Annemarie Quill: Kids' TV offers more than illiteracy and obesity

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My Tom and Jerry-filled childhood didn't turn me into a spatula-wielding bully. Photo / Supplied
My Tom and Jerry-filled childhood didn't turn me into a spatula-wielding bully. Photo / Supplied

"Where is the zapper?" is as constant a question in our house as "where are your shoes?"

My three young children watch television, and I am proud of it. I won't be getting rid of the TV, as recent headlines suggest parents should: "Never let young watch TV: experts" (NZ Herald).

"Aw, Phooey" to that, as Donald Duck would say.

My children enjoy a healthy diet of Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob Squarepants and The WotWots. They are not fat, bullied or stupid. They still play outside, do sport, read and go to the beach.

I'm not advocating propping the kids in front of the box 24/7, but a balanced mix of quality children's television is really okay.

My 6-year-old daughter identified two platypuses in the school book about Noah's Ark. How did she know the name of this unique animal? "From Phineas and Ferb."

I overheard her talking about the philosophical concept of deja vu to her 5-year-old brother. How did she learn about it? From watching Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.

The only loony tunes to really worry about are the long line of "experts" lecturing parents that television is responsible for everything from flabby arms to bullying.

Last week's latest claims from Canadian researchers warn us against the perils of television, which morph our kids into overweight zombies and junk food addicts with short attention spans.

Phew! Who knew the power of Ben 10? If the medical horrors don't deter you then roll in the educational effects. These Canadian researchers join a whole crowd of anti-television pundits, who caution that Dorothy the Dinosaur could transform your innocent 4-year old into a school dropout: illiterate, unable to add up and, to cap it all, a friendless victim of bullies.

Parents are buying into this moral panic about television. Allowing preschoolers free rein of the remote is considered akin to feeding them chocolate for breakfast: right up there with the most dreadful of parenting crimes.

Are we right to be so paranoid about children's television? Much of the existing research is United States-based, and focuses on children over 5 years old. How is this relevant to New Zealand children?

Associate Professor Geoff Lealand of Waikato University and Dr Ruth Zanker of the New Zealand Broadcasting School have spent years examining New Zealand children's relationship with television, as well as other electronic media such as computer games, mobile phones and electronic toys.

Lealand and Zanker caution against over-reliance on overseas research, particularly research from North America that often presents a black-and-white picture.

Lealand points out that "effects" type medical research on the topic is scientifically unsubstantiated.

It is impossible to prove that watching television at age 4 produces a bullied or obese 13-year-old as research like this often claims.

The cause-and-effect argument is flawed, as there are so many other environmental factors that come into play such as genetics, socioeconomics, family background or other experiences.

My Tom and Jerry-filled childhood didn't turn me into a spatula-wielding bully, but I can't prove it.

Overplay of "medical effects" research about media ignores the positive benefits for children of quality television-watching. If we censor children's viewing, children miss out on rich contexts to teach about life.

A blind moral panic about television and other electronic media hinders children's potential to realise literary futures that are different from the past.

Why are we such snobs about children watching television?

Remember that in the 16th century the literacy critics poured similar scorn on the popular "upstart crow": Shakespeare.

Whether it's Lightening McQueen or Macbeth, if children's television programmes engage children's imagination, delight and enthral, then surely there can be benefits to children's knowledge, language and learning?

The high quality of local New Zealand programming like Weta Workshop's Jane and the Dragon, or The WotWots, or Maori Television's excellent adaptation of Margaret Mahy's Kaitangata Twitch, are examples of the possibilities television can offer children.

Television and media are a core part of young children's lives. We need to look at ways electronic media expands horizons, not limits them.

Television is not confined to children's homes but is influencing the way they learn and play, says British researcher David Buckingham.

Before your child goes to school, she gets up from her Dora the Explorer bed, switches off her Barbie electronic alarm clock, eats a Blue's Clues yoghurt and puts on her Wiggles hoody, ready for her school sports day, sponsored by McDonald's Happy Meals.

Whether this makes young children hapless victims or savvy consumers is up for debate, but more balanced research is needed.

Rather than pushing the off button, children can learn to become critical viewers, not passive sponges.

That's all folks! Now where's that zapper?

* Annemarie Quill is a Tauranga writer and mother of three. She is also researching the role of media in the lives of New Zealand preschoolers.

- NZ Herald

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