Robbing The Cradle

The 55-inch Mitsubishi television is the dominant feature in my basement. The beguiling box—once an endless source of pleasure, spewing out everything from mindless hits like Desperate Housewives to the most obscure foreign flicks—has turned into a serpent in my Garden of Eden since my twin sons were born on Feb. 1.

Behind the screen, HBO stands ready to help me introduce music, art and dance into my boys’ lives with the TV special Classical Baby, soon to become a series of DVDs. Well-meaning friends have showered us with Baby Einstein DVDs, intended for infants up to 6 months old. “Don’t worry,” they say. “It’s educational.” Disney even has plans to turn Baby Einstein into a regular show come September.

Should I tire of the tube, the food industry will make my boys mathematical whizzes with M&M’s counting books. Now that marketers have discovered that babies are particularly sensitive to smell, they’re sending scented diapers to a supermarket shelf near me. When they say they want to establish brand loyalty from cradle to grave, they mean it.

The battle for the four young eyes in my household is on. One easy solution for harried parents is to just give in. The temptation to plunk the baby down in front of the tube with a Barney tape just to grab 15 minutes is almost irresistible. Parents can ease their guilt if the program is considered “educational.”

What worries the experts is that parents will allow TV to become the universal babysitter. They have good reason to be fearful. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that one-quarter of American children under the age of 2 have a TV in their bedroom. Yikes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV at all for this age group, regardless of content. That includes DVDs, videos and certainly commercials. For toddlers over 2, the academy recommends no more than one hour of TV a day.

Some experts, like Eugene Beresin, a child psychiatrist, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and consultant on Classical Baby, say any medium is fine for infants, provided the content is appropriate and the parent is engaged with the child while interacting with the medium. “We are in the electronic media era, and we have to deal with it,” Beresin says.

But others, like Susan Linn, a psychologist at the Harvard-affiliated Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston, disagree. Linn argues that we have no idea what effect TV has on infants under 2, and we shouldn’t teach babies to turn to screens for comfort or stimulation.

Beresin and Linn at least agree on one thing that marketers likely wouldn’t: Kids should not be exposed to ads until they understand that they’re designed to create a desire for something. Sorry, boys, Paris Hilton’s sudsy escapade with a hamburger is out, at least for now.

I wish I could lighten up and just embrace the box and all the popular, profane and commercial culture it spews out. But after spending four years of my life grading the college papers of future journalists, I’ve learned that a steady diet of electronic media makes you stupid. TV is rife with rapid sound bites and constantly shifting visual images, and it fosters short attention spans and inertia. Instead of taking initiative, kids want to be entertained.

Computer programs are no better. Why bother learning how to spell when there is spell check? And have you noticed how most discourse these days is limited to what would fit in the bullet points of a PowerPoint presentation?

For now, I’m going to keep my boys away from the box. There’s plenty of time to introduce them to the glories of our capitalist culture. And my message to marketers who are trying to seize the brand loyalty of infants: Back off.