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IS BIG BIRD BAD FOR BABY?

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE February 26 2007
HOME

IS BIG BIRD BAD FOR BABY?

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE February 26 2007

IS BIG BIRD BAD FOR BABY?

HOME

It’s hard to get a clear signal on whether TV can harm your little one

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE

My son was a sevenmonth-old TV virgin. Okay, maybe not entirely. In the first few weeks of his life, when he was still a little sack of flailing limbs and fearsome wails that demanded to be carried around every second, my husband eased that burden the same way he deals with most of life’s stresses: by watching football. The flashing colours of the TV screen had a calming and almost hypnotic effect on the newborn. We were thrilled—until I read that the American Academy of Pediatrics “does not recommend television for children younger than two years of age.” The AAP says more research needs to be done into the effect of TV on tiny minds. I got worried. What were the images of grown men in tights tackling one another doing to his brain? Would it make him violent? Fat? Would it kill his attention span, his chances of getting into a good university, and into a job good enough to support us in our old age?

The average Canadian kid watches 14 hours of TV a week; the average American, three hours a day—two hours a day for babies. Our son was going to beat the odds. No more TV, I declared.

But the issue turned out to be confusing, to say the least. The Canadian Paediatric Society takes a less stringent position on TV viewing by babies, recommending a limit of half an hour a day. Plus there is an entire industry built on the notion that showing your baby the right DVDs will make him or her smarter. In his state of the union address last month, George W. Bush looked across a sea of lawmakers, diplomats and judges to honour a mom named Julie Aigner-Clark, who founded the Baby Einstein video company out of her basement. In 2001, she sold the “developmental media” empire to the Walt Disney Company for US$200 million. She “represents the great enterprising spirit of America,” said Bush. Last week, the CRTC licensed the new U.K. specialty cable channel, BabyTV, to bring to Canada 24/7 television for the pacifier set. Rogers Cable already offers some of their content on an on-demand basis. In the U.S., where we live, a similar round-theclock channel called BabyFirstTV was launched last Mother’s Day.

Lots of parents are buying in. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 74 per cent of American children under the age

of two have watched television, and 59 per cent watch television on a typical day for an average of two hours and five minutes.

We weren’t totally TV pure either. As two political reporters, we sometimes put PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on in the background while making dinner. We figured this staid, cerebral offering couldn’t be bad. That was until the Washington Post reported the case of Henry Schally of St. Paul, Minn. Henry was turning three years old and asked that his birthday party be themed not around trucks or Elmo, but around kindly NewsHour

anchor Lehrer, whom he referred to as “Jimmy Jimmy Bo-Bo.” PBS obliged Henry with a NewsHour-themed cake. Henry’s dad explained that the boy had been watching the show with his dinner “since he was an infant.” What were we doing to our child?

“We are in the midst of a large and uncontrolled experiment on the next generation of children,” pediatrician Dimitri Christakis told me when I reached him at the Children’s Hospital in Seattle, where he has been researching the effects of television on children and babies. “The science hasn’t kept up with the industry,” he said. Claims that TV can make infants smarter “are unsubstantiated and have no grounding in scientific theory at all.” In his

new book, The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids, Christakis argues that while older children can learn from educational shows, babies do not benefit from watching television, and it can actually do harm.

In one of his studies, Christakis found that children who watched television as infants were more likely to develop shorter attentions spans, problems concentrating and impulsiveness by age 7 For every hour the children watched television while under age 3, their chances of attention problems in-

creased by 10 per cent. He and his colleagues also found that children who watched TV at a young age were less able to recognize letters and numbers by the time they got to school. (A 2005 University of Pennsylvania study found that even watching gold standard Sesame Street before age 3 delayed a child’s ability to develop language skills.) Yet 30 per cent of parents in Christakis’s surveys say they believe that TV is good for their baby’s still-developing brain.

What is it about TV that hurts babies, since presumably they don’t understand what they are watching? “The pacing is surreal,” says Christakis. “What they are really seeing is flashing lights, dramatic cuts and sound.

That’s what keeps the baby engaged in the screen. If parents watch the baby videos, it’s discombobulating—the edits are so rapid and disjointed, it’s not pleasant to watch as an adult.” That kind of pacing, he conjectures, teaches the very malleable baby brain to expect fast-paced input. “By comparison, real life seems boring,” he says.

