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TV or Not TV

When Sesame Street is deemed bad for babies, has the good-parenting brigade gone too far? Or not far enough?

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Illustration by Mark Todd  

My husband, Charles, is more of a helicopter mom than I am, so I was surprised when he began insisting that our toddler watch TV. I would have imagined he would include television in his list of no-nos, along with ice cream, chocolate, and polyester clothing. But when D turned 9 months, Charles discovered Teletubbies. He would put it on while we ate breakfast, and she would watch, transfixed, as the tubbies danced their moronic dance and giggled their annoying giggles. She loved it so much that whenever she got fussy, he would take her to his computer and play a YouTube video of the end of the show, with that bizarre baby-faced sun, and she would calm immediately.

A few months after we found Teletubbies, someone on my local message board, ParkSlopeParents, mentioned a Slate article that cited a Cornell University study showing a correlation between autism rates and the presence of cable television in the home. I was spooked—even though Teletubbies was on PBS. The next day at the Harmony Playground sandbox, everyone was talking about the study, and most were skeptical. My friend Douglas Rushkoff, who is a guru on consumer culture, admitted that even he let his toddler watch the cable network Noggin, whose motto is, “It’s like preschool on TV.”

If Doug Rushkoff lets his daughter watch TV, I told myself, there can’t be anything wrong with it. And I continued to go along with Teletubbies in the morning. Soon we found Noggin, and D started watching those shows, too, for up to an hour a day: Dora the Explorer, Pinky Dinky Doo, and Oobi.

Yet it made me uncomfortable. Part of the problem was that I didn’t like the shows. Dora was a know-it-all yeller, Oobi was speech-impaired, and Pinky was an Upper East Side brat. The only show I could tolerate was the Saturday-morning Upside Down Show because I had developed an intricate sexual fantasy involving the two Australian hosts and myself in the Outback.

A few months later, we got addicted to Baby Einstein. I had bought Baby MacDonald without thinking, when D was 4 months, and because she seemed to enjoy it, I checked out some more DVDs from the library (it can’t be bad if you get it at the library). One day, when she was almost 1, I pointed out some flowers to her on the street and she looked up at me and signed flower, which she had learned from Baby Wordsworth. I was so floored I called Charles to kvell.

Sometime around her 1st birthday last July, Charles began putting an Einstein DVD in each night while she ate dinner. “It calms her,” he said, “and she eats better.”

“But she’s 99th percentile for weight,” I said. “She could eat a little less. I don’t know if all this TV is good for her.”

“She likes it,” he said. “Besides, it’s not TV. It’s a video.” Even when I told him that Einstein creator Julie Aigner-Clark and her husband were Republican donors, it didn’t faze him. “We get most of them from the library anyway,” he said.

And so she watched an hour of Noggin in the morning and up to an hour of Einstein discs or The Simpsons at night (Charles said The Simpsons was the most intelligent show on TV and that any kid who watched it would grow up smart). I hated staring at her blank face as she ate, her mouth hanging open to take in food, all her attention on the screen. I wanted her to be watching us—watching us eat, preferably, so she could model our behavior and eat more varied foods—but Charles liked to feed her at 6 p.m. and us at 8:30, and since I couldn’t really cook, I was on his cuisine schedule, not mine. I wasn’t sure exactly how it had happened, but suddenly I was raising a toddler who ate fried food glassy-eyed in front of the TV every night.

This spring, when D was 20 months old, I came across an advance copy of Buy Buy Baby: How Consumer Culture Manipulates Parents and Harms Young Minds, by Susan Gregory Thomas. I read it cover to cover the night I got it: in the living room as I fed D in front of The Simpsons, in the bathroom as she flipped through her waterproof Elmo storybook, in my bedroom after I read her one of her twenty Maisy board books. And I got scared.

Thomas argues that marketers are aggressively pursuing zero-to-3-year-olds with TV shows that claim to be educational but are really about creating character recognition and selling toys. In a chapter called “Elmo’s World,” about the licensing of TV characters, she detailed the money that Nickelodeon has made from Dora: In 2005, it raked in $250 million from her video sales alone. And 12 percent of Nickelodeon’s total profit came from licensing revenues (other networks average about 2 percent). I began to wonder whether Dora the Explorer was just teaching D to love Dora.


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