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DVD series for babies, parents fuels TV debate

A line of DVDs for babies and parents created by a national child advocacy group and the creators of ''Sesame Street" is drawing heated criticism and renewing the debate over whether children under 2 should watch television.

The first two installments of ''Sesame Beginnings," a series intended for babies as young as 6 months and their parents, will be in stores April 4. It features baby Big Bird, Elmo, and other Muppets as well as real-life babies and parents doing such things as getting dressed, singing, dancing, and playing. The goal of the DVDs is to help parents learn how to best interact with their children's temperaments.

The series is a collaboration between Sesame Workshop and Zero to Three, a national nonprofit whose self-described mission is ''to support the healthy development and well-being of infants, toddlers, and their families." This marks the first time Zero to Three has been involved in a commercial DVD and the first time Sesame Workshop has targeted children younger than 3.

The outrage is directed at Zero to Three, which trains professionals to work with parents, and not at Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit that has produced children's television for three decades.

Psychologist Susan Linn, cofounder of the Boston-based watchdog Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, accused Zero to Three of ''selling out."

''To me, this is just heartbreaking," Linn said. ''If they have something to say to parents, why didn't they just produce a video intended only for parents? Why do they have to involve the babies at all?"

Zero to Three's executive director, Matthew Melmed, defended the project by citing a 2003 study by another respected organization, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, that reported that 68 percent of children under 6, including babies as young as 6 months, spend an average of two hours a day in front of a television.

''The reality is that the current generation of parents, millions and millions of them, view media as a positive tool," Melmed said. ''They put their babies in front of it despite advice to the contrary. We wanted to meet parents in that reality."

It's not as though this is new territory. The baby video market is a billion-dollar-a-year industry; the best-known line of videos for children under 2, the ''Baby Einstein" series, has more than 20 titles and has generated sales of $500 million.

Pediatrician Donald Shifrin, spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said ''Sesame Beginnings" hurts Zero to Three's credibility. ''We wouldn't be commenting on this if it were strictly a commercial venture," he said. ''Having the imprimatur of an organization like Zero to Three on a DVD may well be the tipping point for parents who would have been inclined to resist the pull of media for young children. This may be what pushes them over the fence, to say, 'Well, it must be good.' The fact that it's this organization, that's a disappointment."

In 1999, the academy issued a recommendation discouraging parents from exposing children under 2 to television. ''We still stand by it," Shifrin said.

So does Cambridge pediatrician and best-selling author T. Berry Brazelton, a board member of Zero to Three and one of its founders. ''I think it's unfortunate they did this," he said. ''I don't think children [under 2] ought to be watching TV, with or without their parents."

Zero to Three faced a choice, Melmed said: to allow children to continue to be exposed to inappropriate material from commercial products or to create a quality alternative.

''We're not advocating passive viewing of plopping a child in front of this," said Rosemarie Truglio, vice president of education and research for Sesame Workshop. ''Nothing currently designed for children under 2 in video content was designed to bring the adult viewer into the viewing experience. That's what makes 'Sesame Beginnings' unique."

''Sesame Beginnings" is intended to be viewed by parent and baby together for no more than 30 minutes a day, although Zero to Three child development specialist Claire Lerner acknowledged that parents sometimes leave their children unattended in front of a television. For those times, Lerner said, ''at least the parent can know it is 100 percent developmentally appropriate."

Other than reimbursement for the staff's consulting time, Zero to Three has no financial stake in DVD sales, said Melmed, who acknowledged he ''wasn't expecting this kind of reaction" to the DVD.

''We are not calling this an educational video," he said. ''The complete focus is on parent-child interaction."

As much as critics admire Zero to Three and its work to now, Melmed's argument doesn't convince them. ''To say babies are watching TV anyway so let's give them something good to watch just doesn't make good sense," said Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

At the crux of the issue, Rich said, is how the human brain develops. Unlike other organs, which at birth are miniature versions of what they will be in the adult body, an infant's brain continues to evolve for two years, weeding out neural connections that don't get used, Rich said. Early exposure to screens has been linked to diminished deductive reasoning, among other things.

''Knowing that even as a possibility, why put a child in front of a screen at all?" Rich said.

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