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Zero to Three and Sesame Beginnings: The Consequences of Selling Out Babies

by Alvin F. Poussaint, MD, Susan Linn, EdD, and Josh Golin, MA


Perhaps the most troubling development in a commercialized culture rife with troubling trends is the media and marketing industries’ courtship of infants and toddlers. By targeting babies, companies are not only marketing products, but potentially inculcating life long habits, values, and behaviors—hardwiring dependence on media before children have a chance to develop.

Seven years ago, we publicly criticized PBS for falsely marketing the popular television series Teletubbies as educational for babies as young as one. At the same time, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a recommendation that children under two be kept away from screen media. Little was known about the impact of media on babies’ developing brains. Given the evidence that too much screen time could be harmful to older children, it seemed prudent to urge parents to hold out as long as possible before letting their children succumb to the lure of the small screen.

We feared that because of PBS’s imprimatur, there would be a whole rash of television programs aimed at babies. What happened is so much worse. There are over two hundred baby videos on the market, most of them packaged as educational. It’s a vast and lucrative business. In 2005, Disney’s Baby Einstein series alone generated about $200 million.

There’s still not much information about the impact of television on babies. There is, however, no evidence that it’s beneficial and increasing evidence that it may be harmful. Research suggests that--for babies--TV viewing interferes with cognitive and language development. Hours of screen time are negatively correlated with the time children under two spend interacting with parents and in creative play, which are the foundations of learning.

Media use can be habit-forming. Putting babies in front of the tube may foster a dependence on screens for stimulation or soothing. Almost all media designed for children also promotes food of questionable nutritional value (there is currently an obesity epidemic among children who watch too much TV) and toys that discourage rather than promote creative play.

Despite these risks, it’s a constant struggle to help parents resist putting babies in front of the tube. Almost 70% of children under two engage with screen media for an average of 2 hours a day. For overworked parents, an electronic baby sitter is an understandable temptation. And well-funded, ubiquitous marketing campaigns convince parents that watching videos is actually good for babies.

Now Zero to Three, the nation’s premier advocates for babies and toddlers has given up the struggle. They have partnered with Sesame Workshop to produce Sesame Beginnings, DVDs for babies as young as six months. Their rationale is that so many parents are putting babies in front of screens that they might as well see something designed to promote parent-child interaction.

This is a worrisome rationalization for a public health organization. That parents have been sold a deceptive bill of goods by media companies does not justify the public health community making it easier to foist screen media on babies who aren’t even asking for it. Since many toddlers drink soda, should we justify that as well? Should we help market slightly less sugary soda? Or should we work to educate parents about proper nutrition? If Zero to Three wants to encourage parent/child interaction, why not just target parents instead of luring babies to screens and encouraging their devotion to media characters licensed to promote hundreds of other products?

Matthew Melmed, Zero to Three’s executive director, told the Washington Post, “We can’t be in a position saying no to parents because they’ll ignore you.” We disagree. Parents want to act responsibly, but they can only do so with accurate information. Only 6% of American parents even know that the AAP recommends no screen time for children under two. Most parents are more familiar with the marketing claims of videos like Baby Einstein than with the latest research on the impact of media on babies and toddlers.

Rather than surrendering a generation of infants to the media and marketing industries, educators and health care professionals should provide parents with information that allows them to do what’s best for their children.

Alvin F. Poussaint, MD, Susan Linn, EdD, and Josh Golin, MA are with the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, headquarted at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston.


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  Sesame Beginnings  

>CCFC asks Zero to Three to end partnership with Sesame Workshop  to produce branded baby videos


>CCFC's letter to Zero to Three

>Experts Rip 'Sesame' TV Aimed at Tiniest Tots (Washington Post, 3/21/06)


>DVD series for babies, parents fuels TV debate (Boston Globe, 3/22/06)







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