Behind the Scenes
In 1999, two years after the world met Baby Einstein and the Teletubbies, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a recommendation: no TV for kids under two. Parents often consider this suggestion from a group of approximately 60,000 pediatricians and pediatric specialists as they decide at what point to let their children watch television. But how did the AAP decide on this guideline, and why did it pick the age of two?
"I know the machinations of how that recommendation occurred," shares Dr. Donald Shifrin, MD, chair of the AAP's Committee on Communications and a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The AAP began thinking about the issue of TV for children under two when Teletubbies appeared on public television in the late 1990s, he explains.
"The two-year-old market went bananas for it," says Dr. Shifrin. As opposed to Barney, a program that focused on children who could talk, and Sesame Street, which targeted preschoolers, Teletubbies was "a preverbal program—the Teletubbies barely spoke. They drifted across this kaleidoscopic landscape of color," says Dr. Shifrin.
The program was wildly successful, selling millions of dollars' worth of merchandise, and other television producers couldn't help taking note. Given this economic success, the members of the AAP's Committee on Public Education thought, "If this is the future of TV, that kids under two are now going to be demographic targets for programming, then we would issue a caveat," says Dr. Shifrin, who was a member of that committee which wrote the 1999 guideline.
The AAP's original guideline appeared in an August 1999 policy statement called "Media Education." It is one of nine recommendations in that paper and reads:
Pediatricians should urge parents to avoid television viewing for children under the age of two years. Although certain television programs may be promoted to this age group, research on early brain development shows that babies and toddlers have a critical need for direct interactions with parents and other significant caregivers (e.g., childcare providers) for healthy brain growth and the development of appropriate social, emotional, and cognitive skills. Therefore, exposing such young children to television programs should be discouraged.
The committee deliberately used the terms "avoid" and "discourage" rather than anything stronger: "What we're pleading for is prudence, not huge restrictions," explains Dr. Shifrin.