I was at my sister’s house the other day. She has a one month old daughter and a three year old son. I was feeding the baby as she was preparing lunch. The three year old had ten thousand dinkies strewn about the table that he was playing with. Being unable to leave my task and clear them, I asked him to tidy away his dinkies himself. My request was greeted with a less than enthusiastic response; to be honest, I was ignored.
I tried another tack. I said, “Hey, let’s make it an Olympic sport”. I knew he was aware of the Olympics from the television and general chat in the house. He thought this was a very good idea. He climbed from his chair immediately, grabbed a basket and while he was piling dinkies into it, I had to give a commentary on what was happening and how well he was doing in a commentator’s voice. I was actually quite shocked that it was working. As the last dinky went into the basket I declared him as having won the gold medal for ‘dinky tidying up’ and thought that would be the end of the game. He then totally surprised me by jumping up on the nearest chair and saying ‘Where’s my medal?’
We then had to get a necklace and role-play a medal ceremony. As the necklace went over his head, he struck a triumphant hand in the air. I thought it was hysterical and his mother informed me that he had been watching quite a lot of the Olympics’ coverage and was, obviously, very familiar with medal ceremonies and the behaviour of the winners.
The reason I relay such a tale is that the influence of television is often downplayed when it comes to kids. This story demonstrates the exact opposite. Fortunately the Olympics, by and large, has some positive messages. (It does get slightly out of hand when your favourite teddy is drafted in for a hammer throw, and then you turn around several times on the spot and hurl teddy in a small room with lots of breakables!)
This little experience certainly made me think of all the images we constantly present to children and assume that they don’t matter or even register. Very few would consciously allow small children to watch inappropriate television, but what about all the stuff that just slips in and out unnoticed; news, soap operas, reality TV, music videos, magazines and newspapers. In our de-sensitised state of oblivion we don’t even see it. That same three year old is very familiar with ‘Em-oh-dale’, (Emmerdale) as he calls it, often watching it with Granny in the afternoon.
One of the major problems is that there are so many sources in today’s world. There are hundreds of channels on TV, broadband internet, playstations, mobile technology, newspapers and glossy magazines. For today’s adults all these things have been introduced gradually and have become part of our daily lives. If today’s parents thought back to their own childhoods and the technology explosion of the past fifteen years, they would acknowledge that the minefield we are exposing our children to now just didn’t exist for us.
In the average household the tangle of chargers in sockets or the number of scart leads and cables is enough to alert us. A small family can have miles and miles of cable. Several mobile phone chargers for different brands of phone, the Ipod and MP3 player chargers, the chargers for the hand held games, laptops, digital cameras and several other gadgets, all spilling from sockets.
Where once there was just a television and a Jurassic video recorder, today there is likely to be a TV, a DVD player, a playstation, perhaps a stereo, the cable or sky receiver and maybe even a Sky box. Unbelievably, this stuff is just the low tech side of things. People in the know have other amazing toys that do all sorts of clever things like sling boxes whereby you can watch programmes recorded on your own television, remotely.
Many people turn on the television early in the morning and it stays on as background noise or company throughout the day. I do it myself sometimes, turning to Sky News as I go about chores, stopping occasionally to actually watch an item. News channels particularly are very repetitive.
The same stories are repeated about every twenty minutes or so. If there is a child in the room, even one playing and seemingly unaware of the television and a news channel is on, the images and stories are constantly repeated. Much modern news coverage is violent, miserable and pretty depressing; the war in Georgia with all its horrific images of bloodied bodies and carnage, another teenage stabbing, global warming, the incessant misery about the state of the economy or some other woeful story about a celebrity. Although the verbal dialogue will probably go over their heads, the images will not.
I celebrate all the advances and there are terrific benefits to be had. If I was a parent, I don’t doubt that my own kids would also have access to two hundred channels, a mobile phone and a playstation and a computer as, like every parent, I wouldn’t want them to get left behind or to be technologically ignorant. Being occasionally exposed to areas of supposedly inappropriate content here and there never did any of us any real harm. The odd sex scene on the television or even the occasional spot of violence was diluted by the general run of things being pretty normal. Today we live in a deluge of such images and it is virtually impossible to protect or keep a child away from them. Indeed even if you do succeed, he or she is more than likely mixing with kids that haven’t had such careful monitoring and they are being influenced anyway.
I had a very liberal childhood, little was ever censored and I always valued that freedom and held a strong belief that censorship was debilitating. I now realise that my parents were not just wonderfully enlightened, but that there was little in my world to censor. The most adult literature in the house was Lady Chatterley’s Lover or televisually, Dallas! I wonder how my parents would have reacted to the playstation game ‘Grand Theft Auto’ or would they have perceived the Big Brother contestants to be suitable adult role models? Would they have been concerned if my demurely dressed Barbie and Sindy dolls were swapped for belly topped Bratz dolls? My views on censorship as we know it haven’t changed but maybe we do need to acknowledge how information gets into our homes and the type of information it is.
You don’t need me to tell you that children are like sponges and will indiscriminately soak up what is around them, good, bad or indifferent. Try squeezing one and see what comes out. If you don’t like it, the last person you should blame is the child.