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The ultimate babysitter. Or is it?

The ultimate babysitter. Or is it?

When Big Girl was born, I got a few Baby Einstein DVDs as gifts. I looked at them. They looked cute, and were supposed to be good for her, so I popped them into the DVD player. She was about six-months-old at the time. She was instantly mesmerized. Beautiful artwork (Baby Van Gogh), funky puppets (Baby Mozart), adorable animals (Baby Animals) — what’s not to love? But then I started reading the research. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had already come out against letting kids younger than two watch any TV. Then stories started turning up in mainstream publications such as Time Magazine and Newsweek.

Movies were supposed to be making babies smarter, according to those who were developing and releasing them, but scientists figured out that they actually might cause more harm than good. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Harvard Children’s Hospital found that kids who watched TV spent less time interacting with families or playing creatively. Television viewing can increase a child’s risk of obesity, and decrease the number of words they hear spoken by adults around them. A 25-year-long study published in Acta Paediatrica found that “if children under 12 months watched TV for more than two hours a day they were six times more likely to have delayed language skills.” Another study found that children who watched baby DVDs between seven and 16 months knew fewer words than children who did not. Even having the TV on in the background could hurt babies, says a University of Massachusetts study, which found that kids played less when a TV was on in the house. One study even suggested that television viewing could contribute to kids getting ADHD.

After reading and hearing all of this, I put my foot down. No more TV for Big Girl. My husband reluctantly agreed once he read all the literature. We stuck with it, too, although most people thought we were nuts when we brought it up. It wasn’t all that difficult. Big Girl went to bed early, and had a working mommy. If she was with a sitter, she wasn’t going to be parked in front of a TV. If she was with me, I was dealing with mommy guilt for leaving her with that sitter so we were out doing things. Or we were at a playdate. This is why we managed to avoid TV until she was almost three. Today she’s limited to about 30 minutes of tube time per day — an hour on the weekends — and there are some days she doesn’t watch TV at all because she has homework or she’s reading or we’re running around outside. When she does watch, though, at this point I know she’s getting real benefits from her viewing. We watch educational stuff. She loves the Magic School Bus, for example. (Hey, I’m not anti-TV! I know there’s some good stuff out there!) Still, Little Girl, my second daughter, is TV-free, and will hopefully remain that way for a while.

My kids are definitely in the minority, though. About 90 percent of kids under two watch TV, while 40 percent of infants under three-months-old are staring at the screen. Research has found that parents don’t realize that the APA cautions against any TV time for infants and toddlers. In fact, some parents — like I did — think that TV is giving their kids an edge. Disney, however, knows better thanks to the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC). The CCFC in 2006 lodged a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaint against Disney, which owns the Baby Einstein franchise, asking The Mouse to stop claiming their videos were beneficial for infants. The FTC never got a chance to rule on it because Disney proactively said it would “take appropriate steps to ensure that any future advertising claims of educational and/or developmental benefit for children are adequately substantiated.” And that’s what they did. They stopped saying the videos provide educational benefits. Last month, the fine folks at Disney started putting their money where their mouth is, offering anyone who purchased a Baby Einstein video between June 5, 2004 and September 4, 2009 a refund for up to four movies. Parents can also exchange the videos for books or music CDs. All they have to do is download a form, and send it and the movies back to the company.

So what’s the point? I don’t think a little TV is going to kill anyone or make them become an sociopath. (There’s research that links TV to increased violence, too.) However, I think a lot of us use TV as a babysitter. Raising kids is hard work, and sometimes you just need a break. TV, as I found out early on, is mesmerizing. It gives you a few minutes to sit down, relax, and not worry about keeping a kid entertained. I know I’ve had my daughter watch a video while the baby was napping and I was doing an interview. But I also know how guilty I felt doing it. I think it’s a very tough question, and one that’s not black or white. What’s your take on TV and kids? Will you be asking for your Baby Einstein refund? How do you select the right shows for your family? Please comment and let me know.

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