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Experts rip 'Sesame' TV aimed at tiniest tots

The organization that pioneered "Sesame Street" is drawing fire with a new DVD series, "Sesame Beginnings," which targets babies and toddlers from 6 months to 2 years. The Washington Post reports.
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

How young is too young to park a baby in front of the TV set? The American Academy of Pediatrics's rule has been steadfast: No television under age 2.

Now the venerable educational organization that pioneered "Sesame Street" is lowering that age limit with a new DVD series, "Sesame Beginnings," which targets babies and toddlers from 6 months to 2 years. Due in stores April 4, the videos feature baby versions of "Sesame Street's" most beloved characters -- Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Prairie Dawn -- dancing and singing with their Muppet parents and other relatives.

"This could be the beginning of some beautiful friendships!" baby Elmo's dad says enthusiastically in one scene. But the product's launch has frayed some friendships and professional alliances among experts who monitor the impact of media on young minds.

"Essentially it is a betrayal of babies and families," says Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan Linn, founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "There is no evidence that media is beneficial for babies, and they are starting to find evidence that it may be harmful. Until we know for sure, we shouldn't risk putting them in front of the television."

Sesame Workshop, which for 37 years has pioneered children's educational television, teamed up with Zero to Three, a respected Washington-based, nonprofit child-development and advocacy organization, to produce the DVDs. It's the first time the workshop has trained its marketing savvy on children under age 2 and their parents.

Executives at Sesame, as well as Zero to Three, consider the DVDs not only age-appropriate but groundbreaking. "We took a long time and did a lot of research and preparation. We wanted to make sure we did this right," Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research for Sesame Workshop, said yesterday.

Zero to Three's critics say the group has succumbed to an if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them philosophy. "They apparently feel that parents are going to let their kids watch television, so we might as well get into the game, too," says Harvard psychiatry professor Alvin F. Poussaint, a steering committee member for CCFC. He calls Zero to Three "downright irresponsible. . . . That they should have an alliance with Sesame on this really damages their credibility."

A stinging rebuke
But perhaps even more stinging is the rebuke by T. Berry Brazelton, the famous baby doctor who helped found Zero to Three nearly 30 years ago. "I absolutely support the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that children under two be kept away from screen media. It's too expensive for them physically as well as psychologically," he wrote late last week in CCFC's protest letter to Zero to Three.

The letter calls on Zero to Three "to end its partnership with Sesame Workshop" and "work instead to educate parents about the potential harms of screen media for young children."

The author of 38 books on parenting and child development, Brazelton would not comment further when contacted by The Post.

Babies and toddlers are a booming segment of the electronic media market. The Kaiser Family Foundation last December issued a report on "an explosion" in such products for the suckling-and-teething set -- from computer programs such as "JumpStart Baby" to videos produced by a company known as Baby Einstein.

Sales of most of the baby-media products, the report said, were driven by unsupported claims that they were educational. "It is just a fact of life these days -- babies interacting with all sorts of media," says Baby Einstein spokeswoman Rashmi Turner, explaining that the company, acquired by Disney in 2001, works with child-development experts to create its videos. "Why not give parents useful ways to take advantage of what's there instead of telling them to avoid it?"

Baby Einstein logged retail sales of $200 million in 2005.

Kaiser reported that 68 percent of children under 2 view two hours of television daily and only 6 percent of parents know of the pediatrician group's no-TV recommendation, which it adopted in 1999.

"Kids that age are only awake 12 hours a day, so we have a generation of children who are watching television 10-20 percent of their waking lives -- and that's a dramatic increase," says pediatrician Dimitri Christakis, director of the Child Health Institute at the University of Washington in Seattle, whose research has found that early exposure to television could prove detrimental to attention span and cognitive development.

Other research suggests that television viewing by babies could harm language development and sleep patterns. And there's the "instead-of" caveat -- babies and toddlers glued to the tube aren't doing other healthy activities such as creative play and interacting with parents.

Truglio of Sesame Workshop points out that the DVD scenes were designed "to model parent-child interaction and to have that interaction around everyday routine moments."

A careful decision
Zero to Three's decision to work with Sesame was carefully considered, says the group's executive director, Matthew Melmed. The deal includes no financial gain for Zero to Three other than payment for time its staff spent on the project, he said. And it was agreed that the DVDs wouldn't be called educational.

"If we are going to promote healthy development, we have to find ways to connect with parents in ways that meet them in their daily realities," he says, adding that today's parents have grown up with electronic media and don't see television as necessarily bad.

"We can't be in a position saying no to parents because they'll ignore you. We want to say to parents, 'If you chose to have your very young children exposed to this type of media, let's at least have something that is appropriate,' " Melmed says.

"A lot of what we do goes back to what Ben Spock said 50 years ago: 'Trust yourself -- you know your baby better than anybody else.' "

But CCFC's Linn isn't buying it. "Their argument that parents are already doing it doesn't wash. One thing we know is that parents are going to be struggling with kids about media for the rest of their childhoods. Why in the world would anyone suggest parents put their kids in front of the TV before kids even ask for it?"