On Turning Kids Into Shoppers

A journalist investigates how television shows and videos for babies can do more harm than good.

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Author Susan Gregory Thomas started looking into the effect of videos and other products marketed to infants and toddlers around the time she began to have her own children. In her book Buy, Buy Baby, she writes that when she saw her 17-month-old toddler memorize Elmo's theme song within a few minutes, she "knew there was definitely something behind that friendly, furry face." She found that indeed there was. U.S. News spoke with Thomas, a former senior editor at the magazine, about why videos aimed at kids exert so much influence over them and may train their minds more for consumption than for anything educational.

One of your main points seems to be that many toys and videos out there for kids are marketed as though they will make them smart, but they really don't, and in fact, they can even hurt children.

My main thesis is even more far-reaching. The thesis of the book is that never before in history has media been created for such very young children. [That includes] videos, websites, television shows, even 24-hour cable and satellite channels. And actually, the very little research that is available as to how infants and toddlers even process television suggests that they don't understand television the way we do. The only thing that they're getting from television, aside from a few scrambled images, is the ability to recognize the main character. They're not getting anything of the positive social messages from Clifford or Elmo. They're not getting any of the deeper curriculum in Sesame Street or Dora. They are only getting how to recognize that character. You begin to understand that for very little children, these characters are brands, so what we have is the creation of the very youngest consumers in the history of the United States. That's the thesis of the book. Under the auspices of education value and development, there is a very broadly gauged marketing effort being leveled at infants and toddlers.

From the perspective of the companies that create the television shows, is the only purpose to sell products?

They're definitely having the TV shows to sell products. That's the only way they make money off these TV shows. In many of them, commercials are not allowed. If the question is, "Are they consciously trying to make consumers out of infants and toddlers?" I don't think anybody could answer that. Did you find that kids are influenced by the shows?

Absolutely. The characters are designed to be really attractive to very little children. Elmo, for example—or if you look at any character that is designed for kids, you see that they look like little kids or toddlers themselves. They have big eyes and rounded features, there's nothing pointy, and they speak in singsong-y voices. Some of the research shows little kids respond better to that elocution; it's called "mother-ese." Every mother naturally does it, even though we don't really know it. We're really stretching out vowels and emphasizing words and speaking in a clear, simple way so young children can begin to acquaint themselves with the phonemes of their native language. So everything about them is designed to be attractive to little children, but when you combine the evidence, you get a very ugly picture. They're not learning anything of what these characters seem to us to offer—the diversity, sharing, civic duty, the ABCs—they don't get any of that. It's all a scramble to them.

The only thing they can really get out of it is a really attractive image. It underscores their familiarity with this character everywhere they go. Instead of seeing a diaper, they see an Elmo diaper or an Elmo band-aid.

You also found that there could be an even more negative effect on kids' brains.

It's getting close to being a health crisis in the United States. Studies are pointing to an almost doubling of [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] cases in kids who watch TV before the age of 2, and in some cases [TV watching] is correlated with a higher incidence of autism. Even if you can't show there's some sort of causal relationship, we should be paying more attention to it. There needs to be more federal funding for studying the effects of media on very young children. So what should parents do?

There's nothing better than just sitting there and hanging out with your child. If you want to stimulate neurons and better prepare your child, the best thing you can do is really love them and have a good time with them. There's nothing special you need to do. Just hang out and love them, but of course, that's the one thing we don't have time for in this country.