Tuesday, April 12, 2005


CYBER AGE BY ND BATRA From The Statesman

The school bully is a universal menace. Though no one has attempted to write a history of school bullying, one might surmise that it must have begun the day the first school began anywhere in the world. Threats and intimidation and extortion — bullying takes many forms — make it impossible for kids to concentrate on their studies and sports. Safety in school has become a major concern for school authorities and parents. But no one has blamed television for being responsible for turning kids into bullies until a recent research found that kids who spent about three and a half hours daily in front of television had 25 per cent risk of becoming bullies between the ages of 6 and 11.

The research findings, which have been published in the April issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, would make us believe that whenever something goes wrong with children, it must be because of the impact of television and other popular media.

So we have been told in so many ways that television causes violent behaviour in children. Television causes obesity in children. And last year we learned from the results of another study that early exposure to television by children increases the risk of attention disorder. Children’s brain undergoes rapid development in the early years and exposure to television might interfere in the neural wiring of the brain. The research done at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center at the University of Washington, Seattle, covered more than 1,300 children. The researchers led by Dr Dimitri Christakis concluded that for every hour of television viewing by children in 1-3 age group, the risk of attention disorder increased by 9 per cent.

A child having attention disorder does not necessarily suffer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD children (and adults) suffer from some chemical imbalance in the brain. They can’t stay still or control their actions. They talk incessantly and get bored easily. They forget things and can’t finish the work they are doing. To some extent all children show such tendencies. Attention disorder is a matter of degree. At some point it becomes a serious illness. The question is what kind of television programmes cause or aggravate the condition. Or could some programme reverse attention disorder?

While the University of Washington study concluded that early exposure might skew the brain development, an earlier study done in the late 1980s showed the tremendous learning potential of television for toddlers. The researchers found that toddlers as young as 10 months have the potential to learn when they watch television. The right kinds of television programmes could promote intellectual development and help children to learn language skills, such as matching names to the objects they represent, and do things by watching them being done on television. For example, a toddler could take apart a toy and also put it together after seeing it being done on television, researchers had found. Dr Mabel Rice of the University of Kansas, whose research on language acquisition indicated that infants are capable of learning from television if a programme, for example, “Sesame Street”, is especially made for them.

To be sure, fast-paced Saturday morning children’s programmes that are nothing but infomercials for action toys and sugared cereals are not going to help children any way except to turn them into avid consumers of the multi-billion dollar toy marketplace. What could explain the apparent contradiction between Dr Christakis’s research that TV may cause attention disorder and Dr Rice’s earlier research that TV holds the potential to teach infants? It is probably what goes into the content of the programme. Through trial and error we might learn what kinds of programmes turn a child into a bully or a good soldier; a mathematician or a musician. We don’t know enough. Probably there is more than one factor.

A few years ago, The American Psychological Association suggested four steps that could be taken “to mitigate, moderate and minimize” the impact of violence on little ones:

1. Watch at least one episode of programmes the child watches to know how violent they are.
2. When viewing together, discuss the violence with the child as to why the violence happened and how painful it is. Ask the child how the conflict could have been solved without violence.
3. Explain to the child that violence in entertainment is not real.
4. Encourage children to watch programmes with characters that cooperate, help, and care for each other.

APA said that these programmes have been shown to influence children in a positive way and suggested making “TV violence part of the public health agenda (as with smoking and drunk driving), publicising — through a vigorous public information campaign in all information media — its perils and effects.” Television violence in children programming has not gone down because Hollywood has passed the buck to parents. Let parents use the V-chip to block out objectionable programming.

The latest study from the University of Washington, interestingly, also found that television’s negative effect, the risk of bullying, for example, could be reduced by mental and physical stimulations such as outdoor activities, reading aloud to children, and having family meals together. Home environment is more important than television in rearing children. Don’t we know that?

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