One of the difficulties with children’s television is that the people who are most affected by it, both positively and negatively, are too young to know, too young to look beyond what they see on that box.
Too young to get involved.
If you suddenly got nothing but reruns of Manimal, Streethawk and Automan* instead of new shows, you’d notice. You’d talk about it. Write posts on message boards. Tweet about it. Not Like it on Facebook.
Would children talk about it if their blocks were similarly affected?
Our audience is largely silent.
*Okay, yes, that would actually be awesome. Still, we need good new content.
During the week, there was a story about a study that linked psychological problems with screen time. Check it out HERE. Or HERE, for another article on it.
The study reckoned that over 2 hours a day could cause problems. Now I wouldn’t be all that happy if my girls watched more than 2 hours of television a day. But… the reports of this study don’t say ‘television’. They say ‘screen time’. It’s not the same thing.
In many modern studies, television, gaming and even internet are all lumped in together as ‘screen time’.
That makes no sense to me. Gaming is not the same as television. The co-ordination required in a game has got to be utilising whole different sections of the brain than those active while watching television. Not only is the internet not the same as television, but one site is not remotely like another site. One might simply be read, like a book. One might be closer to a game. One might be factual. One might be complete nonsense.
The same is also true within the category of television itself. Often the content is not considered. It’s certainly not mentioned in the articles on this, though it could be in the study itself (I’ll see if I can track it down and find out). Three hours of Saw films is going to have a vastly different effect to three hours of Sesame Street.
All screen time is not equal.
This has been shown many times in research, with some of the most notable studies being conducted by Daniel R. Anderson (University of Massachusetts) and his peers. One particular study of theirs, which followed teenagers long after their preschool viewing habits had been studied, found that viewing educational shows as preschoolers was associated with better grades, better concentration and more interest in books. It’s a really interesting read and available here on Amazon (at a rather high price): Early Childhood Television Viewing and Adolescent Behavior: Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development.
As they said themselves, ‘the medium is not the message, the message is.’
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we can dismiss the ‘bad news’ studies.
Yes, flawed some of them may be. But there have studies on the effects of television since the introduction of the medium and a large chunk of the results have not been positive. Even more important, then, to understand that all screen time is not equal. If we are filling this amorphous screen time, whether by creating content or simply by sitting our children in front of it, it’s important that the time spent is spent positively.
After all, Dead Rising 2 is not the same as Dickens on a Kindle. One enhances hand/eye coordination and teaches skills for surviving the zombie apocalypse for starters…
Children are sensitive beings and often can’t express just how sensitive they are. It’s hard sometimes as a parent (and programme-maker) to know what effect a show, even one like Fluffy Gardens, will have on their children.
For example, I bought a Bert & Ernie’s Great Adventures DVD for my daughter, Daisy. I love Bert & Ernie and all things Sesame Street and really loved how they translated to stop-motion. But the intro alone was enough to freak my daughter out ‘ the idea that, when she’s in bed, her bed could grow legs and take her out of the house?
Even as I write that, it makes perfect sense to me how that could scare the bejaysus out of a child. It could just as easily been a scene in one of the Nightmare On Elm Street movies. One of the later ones, when they went rubbish. Though not New Nightmare ‘ that one was pretty good. And Freddy Vs. Jason rocked hard.
But back to children, it’s just so hard to know sometimes. There’s a show out there that I love, that really gets across the value of teamwork. But it does so as the characters rescue baby animals who have been separated from their parents. I have to wonder about the effect the show has on separation anxiety and what fears it plays into.
See how hard it is?
That’s why it’s so important to try to look at shows from many different angles, both as a parent and a programme-maker. And why Fluffy Gardens was so tricky at times (and I certainly didn’t always get it right).
Safe and positive.
Life isn’t always like that of course. But I wish it were.
When I first created Fluffy Gardens, I’ve got to admit, this question is something I didn’t fully consider. Hey, I was too busy stumbling around blindly at the time, desperately trying to make it look like I knew what I was doing.
What I knew straight off, however, was that I wanted Fluffy Gardens to be safe, and positive.
Specific messages came later and often just evolved naturally from the characters. Paolo the Cat, for example ‘ it’s okay to be who you are. Acceptance of self and others became a common theme.
