On February 15, 2012, I had the pleasure of (finally) meeting Susan Linn (and her puppet Audrey), at The Third Place in Los Altos, California. Susan began her talk, The Case For Make Believe, by sharing a bit about how she came to be “an activist and advocate for the rights and freedoms of children to play and to grow up without being undermined by the greed of corporations.”
Dr. Linn is also an award winning ventriloquist and puppeteer who once performed on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and co-founder and director of the small but mighty Boston based advocacy group, Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood, or CCFC for short. (I refer to CCFC as the little organization whose roar Disney couldn’t ignore. More about that in a minute.) Susan Linn has written two books I have read and highly recommend: The Case for Make Believe:Saving Play in a Commercialized World, and Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood.
During her talk, Susan explored three main questions: Why do children need to play? How is technology and media influencing their play? And what can we do about it? She began by explaining, “Play is the foundation upon which children build critical thinking skills, creativity, self regulation, delayed gratification, follow through, and the ability to wrestle with life and make it meaningful.”
“Losing — or never acquiring — the ability to play may not sound like much until you realize that play is both the foundation of learning and essential to mental health. Initiative, curiosity, active exploration, problem solving and creativity are capacities that develop through play, as are the more ephemeral qualities of self-reflection, empathy, and the ability to find meaning in life.”
We know that babies are born with an intrinsic drive and ability to participate in relationships, to learn, and to actively engage in understanding their world and the people in it through their own exploration and play. There is an impressive and ever growing body of research that supports the belief that in the first years of life, beginning at birth, optimal intellectual, social and emotional development occurs through a baby’s direct engagement with his world and the people in it. Dr. Linn said, “As human beings, we need to make meaning of things, and we do this through play.” (Magda Gerber developed the basic principles of Resources For Infant Educarers (RIE) on exactly these beliefs.)
Susan continued, “It would seem that as a society, we are doing everything in our power to discourage or undermine children’s play. Witness: academics in preschool,”teaching to the test”, art, music, drama, and physical education programs disappearing from our schools, recess being cut, over scheduled children, free play being replaced by organized sports and formal lessons, outdoor play disappearing due to fear (stranger danger), and the ubiquitous and widespread use of screen media (A Vinci Touchscreen Mobile Learning Tablet for babies, anyone?) beginning in infancy.”
One of CCFC’s goals is to stop companies from luring babies to screens by making unfounded claims that their products are educational. CCFC encourages parents to follow the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to keep babies and toddlers under the age of two away from screen media.
Whether you choose to allow your baby to watch TV or not, Susan Linn believes you, as a parent, have the following rights:
- a right to decide when to introduce your children to screen media.
- a right to accurate information about the pros and cons of that choice.
- a right to raise children without being undermined by commercial interests.
Which brings us to Baby Einstein and Disney. As reported in the New York Times, “Baby Einstein, founded in 1997, was one of the earliest players in what has become a huge electronic media market for babies and toddlers. Acquired by Disney in 2001, the company expanded to a full line of books, toys, flashcards and apparel, along with DVDs including “Baby Mozart,” “Baby Shakespeare” and “Baby Galileo.”
By targeting babies, companies are marketing not just products but lifelong habits, values and behaviors — hardwiring dependence on media before babies even have a chance to grow and develop and removing them further and further from the very experiences that are essential for healthy development. Susan Linn
CCFC filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission against Disney and Brainy Baby for false and deceptive marketing of baby media in 2006. In response, Disney offered refunds of $15.99 for up to four “Baby Einstein” DVDs per household, purchased between June 5, 2004, and Sept. 5, 2009, and returned to the company. Although the company admitted no wrong doing, the New York Times said “the unusual refunds appear to be a tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect.”
For a simple demonstration of how children’s creative play may be influenced and truncated by rampant commercialization and early exposure to screens, I invite you to participate in the following brief play exercise. (Susan Linn did a similar demonstration during the talk I attended.)
Interesting to note: When I showed this video clip to 36 month old J. (without the sound and without any prompting questions), when he saw the first toy he said, “Hey, that’s a froggy. A Daddy froggy who says ‘Ribbit , Ribbit’, and I play with him.” When he saw the second toy, he said, “I ride him. He’s a horsie who says ‘Neigh’, and he chomps!” When, he saw the third he said, “Hey, that’s Elmo, but why he’s not singing ‘La La La, La, La, La’?”
Susan asserts, “The best toys are 10% toy and 90% child. This means the toy just lies there until the child picks it up and makes it do something. And yet, the best selling toys are 5% child, and 95% toy (think:Tickle Me Elmo). Babies aren’t born thinking Elmo is important- babies are trained to have Elmo be important.”
(Speaking of early “training”– in January of 2011, Disney reached a new low by trying to “brand” babies at birth by “hiring Our365–a newborn photography service/marketing firm–to promote its new Disney Baby line in maternity hospitals around the country. Moms who request a newborn portrait during their hospital stay are pitched Disney Baby by their photographer, given a branded onesie, and encouraged to sign up for email alerts from DisneyBaby.com.”)
