PBS’ “Teletubbies” Is Harmful To Kids, Not
Educational, Say Experts At Harvard
PBS Profits From Teletubbie Merchandise
By John Pike
July 2--Critics railed against Rev. Jerry Falwell when he tagged a character on
the children’s public TV show “Teletubbies” as homosexual, despite the fact that
the gay press had “outed” the character more than a year previous. Falwell was
repeating what was already known.
Yet Falwell’s remarks are related to important points about “Teletubbies” that
the major media ignore: Children’s experts at Harvard say that the show is
harmful to kids, for reasons beyond the homosexual overtones. And the Public
Broadcasting System promotes “Teletubbies” as educational while revenues
pour in from the licensing and sale of Teletubbie toys.
“Teletubbies” is the first television program shown by either public or
commercial TV, targeted for children between the ages of one and 2 ½.
A pair of psychiatry professors at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Susan E.
Linn and Alvin F. Poussaint, say there is virtually no research that examines the
effect television has on children as young as one. And what little research does
exist shows that TV watching for that age is most likely harmful.
PBS Is Irresponsible
In a recent article in the American Prospect, Linn and Poussaint report: “What is
known about how children under two learn and develop suggests they should
spend most of their time actively engaged exploring the world using all of their
senses. And because we don’t know what, if anything, very young children gain
from viewing television, and because it has been demonstrated that watching
television can be habituating, it is irresponsible for PBS to encourage parents to
expose their children to it at such an early age.”
Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston, told
Massachusetts News that according to at least the “informal research” she has
conducted, TV watching for children between one and 2 1/2 is harmful because
the activity is passive. “The kids just watch it, they do not interact with it,” she
said. “They need interaction with the real world, where they can figure out how
things work, how to do things they want done. The first thing very young children
must do is develop an understanding of the real world first. With TV, they just
watch, they cannot affect it.”
Levin said she is concerned that “Teletubbies” is “seductive and serves as a
hook to lure” kids into watching an extra amount of television. “Watching
Teletubbies at an early age encourages more TV viewing later in life, which has
been linked to poor school performance and obesity,” she said. “Children under
two should not watch television.”
Watching lots of TV for very young children reduces school performance
because kids who do are “less able to engage in creative play, and this skill is
related to school performance,” said Levin.
By watching too much TV, she said, the kids are not engaged in the world in an
active way, so they are less likely to learn skills necessary for an academic
education. As an example, Levin said kids need to learn the experimental method
by playing with balloons. To blow it up, release it, and see where it goes.
Television watching also lessens their social skills because they spend less time
interacting with others, she said.
Officials at PBS did not return phone calls regarding the educational value of
“Teletubbies,” but the show is marketed as being beneficial to children. It is part
of PBS’ Ready-to-Learn Service.
For instance, PBS brochures read: “Teletubbies is not only an entertaining
program, but also a learning tool for its young audience as well. Above all else,
“Teletubbies” is funny. Its uncommon format and characters are designed to
nourish children’s thinking skills, encourages them to listen, and builds their
confidence. It has been created to foster their imaginations even after the
television is turned off.”
PBS literature further says that “Teletubbies” is helpful for the following
reasons: it introduces speech; expands knowledge; encourages listening; teaches
through repetition; promotes affection; increases confidence; builds self-esteem;
develops movement; and, celebrates individuality.
Officials at PBS cite the work of Ellen Wartella, dean of the College of
Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, as showing that
“Teletubbies” is beneficial to watch. Wartella acknowledges the paucity of
research that shows “Teletubbies” is educational, but she says the show is
Because it is known that children are watching TV at very young ages regardless
of whether “Teletubbies” is shown or not, it is better to have them watching
“Teletubbies” rather than something that is not age-appropriate, said Wartella.
“It is presented in a way that matches their abilities, within their range of
attention and comprehension.”
Linn and Poussaint say children are likely watching “Teletubbies” in addition
to—not instead of—other TV programs.
Officials at PBS did not say how much money it earns from marketing Teletubbie
toys. But some experts believe the revenues are large and play an important role
in its decision to air and promote the program that has not been proven to be
In 1997, product sales from “Sesame Street” alone added $14 million to PBS
coffers, said Linn and Poussaint. “We don’t know what PBS’ cut of Teletubbies
merchandise is, but toy industry analysts predict “Teletubbies” toys will generate
$2 billion this year.” Hospitals all over the country have been given Teletubbie
gift packs to be distributed to newborn babies.
“In 1999, most new children’s programming on PBS is funded, at least in part, by
corporate sponsors or product licensing,” said Linn and Poussaint. “An officer of
the Children’s Television Workshop has been heard to say the critically
acclaimed program Ghostwriter went off the air because it was built around an
invisible main character and therefore didn’t have much to sell.”
Levin said the Teletubbie toys, in addition to the program, are also harmful to
children. “When the kids are playing with Teletubbie toys, they imitate characters
on the screen, rather than creating their own play and imagination,” she said.
“The kids love the toys and that kind of love for an inanimate object is not good.
They love it so much they cannot understand it is pretend.”
PBS over the years has produced good educational TV for young people,
according to most analysts. Its programs promote nonviolence and diversity, and
this may contribute to the muted criticism of the show by educational experts.
But Linn and Poussaint argue that “Teletubbies” has crossed over an important
line. “It violates a fundamental tenet of PBS’ noncommercial mission,” they said.
“When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street first appeared on
PBS in the late 1960s, there were already programs on commercial stations that
were aimed at preschool children. PBS was providing an alternative for children
by providing pro-social, nonviolent programming based on sound educational and
developmental theory. In targeting one-year-olds, “Teletubbies” is not luring
children away from commercial television. It is creating a new market.”
