Friday, July 13, 2007

Why squirrels are as dangerous as TV

One of my child’s favourite television programmes is Dora the Explorer. It is a fantastical animation about a young girl and her sidekick, Boots the monkey, who live in the rainforest and have adventures helping forest creatures. To up the educational ante, the animals speak Spanish and the adventures require colour, number and shape recognition to be completed.

According to psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, however, I am damaging my two-year-old child by allowing him to watch Dora. Sigman recently told British MPs that the State should offer guidelines on children’s TV consumption. He recommended banning TV for children under three and reducing older children’s watching hours to no more than one-and-a-half hours a day. His guidelines are considerably less than the three hours of viewing a day the average British child imbibes. He backs his recommendations by studies that link watching TV with obesity, as well as sleeping and behavioural problems.

That said, Sigman is accused of trying to create a ‘nanny State’ that regulates everyday life. Organisations such as the Save Kids’ TV Campaign see Sigman’s suggestions as unrealistic and highlight studies that demonstrate the educational benefits of TV. I have some sympathy with this lobby, which is interested in the content of TV rather than simply seeing it as an evil instrument. It feels the intellectual, creative and cultural diet we feed our children is as important as the food we give them. If done correctly, this lobby adds, TV can encourage diversity as well as an interest in sports and the arts.

Sigman is, no doubt, worried about my boy’s mental health, but, to the best of my knowledge, his TV watching, which is done in moderation, has benefits. The joy he gets out of Dora’s adventures is palpable. I could not rob him of that. It adds layers of humour and imagination to his world. In fact, if anything, I think the excessive concern with education is problematic, at times.

As much as my child enjoys Dora’s adventures and can now recognise shapes and colours, and speak a little Spanish (or so I think), as a result, the constant educational emphasis can be absurd. With traditional education, Dora the Explorer also embeds messages such as the importance of wearing seat belts in cars or life jackets at sea. The problem with this is the car Dora drives safely buckled into is chauffeured by a squirrel. She also makes a point of wearing her life jacket when riding on the back of sea creatures such as whales.

I am all for my child getting free public education. But is the seat belt message not overshadowed by the fact she’s getting into a pink convertible driven by a purple bolero-wearing squirrel, and the life jacket safety message somewhat redundant, given the fact that she’s wearing it while bareback whale-riding with a talking monkey for company.

When I think of the children and TV debate, it is the advice a teacher gave me that springs to mind: the problem with common sense is that it is not so common. Science does not need to tell us that excessive television watching could be hazardous, just as too much outdoor activity could result in injuries. Equally, we know we should give children healthy food but the odd sugary snack can be a nice treat, even if it has no intellectual benefit.

Most dangers in this world come from warmongering politicians, corrupt intellectual ideas, reckless drivers, corporations that destroy the environment, media organisations that distort reality, fanatics of all kind, criminals, some schoolteachers and, sadly, even parents.

TV can be educational – and it should be. But why not also allow it to be a medium for escapist entertainment at times? Obviously, all this should be part of a balanced diet of creative activities and exercise. Everything in moderation, I say, even the odd bit of whale riding.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 13 July 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.