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Critics Say ‘Educationalâ€TM Baby Videos Exploit Kids, Parents

by NewStandard Staff

Mar. 21, 2006 – If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. That seems to be the rationale behind new videos created by two nonprofit educational organizations for children under two.

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One recent study showed that while the video industry for small children has exploded with products like Baby Einstein, Brainy Baby, or Baby Genius, the advertising claims of educational benefits are not backed by research.

In fact, many studies have documented negative affects for children under two who watch screen media, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two years old not watch screen media at all.

Nevertheless, the creators of the premier educational television series Sesame Street are partnering with a leading a resource organization for parents of infants and toddlers to develop media for children under two. The result of Sesame Workshop’s collaboration with fellow nonprofit Zero to Three: Sesame Beginnings, which, according to its creators, offers "age-appropriate content while entertaining, engaging and encouraging interaction between caregivers and their children."

The videos, to be released in early April, will feature "baby versions" of the Sesame Street puppets and their own caregivers. The packaging will also contain printed guides, offering parents additional tips for ways to follow up on the program’s lessons when engaging in non-television activities such as feeding, bath time and playtime.

Zero to Three and Sesame Workshop say their baby videos are research-based and that they are "specifically designed to encourage parent-child interaction" to foster childhood development.

However, there is no research showing that children under two benefit from watching screen media with their parents. In fact, a study published in February in the journal Pediatrics found that the time children spend watching television, with or without their parents, interferes with more developmentally appropriate activities

Last December, the Kaiser Family Foundation, a healthcare policy research institute, released a study conducted by scientists at the Child Health Institute and Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington. The researchers surveyed the claims made by the best-selling videos targeted toward infants and young toddlers and compared them against available research on the benefits of educational screen media for children under two.

Though three-quarters of the 100 best-selling DVDs for children under two claimed educational value, the authors of the study found "no published studies on any of the products examined for this paper, or on any other commercially available in-home educational media products for children" under two.

In a press release announcing the development of Sesame Beginnings, Zero to Three stated that it became involved in the product because of research showing that millions of children under two are consuming media. Suggesting that it was motivated by concern for its potential audience, the organization said that marketing research led it to "identify an important need to help parents understand how to make better TV/video viewing choices for young children."

But a consumer advocacy group that campaigns to keep commercialism out of the lives of small children slammed Zero to Three for its involvement in Sesame Beginnings. In a March 17 letter to Zero to Three, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) asked Zero to Three to pull out of the project.

"By partnering with Sesame Workshop, Zero to Three furthers the media industry’s efforts to insinuate screens into the lives of our youngest, most vulnerable children," reads the letter. "We believe… that your partnership in the creation of Sesame Beginnings DVDs is exploitive of both babies and parents and severely damages your credibility as an advocate for the health and well-being of young children."

The CCFC also argued that "families would be better served if Zero to Three used its considerable resources to educate parents about the [American Academy of Pediatrics’] recommendations rather than introducing a new line of baby videos into an already crowded marketplace."

Aside from criticizing Sesame Workshop and Zero to Three for buying into the baby-video trend, CCFC suspects Sesame Workshop might have ulterior motives.

"Sesame Beginnings is just one more effort to establish brand loyalty in babies, encouraging their devotion to TV characters who have been licensed to promote hundreds of other products, including sugary fruit snacks, vacation resorts and electronic toys like the Tickle Me Elmo series that diminish rather than encourage creative play," said Dr. Susan Linn, the group’s co-founder and author of Consuming Kids, in a press statement.

"A public health organization should not be in the business of branding babies or helping the media industry insinuate media and marketing in the lives of our youngest, most vulnerable children," she continued.

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This News Report originally appeared in the March 21, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
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