A co-founder of BabyFirstTV, Sharon Rechter, has a different take. “We are aware of the controversy,” she told me over the phone from Los Angeles. “But I have to refer you to the facts of life,” she said, citing the Kaiser study. The idea for the specialty channel came to Rechter, whose own first child was born this month, when she had a visit from a new mom. “She came with a baby, three diapers, four bottles and five DVDs. She said, that’s

my way to calm my baby down. She gave me the numbers and I thought this was crazy.” Rechter’s calculation was that a video costs around US$10 to $20, while a monthly subscription to a cable channel can be had for US$9.99 a month. A business plan was born. Rechter’s pitch is this: BabyFirst is commercial-free, non-violent, designed by experts specifically for babies, and available whenever you want it. BabyFirst touts itself as a “brand new educational tool” and strongly encourages “co-viewing”—watching with your baby and talking about what you see. “When the red ball bounces on the screen, you could ask the child what colour is the ball,” she said.

Edward McCabe, the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics, sits on BabyFirst’s

advisory board. Arthur Pober, their “chief educational adviser,” and an education psychologist who specializes in gifted children, says each five-minute segment is designed to be a “safe environment.” He emphasized that the images move slowly. “One thing is to develop children’s eye movements, the ability to focus. That’s why we have mobiles, and we have our black-and-white segments.” They also have segments of undulating colours: “Color Symphony is a wonderful non-verbal opportunity to show children mixing of colours and how that adds to imagery,” says Pober. Another segment involves a horse prancing around on a psychedelic background of swirling colours and fruit, using his tail to bring colour to black-and-white objects. “Rainbow Horse is introducing colours and objects in a cognitive format, showing these objects taking a form and a presence in an environment,” says Pober. Uh, okay.

Rechter sent me a sample DVD and I tested it out on my son. It turned out it wasn’t easy

to get a seven-month-old to sit still and watch. If I tried to hold him in my lap, he would just lunge down to suck on my knees, or wrestle a stuffed panda, or try to eat the Persian rug. Eventually I succeeded. First up was Rainbow Horse. My son dropped his toys and stared at the screen slack-jaw mesmerized by the hippy-trippy images. My immediate conclusion: this kid is going to grow up to drop acid. But the subsequent segments didn’t grab him as much. Not the black-and-white train, not the annoying squeaking chick that counts farm animals. He kind of shrugged and tried to eat the patterns in the rug. He did perk up again at footage of live children petting rabbits and demonstrating baby sign language, but his attention quickly wandered, and I put away the DVD.

When I called the Canadian Paediatric Society to ask why its position on television and babies seemed more relaxed than that to the south, I was referred to Dr. Peter Nieman, a Calgary pediatrician who helped develop the policy. He first put me at ease with regard to trippy Rainbow Horse and the rug-eating: “Your baby is trying to tell you he likes pat-

terns,” he chuckled. As for the no-TV rule, he said, “With all due respect to the American academy, and I’m a member of both, I’m asking myself at the end of the day, when you make these recommendations, and people don’t follow them, maybe it’s not practical or realistic.” He said despite the few studies out there, the CPS didn’t see definitive evidence of benefit or harm. “There is no evidence and, realistically, can you picture a mum with four kids that can keep one kid away from the TV while the other kids are watching? It’s just not practical,” said Nieman, who has four kids. Besides, he added, “If you live in Canada, it’s pretty cold sometimes and it’s pretty easy to let the kid watch TV.”

Nor was Nieman too hard on my husband for holding a newborn while watching football. “At least he didn’t put him in a playpen and walk away and check his email.” He tells parents to trust their instincts, to keep in mind that babies crave their parents’ voice, their touch and their smell, and not to allow the TV to become “the electronic nanny.”

Chistakis gives similar advice. “I tell parents they should ask themselves why they are having their baby watch TV. If they are doing it because they absolutely need a break and aren’t prepared to engage their child in a developmentally appropriate way, that’s fine. But if they are doing it because they think it’s good for their child’s brain, that’s not a good reason.”

Meanwhile, our TV-deprived son turned one. To celebrate, his filmmaker aunt made him a DVD of fast-cut footage of scenes from his life set to a song by the Jackson Five. From the get-go, he could not tear himself away from the television. He pointed to the screen, he patted it, slapped it, talked to it, even licked it, laughed and shrieked, as if to say: “Can you believe it? I’m in the TV!!! There I am playing! There I am taking a bath! There I am in a stroller! I’m playing peekaboo! I’m eating! It’s me, me, mel” When the DVD ended he howled as if he were being vaccinated. We had to play it over and over again until the song seared into our brains. Eventually, to preserve our mental health and to save the nice flat-screen from the constant slapping of our son’s excited sticky little hands, my husband confiscated the DVD. M

ONE STUDY FOUND THAT ‘SESAME STREET’ BEFORE THE AGE OF THREE COULD DELAY LANGUAGE SKILLS