Saturday, 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 Foundation.
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 psychologists.