Again, Susan’s words echo Magda Gerber’s who believed children should be the “main producers, script writers, and actors” in their own play, as Janet Lansbury explains in Better Toys for Busy Babies:
Magda Gerber believed in “busy babies rather than busy toys”. She suggested we keep toys simple so that our babies could investigate them thoroughly, use them imaginatively in multiple ways, and be encouraged to be active explorers. As she explains in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect, “…entertaining kinds of toys (such as mobiles or, later on, wind-up toys or battery-operated items) cause a passive child to watch an active toy. This trains the child to expect to be amused and entertained and sets the scene for later TV watching.”
Alas, CCFC, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics and many early childhood professionals and play advocates, including me, are facing an uphill struggle, not only against corporate marketers, but with reaching parents with this crucial message.
Consider these statistics quoted by Dr. Linn: 19% of babies have TVS in their bedrooms, 40% of three month old babies are regular viewers of TV, and 90% of children under the age of two years old have some involvement with screens.
This, despite the fact that there is “NO EVIDENCE, NONE that TV viewing is educational,” and “recent research indicates screen time for babies may be habit forming, contribute to sleep disturbances, inhibit the development of language, contribute to attention deficits, and leave less time for hands-on, active and creative play, or fewer interactions with parents. Another concern is that “screen-saturated babies will never learn how to soothe or amuse themselves independently.”
The question that most interests me is this one:Why do loving, conscientious, well intentioned parents ignore the AAP guidelines? Susan has conjectured,
“Today’s overworked, overstressed, under-supported parents don’t really want to hear that videos such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby are not educational and that screen time may even be harmful. By believing they’re beneficial, parents can justify using electronic media to get what may be a much-needed break from hands-on child care.”
Certainly, the conversations I’ve had with parents over many years of working with families would seem to indicate that this is indeed the case. Janet Lansbury writes, “parents desperately need breaks from the 24/7 job of baby care, especially in those first years (been there!). Sometimes TV can seem the easiest or only answer.”
Further, many parents DO believe that shows like Sesame Street, and videos like Baby Einstein and the ilk are educational, and some fear that their babies may be left out or left behind if they don’t have access to them, a point poignantly brought home to me when I was working as the supervisor of an Infant/Toddler Center and a young Mom came to ask me if I knew of anyone at the Center who had purchased the Baby Einstein videos and would maybe allow her to borrow them to make copies, so she could show them to her young son. This Mom shyly explained that she and her husband spoke only Spanish to their baby at home, and they had no income to spare to purchase videos, but she wanted her baby to have the advantages that other children had, and she felt the videos would help her baby learn to speak English better than she and her husband could. I was happy to be able to help her to understand that her baby wasn’t missing out on a thing by not having access to such videos.
Susan concluded her talk by saying,”This is an issue for our society, not just an individual issue. We pass on our values with the stories we tell, and the toys we give children. We tell them- ‘We like this.’ ‘This is what men and women should aspire to.’ ”
But do we want to buy the bill of goods corporate America is selling to us and our children? It’s an important question to consider, especially since our “boys are being sold violence”, and our “girls are being sold princess culture and sexualization.” It’s a somewhat bleak picture, but not one that we can’t change if we choose. Let’s return childhood and play to our children, shall we?
If you are interested in learning more, or wondering what you can you do to support, encourage, and protect your baby’s innate ability to play and learn without the use of screen media, or undue influence from corporate marketers, here are some suggestions and resources:
1) Become aware and informed. CCFC offers reliable, trustworthy information through their web site and newsletter, and an incredible number of free resources for families, educators, and advocates, outlining what the issues are, and offering ways to be proactive in fighting the over commercialization of childhood. They also offer resources for families and educators who wish to be intentional and conscious in the use of screen media with children.
2) Consider following the American Academy of Pediatrics’ advice, and don’t expose children under the age of two to any TV at all. Limit TV viewing and screen time for preschool aged children to no more than one hour per day of educational programming, and try to watch with them, if you do allow them to watch.
3) If you are a parent struggling with the question of how to keep the TV off while still managing to cook a meal or take a breath once in awhile, I can’t recommend Janet Lansbury’s posts No Need For TV, Baby, and A Creative Alternative to TV Time, highly enough. She gives concrete, solid guidance and suggestions that help to address the very real dilemma parents face.
4) Consider purchasing toys, books, clothing, food, diapers, and accessories that do not feature Disney, Sesame Street, or other cartoon characters. Look here, and here for good ideas about toys for babies and young children that are 10% toy, and 90% child.
5) You can watch the documentary Consuming Kids for free online.
6) Don’t put a TV in your child’s bedroom, and don’t turn on the TV during meal-times.
7) Consider participating in Screen Free Week (which falls on April 30th – May 6th this year). Susan says it’s not necessary to give up the use of all screens for the week in order to participate, although CCFC will “go dark” on their site, facebook page, and twitter account for the week. You can use Screen Free Week as an opportunity to evaluate and assess your family’s use of screen media, and to experiment with ways to enjoy time together as a family without the distraction of screens. For the first time ever, CCFC is offering a free organizers kit. Get yours today!
8) Finally, I invite you to share your thoughts, challenges, resources, and what has worked for your family in the comments below.