

First of all, Deborah was referring to her own research of 51 children and admits in the study that it has limitations.

Secondly, there is a growing body of research that shows a lot of negative outcomes. Frederick J. Zimmerman, Ph.D., and Dimitri A Christakis, M.D., M.P.H., of the University of Washington assessed data on 1,797 children who were approximately six years of age at the time of one of the four most recent survey interviews in 1994, 1996, 1998 and 2000. Scores in mathematics, reading recognition and reading comprehension from a commonly used and well-standardized test were compared with the level of television watching before age three and from ages three to five. Their analysis showed a consistent pattern of negative associations between television viewing before age three years and adverse cognitive outcomes at ages six and seven years. In another important study of 2,500 children that was released in 2004, researchers found early television exposure was linked to attentional difficulties at age seven. Parents should read these studies and decide if they want to roll the dice with their little ones.

The third point is that even amid all this controversy, the American Academy of Pediatrics hasn’t budged. It is 2006 and their recommendation for no screen time from birth through age two stands firm.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t let parents know about any of this vital information. Al stopped me before I could say a word in response to Deborah and condescendingly said, “Time to turn off the TV, Gloria.” Click.

No time to present relevant information that could persuade parents to think through the issues and the research before they decide to use TV with their little ones. The Today Show “interview” was clearly a commercial for Sesame Street’s new DVDs for babies—the hot new market. As a mere stage prop, I was there to give the illusion of meaningful dialogue. Hopefully, the parents watching the show saw through the illusion.

© , 2006. Gloria DeGaetano is the founder and CEO of the Parent Coaching Institute. Her latest book is Parenting Well in a Media Age, Personhood Press, 2004.

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