Like most parents, I am skeptical when it comes to ritual television viewing for young children. Actually, let me rephrase that: I am wholly against it, and judging from empirical experience along with the loads of data out there, I see no real reason to sit your young child in front of the TV, other than maybe to carve our a half-hour for yourself (pale justification that it is). But I realize I am in the minority, as most parents, either accept TV into their children’s lives with abandon, or treat it like a necessary evil that will keep the children out of trouble for short bursts of time (think of it as an electronic babysitter). Over the last few years, instead of just cynically marketing toys and consumer goods to children, big media conglomerates have also been cynically marketing “developmental and educational” videos to parents with young children. The most popular of these have been the phenomenal Baby Einstein DVDs, selling upwards of $200 million dollars worth of media annually.
That figure is subject to change.
Baby Einstein, founded in 1997, was one of the earliest players in what became a huge electronic media market for babies and toddlers, espousing the vast developmental benefits of parking your child in front of these televisual parades of stimuli. As the companies PR claimed that the Baby Einstein products “were designed as music-focused developmental tools to stimulate babies’ brains (prompted by research proving that exposure to classical melodies can improve verbal ability, spatial intelligence, creativity, and memory in youngsters).” Now parents who faithfully plunked down money for Baby Einstein DVD’s, erroneously believing the videos would make their babies and toddlers more intelligent, can now recoup their money. The Baby Einstein Company (now owned by Disney) is providing a tacit admission of sorts, that their product has fallen fall short of the inflated claims the company initially made to make their riches.
Last year, lawyers, representing concerned parents and consumer groups, threatened a class-action lawsuit for unfair and deceptive practices unless Disney agreed to refund the full purchase price to all who bought the videos since 2004. Now Disney has reluctantly offered refunds (a decent thing to do), and somewhat toned down the “educational” claims of their product, without issuing a real mea culpa.
I guess this could be seen as a victory for parents and consumer groups alike, if it were just an issue about taking a media conglomerate to task for exaggerated claims. However, as it has been documented in Europe as well as by the American Academy of Pediatrics, frequent screen time for children under two is highly ill-advised, due to the fact that it poses a certain number of risks, encouraging passivity, slow language acquisition, over-excitedness, troubles with sleep and concentration as well as dependence on screens. So parents, who were faithfully looking to enhance their children’s development, likely were just keeping their children sedated under the glow of televisual shapes and colors, or worse, they were stunting their developmental growth.
Whether to invite TV into the lives of your children is somewhat of a hot button issue. Many caring and involved parents believe moderate TV viewing is fine for children. Other parents see any amount of TV as the devil and indicator of parental neglect.
Where do you stand on TV for yourself and your family? Is it realistic to ban it from your family life? Will it just become taboo? Is it OK if you watch in moderation with parental supervision? Did Disney (and the Baby Einstein people) get off easy with this voluntary refund offer? Should companies that cynically market to children (and parents) be prosecuted and/or shuttered?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.