By Ila Ananya
Every night before her two-year-old daughter falls asleep, Ramya, who runs arts classes for children in Hyderabad, plays her daughter a few videos from the bedtime section on Baby TV, a London-based television channel started in 2003. The videos she shows her daughter are short; some are about two minutes long, with soothing music, and have little children (usually boys) falling asleep and dreaming of clouds and stars. Ramya sounded delighted at how easily her daughter now falls asleep — “It’s incredible, it must be the bell-like music,” she said — before quickly adding that this is the only TV she allows her to watch, apart from half an hour on some afternoons. Does Ramya monitor what her daughter watches? Of course, she said, adding that perhaps she doesn’t even need to, since her daughter always picks Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
In case you haven’t been near a baby lately, you read that right. Ramya’s two-year-old daughter picks and clicks on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse videos from the selection YouTube offers.
While Baby TV has some more normal-seeming sleep videos like of the animated little boy dreaming, there are also a whole range of videos that get more and more strange (and frankly, substance-induced) to adult eyes. It’s not surprising that according to Baby TV’s website, the idea for the channel came after a sleepless night of rewinding a video for a toddler.
There’s one, like this one, that starts off with an animated sea and a few fish; before hanging diamonds sway slowly across a black screen; which then becomes a school of fish swimming frantically and haphazardly, until a big circle (the earth?) appears with colours that look like they are a part of Rorschach’s test. Some other videos that put babies to sleep (this one is 8 hours long) have psychedelic designs, and you’re no longer sure what to think. Opium seems almost mild in comparison.
For anyone who has grown up before this generation, the idea of TV shows for babies might seem ludicrous. And yet, it is a thing. Not only are there TV shows and videos, there are genres within them. One kid I know loves watching videos of elaborately arranged Lego trains that crash into each other over a swimming pool (like this one), and fall into the water. There seem to be a large number of shows for children below the age of two, apart from the popular Peppa Pig, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Teletubbies, or Sesame Street, which are marketed as educational shows that stimulate children at a young age. Some older shows, like Waybuloo, even have four main characters that practice ‘yogo’, a light form of yoga if you please. Another video has animated suns, rainbows, and fish, with Tchaikovsky and other classical musicians playing in the background. Videos, ladies and gentlemen, are the opium of the millennial munchkin masses.
Dr Neena David, a Bangalore-based clinical psychologist, says that babies under the age of two are going through a language burst and a sense of recognition of the things they see, and are able to replicate in their minds. However, she also says, “Unfortunately the educational application of such programmes cannot be determined at the moment, and I can’t think of any studies that prove that babies fully understand such programmes. In fact, the American Academy of Paediatrics frowns on babies under the age of two being exposed to any electronic media.”
Manisha*, an interior designer who lives in Delhi, says that she was surprised at the number of shows available for babies when her daughter was born. “I’m not comfortable showing her video after video,” she said. “I want her to also learn to keep herself busy as she grows older, but the shows that she has taken a liking to aren’t half bad,” she says. For Ramya, showing her daughter these videos in the afternoons is more to get some time off for herself, and conduct her art classes.
There’s a lot of guilt among parents in admitting that a little bit of screen time for children keeps everyone sane. Like Ramya, Manisha was defensive when we asked her how much TV her two-year-old daughter watches. Manisha’s daughter likes watching short videos of Billy Bam Bam on YouTube. It’s a show about Billy (dressed in pink because she’s a girl), and Bam Bam (dressed in blue because he’s a boy), both of whom can pass off either as bears or as children dressed as bears. It’s fascinating that almost every video begins with them eating something — in Billy Bam Bam Making Music with Cymbals,they are eating oat meal; in Billy Bam Bam and the Choo Choo Train, they are eating strawberries and cream; in Billy Bam Bam on a Rainy Day, they are having soup. In every episode, there are lessons to be learnt, like sharing, clearing up after themselves, and not wiping their mouths on their sleeves.
Ramya says that her brother’s son, who is a year old, also watches Baby TV on YouTube. He likes videos that have nursery rhymes which play in the background. While Ramya’s nephew doesn’t know the rhymes themselves yet, she says that the songs are an easy way to distract him when he’s crying — his new favourite is a video with Humpty Dumpty, that ends with Humpty happily falling off the wall and onto a trampoline. Some older videos go on for two hours, with a little girl singing rhymes like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Wheels on the Bus, and Ba Ba Black Sheep, and floating around in the middle of animations for these songs.
Baby TV also has a recent sports special, introducing running races among animals (spoiler: the cheetah wins, though the deer comes close), and other sports. There’s swimming, badminton, and basketball — in the basketball video, Draco (who looks like a baby dragon from Harry Potter) plays with surprising ease, after a man’s voice in the background tells him at what distance from the hoop he must stand. Draco then successfully makes shot after shot (even when he’s facing the other way). Sixteen-year-old Divya says she secretly plays these for her nephews every time she has to take care of them, even though her aunt has a rule against TV. “It’s so easy to distract them with the music and the colours, and everyone always looks happy in these videos,” she said.
So why do parents show their babies these videos, even though there are reports on studies like thisone, according to which TVs are nothing more than a “mesmerising, glowing box” for children below the age of two? Manisha doesn’t think these shows are going to do much in terms of teaching her daughter anything. Instead, she laughed and said that her daughter learnt to recognise strawberries because of the show. Divya, when asked if she wished she’d grown up watching videos like these, said, “I won’t remember them anyway, right?”
Two young boys recently informed me dismissively that board games are so last generation (what!), and went to play Halo 5. Baby TV and other such shows, and the enthusiasm with which they are watched seem to reflect a similar shift. Illustrations in books are no longer enough to draw children into the worlds of their stories; with video storytelling, there’s now an additional sense of movement, sound, and time. But these children’s books have always been for children, even if they are read aloud by parents — today, these shows for babies come from recognising problems that parents must cope with, so that they can have some time for themselves.