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Baby's First Mastercard?

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Babies now have the choice of Barney clothing, Elmo diapers and fruit chews shaped like Teletubbies. Weekend America's John Moe wants to know if this is a cynical marketing ploy or a harmless way of enhancing a child's experience. He hears from Dr. Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, Dr. Rosemarie Truglio of the Sesame Workshop and some plain old parents.


By John Moe

Adeline Wierda is two years old. She loves her toys, her cat bracelets and her friends from TV, like Dora the Explorer.

"Well, she has Dora diapers. She always recognizes her Dora diapers," says Adeline's mom, Ashley Wierda. "And we have the entire cast of Sesame Street in stuffed animals. And that was definitely something, they were on the end of the aisle at Target and they went crazy when they saw them. It was a big deal. They each got to pick out one, I let them." Wierda usually takes Adeline and her four-year-old sister Isabella along on trips to the store.

Infants and toddlers are a lucrative demographic, the target of $100 million in home video and DVD sales annually, plus an expanding catalog of diapers, toys and other licensed merchandise. There's even a new 24-hour cable channel dedicated to baby amusement.

Susan Linn is a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School and heads the advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. She says entertainment is a gateway drug to commerce, "It's not that Elmo goes to the grocery store in programming or Winnie-the-Pooh goes to a toy store in the programming. It's 'let's put that character on as many products as possible.'"

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for kids younger than two, a recommendation Linn backs. "One of the reasons is that there's no credible evidence that babies actually learn anything from watching television. There's no evidence that screen time is beneficial for babies. And there's starting to be some evidence that it may even be harmful. There's not a lot of research on this but there's some."

Rosemarie Truglio has a different opinion, as you might expect from the Vice President of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop, the company that unleashed Elmo upon millions of parents and their shopping experiences. "The research is inconclusive at this point," she says, "But the research that we have conducted over the years regarding media and television is that the content that they're exposed to does matter. If a television show or a DVD was designed to be an educational experience, we know that it does have a beneficial impact on the children exposed to the content."

And that's what the argument comes down to: One side saying there's insufficient evidence screen time is helpful, the other saying there's insufficient evidence it's harmful. One side saying it takes away from the learning that goes with independent play, the other side saying it can enrich that experience.

In the mean time, parents are on their own and the entertainment keeps on coming. Sesame Workshop now offers a DVD series called Sesame Beginnings where Big Bird and Cookie Monster are re-imagined in more blobby, baby-like forms. Rosemarie Truglio says the series is beneficial because it's curriculum-driven and has goals. I asked if the difference between a show that's designed to sell a line of toys and products and an educational program is intent. "Yes," she says, "Its intent. Sesame Street has a line of products but we think of those products as another educational extension."

So is Tickle Me Elmo educational?

"Tickle Me Elmo I would put in the entertainment category. But laughter is a big part of a child's development as well," Truglio answers.

Back at her house with her daughters, Wierda, who will be at the store with her daughters and her wallet this weekend, is philosophical but somewhat resigned. "I guess I would prefer that they didn't look at things according to the picture on the box or the brand but it's just sort of the way it is in our society, I guess."

More stories from our Sustainability series


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