Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Who is looking after your children?

Let’s talk about little children

From The Statesman
ND Batra
Long before children in the US enter school, they have already been exposed to thousands of hours of television shows including commercials. Seventy per cent of day-care centres use television, according to KidsHealth, a website giving medical information for parents. In fact, children spend more time in front of the idiot box than in school.Several studies have shown that excessive television watching unaccompanied by parental supervision causes not only violent behaviour but obesity. Why obesity? Because children become couch potatoes, especially those from the middle class who are likely to keep snacking and drinking sodas. Obesity leads to type 2 childhood diabetes, according the National Institute of Health.Worse still, a study published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics said that excessive early exposure to television increases the risk of attention disorder in children. Children’s brains undergo rapid development in the early years and exposure to television might interfere in the natural process of neural wiring.

Research at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center at the University of Washington, led by Dr Dimitri Christakis, concluded that for every hour of television viewing by children in the 1-3 age group, the risk of attention disorder increased by 9 per cent. The research didn’t mention what kind of content caused attention disorder, however.

Perhaps some programmes for pre-schoolers may have a more salutary effect than animated shows.Before we get panicky, it should be kept in mind that a child having attention disorder doesn’t necessarily suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD children suffer from a chemical imbalance in the brain. They can’t stay still or control their actions, chatter incessantly, get bored easily, forget things and can’t finish work begun. To some extent, all children show such tendencies; therefore, parents should not jump to hasty conclusions. Attention disorder is a matter of degree. At some point, it becomes a serious illness.

The question is what kinds of television shows cause or aggravate the condition. Or could some shows reverse attention disorder?While the University of Washington study concluded that indiscriminate early exposure might skew brain development, a study in the late 1980s showed television had great learning potential for toddlers. The researchers found that toddlers as young as 10 months can learn when they watch television.

The right kind of shows promote intellectual development and can help children acquire language skills , such as matching names to the objects, and do things by watching them being done on television. The research on language acquisition done on infants by psychologist Mabel Rice of the University of Kansas indicated it was as possible for children to learn from television as from a book if programmes were designed for learning. Unfortunately, they aren’t.To be sure, fast-paced Saturday morning children’s shows that are nothing but marketing ploys for toys and sugary cereals are not going to help children. All they will do is turn them into consumers in the multibillion-dollar toy and cereal marketplace.

But how do we explain the apparent contradiction between Dr Christakis’s research that television may cause attention disorder and Dr Rice’s that it has the potential to teach infants? Apparently, it matters what is put into a show, the purpose and the content. Television is an extraordinary pliable tool that can be used for senseless entertainment or for brain development. Children’s television programmes should not be left to the marketplace entirely. Parents and teachers should have the final say.The American Psychological Association (APA) has suggested steps that could be taken to neutralise the undesirable impact of purposeless violence on children. It says watch at least one episode of the show the child watches to know how violent it is; watch together and discuss the show with the child, why the violence happened and how painful it is. Ask the child how the conflict could have been solved without violence; explain how violence in entertainment is not real; and encourage children to watch shows with characters that cooperate and care for each other. APA also suggested making television violence “part of the public health agenda (like smoking and drunken driving) and publicizing its perils and effects”.

Since each television show in the US is rated for violence and sex, and all sets have a show- and channel-blocking device called V-Chip, it is left to parents to protect children from bad television. But a survey shows that parents are not as proactive as expected, partly because of the grinding pressures of daily life. Besides, there is very little choice on television because all shows are made with commercial recipes. Sometimes I feel fundamental freedoms have been overpowered by commercialism.

In this election year, none of the three candidates, neither Democrat contenders Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama nor the Republican nominee John McCain, has seriously talked about children, except occasionally about the lack of universal health insurance.

So far as parents are concerned, there are much weightier issues: flight of jobs and growing insecurity, bleak prospects for retirement, mortgage crises, rising healthcare costs and out of control gasoline and food prices. And how can anyone forget the burden of Iraq, today and tomorrow?

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University.)

No comments:

Post a Comment