Friendship, helping and being helped became familiar elements in the show. A sense of community (friendly neighbourhood type of community, not ‘scary cult gathering guns’ community – that would have been wrong for the show, though if anyone is looking for show ideas, by all means feel free to go with it).
But once the blind stumbling around was out of the way and I had a grip on things, the question consumed me ‘ what should we be telling children?
That everything is wonderful? Everyone can be great to each other? As a father, the question becomes even more personal. There is more at stake in my own life, as there is with yours if you have children.
One of the messages I didn’t tell children is this: life can be tough.
Really tough sometimes.
I dread teaching my girls that one. Or them finding out for themselves.
But, as it happens, knowing that big life lesson and being aware of it actually guided some of the messages that I chose to tell children with Fluffy Gardens. I hope when my own girls come to learn that one big lesson I never touched on that, on some level, they remember the good things. That they’re okay, they can still grow and they can help and be helped. That they aren’t alone.
Some messages shouldn’t be learned from television. But the good stuff? We can reinforce that, build on it and help parents where we can. Television is much more than entertainment.
It’s important for parents to remember that. And even more important that programme-makers remember it.
There are children’s shows out there that set out purely to entertain. There are shows out there that aim to educate. There are shows out there that try to do both. Those shows gave us one of the most hideous words in the English language – edutainment.
Well I just don’t like it when they put two words together like that. A personal bugbear perhaps but it stinks of boardroom. Suits. People with graphs and powerpoint. Synergy. Not people who make children smile.
Sure, children can learn while they have fun. But I just don’t buy that any child was ever edutained.
Some shows aim to educate, others don’t. But both parents and programme makers need to realise one very important thing -
Everything is educational.
Children learn at a phenomenal rate. They are processing levels of information that would baffle most adults. They aren’t only learning when you choose to teach them.
Everything a child hears or sees goes to contribute towards their world view. Forms part of their outlook on life. Shapes who they are.
Everything is educational.
The problem is, when programme makers are not actively trying to educate, when we’re just going for the fun factor, we are turning control of what your audience learns from a show over to chance, fates, gods, whatever. Children will come away with something they didn’t have before, but we don’t know what that will be.
And, knowing our luck, it won’t be good.
PARENTS ALREADY KNOW THIS
Children can overhear a half-hour conversation and the only thing they’ll come away with is the swear word. I’ve taught my own girls quite a few. Often, watching a television show where the writer has milked the drama of a sorrowful moment only to have it replaced by a joyous victory, the child will only remember the sorrow. That story where the big scary troll turns out to be nice after all? You can bet you’re going to be hearing about that ‘naughty troll’ afterwards.
Sesame Street had to retire Kermit’s song, ‘Being Green’, because research showed that many children missed that he was actually fine with being green at the end. They all got that he was unhappy.
Everything is educational.
But trying to figure out just what we’re teaching them is a nightmare. That is why it’s important for parents to be sure about what your children are watching. I know it’s not always possible but try to watch shows with them when you can. And programme-makers, writers, animators – the responsibility we take on when creating content for children should never be taken lightly. Unlike the parents, we can’t say who will be watching our shows, when, where or under what conditions. But children will take something away with them.
Let’s make it something good. But call it something other than edutainment.
There’s a rather humble Facebook fan group for my show, Fluffy Gardens. The group is called ‘Fluffy Gardens makes the world a better place‘.
As a father, I want the best for my girls. I know from the mails I’ve had that many parents appreciate Fluffy Gardens, just a little show we made at Monster Animation. As small as the show might seem to us (well, it’s just a silly little show about some animals, isn’t it?), it seems to have made a difference to the lives of some children. It makes them smile. My girls certainly enjoy the show.
Not as much as Peppa. But close.
However, I’ll come straight out and admit that I’m not always sure a television show can make the world a better place. At times, I find myself uncomfortable with the amount of television my daughters watch. There are even people out there who believe television is leading the downfall of society. And there is no end of research to show that poor television is bad for children.
But it just so happens that it’s not all bad news…
In that research, it has also been shown that television can be good for children. Television designed to educate and enrich actually works. What’s more, the benefits last.
Can a television show make the world a better place?
I honestly don’t know.
But, if children are watching television (and they are), I think we should work as parents and programme makers (either/or and together) to make sure that we’re giving it our best shot.