Letters to the editor:
1. Teletubbies Are Good For Children
The recent article by John Pike on the harmfulness of the Teletubbies TV show was absolutely ludicrous. Though I understand Linn’s, Poussaint’s and Levin’s concerns and reasons for not approving of television at such a young age, the examples and evidence they stated were ignorant and in one case even dangerous. Teletubbies target audience is between the ages of 1 and 2-1/2, an extremely active age in which babies are just gaining the feelings of being able to move around on their own, doing what they choose to do and playing what they want to play with. I have never seen a passive or inactive 1 to 2-1/2 year old, yet Levin claims that TV is harmful at such a young age because "the activity is passive...they need interaction with the real world." Recently I have done much babysitting for two 18 month old babies, the perfect age for Teletubbies, and in their house the TV is kept on for most of the morning so they can watch Barney, Arthur, and Teletubbies. While they occasionally stand in front of the TV observing what is going on, they are usually actively playing with toys, cups, balls and each other. They know Barney’s name and show and love him, yet they never sit inactively watching TV.
Another thing the article claims is that children who watch a lot of TV perform poorly in school, yet when I was young I watched many TV programs, some age appropriate and some not, and I was a straight A student. Maybe I’m the exception but many of my friends have the same experience. Levin also claimed that when watching TV, kids "are less likely to learn skills necessary for an academic education," yet a huge part of elementary education lately is multiculturalism, something that Teletubbies center around. She said kids who watch TV are "less able to engage in creative play, and this skill is related to school performance." In preschool, the first grade the target audience would enter, kids learn colors, shapes, how to write their name, and how to socialize with other people, especially people who are different than themselves. Three out of four of these things are promoted by the Teletubbies. However, one that is not taught to young children is to play with balloons. Ms. Levin said that children "need to learn the experimental method by playing with balloons." Children under the age of five have absolutely no business anywhere near an uninflated balloon, and when it is blown up, children to the age of seven should still be supervised. For someone who is very educated and who expresses her opinions so publicly, she should know that balloons are so much more dangerous than a kid’s show could ever be. Balloons have actually been fatal to young children.
Babies love the Teletubbies because they are bright, repetitive, and engaging. They love the toys because they are colorful and soft. Ms. Levin states that "that kind of love for an inanimate object is not good. They love it so much they cannot understand it is pretend." What child does not have a teddy bear, doll, blanket or toy that they love? That they need to bring everywhere? Has Ms. Levin never heard of imaginary friends? These are babies we are talking about; they’ll learn about the real world soon enough. Why not let them create their own world with characters who they love and feel safe with while they still can? Imagination is one of the greatest virtues society can encourage in a child. When Barney came out, I never read these kinds of concerns from so many people, yet children love Barney dolls as much as Teletubbie dolls. The same thing with Sesame Street and Arthur and every other kids’ show. Linn and Poussaint insinuate that the only reason that PBS keeps the Teletubbies on air is all of the commercial profits they receive from it. PBS receives commercial profits from all of their kids’ shows; that is what keeps these great shows on the air.
Adults rail at this one show because it can’t engage them as much as shows aimed at older kids can. Adults can’t understand what the Teletubbies are saying and get bored with all the repetition. But who tries to teach their one year old to speak another language when they can barely speak their own? Or try to get their two year old to count to 20? Kids that young respond to colors and happiness and movement, which is what the Teletubbies offer. Now, nothing replaces kids’ interactions with parents, caretakers, and each other. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with a show that promotes tolerance, love, independence, social interaction and laughter. I think it is quite proactive.
– Rachel Breen, Boston
2. Television Is Not Bad For My Daughter
In defense of the Teletubbies, I strongly disagree with the Harvard professors’ findings. The reality of today’s world is that not too many parents can spend every waking moment interacting with their children. This being the case, other entertainment sources must be found, and I feel Teletubbies and PBS are the safest, most beneficial means available out there for our toddlers. Anything used as a "Babysitting Tool" for extended periods of time is harmful, but that is the parents’ responsibility. PBS cannot be blamed by merely broadcasting the Teletubbies. TV in and of itself is not harmful, but the length of time and what is being viewed is what is detrimental to the long term development of our young children.
Teletubbies is a show that reaches the toddlers on a level they understand. The child sees hugging, laughing, singing, playing, sharing and loving. A young child needs to know no more than that. A familiar line in the show is "Teletubbies love each other very much!" My daughter understands what that means, and I’m sure it’s comforting to her to know that. At such young ages, simple shows with simple messages are very effective, and despite what some may think, I feel it’s important to know that the world is a happy, sweet place with no hurting or bad things. My two-year-old daughter can learn the truth later when she watches TV shows on other stations.
The show does not promote passive viewing, in my opinion, but just the opposite. Besides seeing the Teletubbies interact among themselves, other segments show children learning in their own environment. My daughter, Katie, has seen little brother feeding the chickens on their farm, little girls playing guitars, children making pasta and the stories go on. Katie now incorporates these stories into her own life by wanting to do these things herself. In addition, PBS has a website with Teletubbies on it. Because my daughter loves the Teletubbies, she has learned how to maneuver the mouse around the screen in order to play with her Teletubbie friends. That’s interaction!
In closing, besides showing my daughter different aspects of other children’s lives, teaching her that sharing and playing together without fighting or yelling is fun, and that loving each other is good. Each morning as we leave the house for Day Care, Katie’s little stuffed "LaaLaa" is cradled in her arms and reminds her that she is not alone at Day Care while Mommy is at work. Many times, as I watch Teletubbies with Katie, she’ll lean over and give me a "Biggg Huggg" and say, "Mommy, I want to go there." Well, Katie, so do I.
– Kathleen McDonough, Brockton