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Babies are a new market sector. It's enough to look at the modern baby - the one being trailed by his parents with a book in three colors for his baby carriage, a mobile for his infant seat and a trampoline in the house - in order to understand that his parents will buy anything for him, as long as they are promised that the product "develops intellectual ability," "enriches" or "activates."

Unavoidably, the broadcasting bodies are also trying to get a chunk of the parents who lay golden eggs. At present, after the Hop! channel for young children has taken over the audience of kids of kindergarten age, the satellite company has decided to reach an even younger audience: The Baby Channel, which began broadcasting last month (on Afik 49), is designed for babies from birth until the age of three.

The goal of the Baby Channel, claim its producers, is "to enrich the toddler and to contribute to his development." It tries to do this by means of very basic programs, almost without words: simple animation, songs, plasticine figures and even photographs of revolving mobiles. The satellite company emphasizes that this is the first channel of its kind in the world. It's hard not to wonder why other countries haven't taken part in this achievement.

TV as babysitter

It's almost impossible today to forbid children to watch television entirely, and mainly, it's old-fashioned and self-righteous. The television is usually in the center of the house - the living room - and looks like a device that brings enjoyment and interest to adults, and therefore it naturally attracts the attention of the children. In addition, sometimes it can be an educational tool, and not simply entertaining.

Prof. Dafna Lemish, head of the Department of Communications at Tel Aviv University, says

there are some studies that go so far as to claim that children of kindergarten age who are not exposed to television at all are liable to lag behind their friends: "They don't understand visual images as well, and are removed from everyday subjects of discussion that are part of the children's culture, which places them in an inferior position when compared to other children."

Since four-month-old babies still don't discuss the latest installment of Bob the Beaver with their friends, and it doesn't contribute significantly to their visual perception, the Baby Channel is apparently meant to serve someone else: their parents.

A parent who is exhausted from a night of intermittent sleep, and from long days in the company of a new partner who has joined all activities, is occasionally tempted to put the baby in front of the screen and to enjoy half an hour of quiet. The names of the many children's CDs that have come out in recent years - "Baby Einstein," "Baby Van Gogh," "Baby Mozart" and "So Smart" (all of which are broadcast on the new channel) - testify to an attempt to ease the parent's conscience. These are programs that make your child smarter, the names imply to the parents, and they certainly can't do any harm.

The quiet in the house, of course, has no added value - there is nothing exciting about the ability of the baby to concentrate on the CD. A baby will show similar interest watching the current events program "Six O'Clock" with Oshrat Kotler, and especially the commercials.

Dr. Lemish emphasizes that first and foremost, a television channel for babies is a new marketing outlet: "Babies are another target audience. After they discovered this audience has proved itself in terms of marketing in other fields, it is reasonable to assume that the channel will not focus only on television, but on spin-off products as well."

The channel sells itself by promising to improve the baby's intellectual ability. The promos before it went on the air emphasized that broadcasts are accompanied by classical music, "which studies have proved contributes to the development of intellectual ability and spatial perception." Some claim the broadcasts prepare the babies for the world of technology. Is it necessary to develop the infant's technological ability before he or she knows how to reach for a mobile?

Baby talk

The American Pediatrics Association, which has been dealing for many years with prolonged television viewing by babies and children, unequivocally recommends not allowing children under the age of two access to the television set. For children up to the age of 18, the organization recommends encouraging them not to sit in front of the screen for more than an hour or two daily.

Dr. Lemish claims the recommendation of the pediatrics association is extreme. "Everything is a function of what there is in the environment," she says. "A child who has a lot of stimuli and interaction around him will, in any case, have less need for television."

Prof. Amiram Raviv, head of the Psychology Department at TAU, agrees with Lemish. Both seem to be avoiding what seems to be a phobia against innovations. "Everything is good or bad depending on the use made of it," he says, adding that when Dr. Gina Ortar, a expert on child psychology, spoke of the need to talk to babies, what she said was seen as an illogical and even ridiculous innovation.

"Ortar proved that when you speak to very young children, you improve their cognitive ability and the connection between them and their parents is strengthened," says Prof. Raviv. "The question is how far one can take the stimuli from the screen and make them part of the overall enrichment of the child. Watching television doesn't take the place of a story, but complements it. If the parent watches together with the child, and serves as an intermediary, that can be a good thing, but if television is supposed to be the child's babysitter - that's not good. They once said that there's no point in reading a book to a child under the age of one, today they encourage parents to read to babies a few months old. In every diet, the ingredients must be varied. It is known that the first three years of a child's life are the most important to his development."

To continue your metaphor - in the first few months of his life, the infant drinks only milk - a diet that is not at all varied.

Prof. Raviv: "Therefore, as with food, activity can also be varied beginning at the age of six months. When raising children, the best rule is not to exaggerate."

Early addiction

Some people claim that television cannot be as good a stimulus for a baby as are music and toys. "I'm not ruling out television at later ages," says Dr. Ada Becker, an early childhood developmental consultant, and a professor at the Seminar Hakibbutzim College of Education in Ramat Aviv. "In the right dosage, one can learn from television. But in the early ages, learning is done through interaction with people and by physical activity - by the contact between the parent and the child. Babies learn mainly through touch, through experience, through trial and error, a combination of the body and the emotions within the situation. Television is not contact, it is lack of contact. It's passive - if it's not interactive, it's not human.

"Starting an entire channel designed for babies gives the feeling that the broadcasts serve the child, and therefore one can allow them to watch more. But it simply isn't appropriate for the first years of a child's life, because they become a helpless consumer of a medium that fascinates them. Life is not so fast and colorful: playing with blocks is much less fast, colorful and complex than the screen."

American Internet sites for parents and children deal extensively with the question of watching television. The experience of the experts there shows that watching at such a young age gets the babies used to being addicted to the screen, and that from the moment the set is turned on in a child's life, it will be very hard to turn it off in the future. Studies have also shown that children who suffer from obesity began to watch television at an early age: Babies need as much time as possible on their tummies, and as little as possible on their behinds, whereas watching the screen is usually done in a sitting position - a position that encourages passivity and is not at all recommended. Becker adds that from her experience, "after children become accustomed to watching a great deal, they find it hard to concentrate on ordinary everyday learning."

Dr. Yair Bar Haim, from the Psychology Department at TAU, definitely considers the decision about watching the baby channel an issue that must be examined, like every aspect of parenting. "If there is no problem of radiation from the screen and they don't sit too close to it - then in my opinion there's no real problem," says Bar Haim.

"If they were to try to sell me the telenovella channel as something that develops my personality, it would be ridiculous," he continues. "According to my basic view, the same is true of the Baby Channel. Everything depends on the parents' relationship with their children, and on the way they regulate exposure to all kinds of stimuli, including this channel. They should watch it and see what's it all about, and reach an informed decision, just as with anything else in education."