Suzanne Fields

How a child learns to play and study determines how he learns to think. This is good news for the marketing mavens. They understand that if you can get the kids in front of a television set early enough, you can turn babies into big-time buyers.

An attentive observer can verify this by watching children in the home, classroom, or on the playground. Kids who watch television, videotapes and DVDs for hours on end are vulnerable to short attention spans and soon develop a dependence on high-tech razzle-dazzle to learn. Loud music with a thumping beat, slogans shouted at high decibel and letters and numbers dancing across a screen can keep a child alert, but alert for what? And for how long?

My own observations, though limited, suggest that the kids deserve better than what their elders force upon them. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts say there's little reliable information about the effect of television on very young children. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation tried to find out and their report, just out, is called "Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers and Preschoolers."

Theirs are not idle questions and answers. Most children - up to 65 percent in one study - grow up in homes where a television set is on at least half the day, suffusing their environment with often-mindless noise and distraction.

A tot may not be trained for the toilet, but he's easily trained to hit the ON button. At least 74 percent of children younger than 2, as measured in the survey, watch television. More than a fourth have a television set in their bedroom.

Weaning a child from the breast or bottle is easier than weaning him from the television screen. Soon we may get a Nielsen rating for tiny tots. Before PG-13, we can look for PG-2. Advertisers target parents as a gluttonous audience, eager to buy specific products from leakproof Pampers to leakproof learning programs, so it was only a matter of minutes before their babies were targeted as buyers, too.

"Recent years have seen an explosion in electronic media marketed directly at the very youngest children in our society," say the Kaiser researchers, who looked at children as young as 6 months. They found a booming market in videotapes and DVDs, some aimed at infants from a year to 18 months old, special keyboards for children as young as 9 months and a TV show for children as young as a year.

In an advertising culture big on focus groups and impact statements, babes in the wombs may soon be measured for the way extra-environmental sounds affect the pulse. If marketers can get crawlers hooked early enough, they can add years to the lives of their products (if not to the lives of their subjects).

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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