Psychologist warns of "educational television" myth

LONDON Tue Feb 12, 2008 11:53am EST

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LONDON (Reuters Life!) - He's been characterized as the ultimate killjoy, the extremist fringe thinker who refuses to recognize the realities of modern life.

But for Dr Aric Sigman, an American psychologist living in Britain and the author of "Remotely controlled; How Television is Damaging Our Lives", the battle against what he calls the "recreational junk food" of TV is one well worth fighting.

And as the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) announced on Tuesday the launch of the nation's first ever television quiz show for pre-school children, Sigman's frustration with TV executives who claim to entertain and educate is growing.

"Television-makers will always justify themselves by saying that children enjoy their programs," Sigman told Reuters in an interview. "They say they make children smile and laugh."

"But children will also smile if you give them cocaine. The argument that children enjoy something or laugh at something is not the basis on which you decide what is good for them."

The BBC's new show, "Kerwhizz", which it describes as a "new breakthrough multi-platform entertainment format" aimed at 4- to 6-year-olds is a perfect example, says Sigman, of another common claim by television makers: Our programs are educational.

"The phrase 'educational television' was, of course, invented by people who make television," he says. "To me it's an oxymoron".

According to Sigman, who bases his assertions on studies published by medics from some of America's leading universities as well as his own worldwide research, science now suggests the quality of television children watch is of little consequence.

He points to the Tellytubbies, the globally successful toddler TV series hailed for its innovation and educational value, but also the subject of several warning studies including one by two Harvard academics entitled "Say No To Tellytubbies".

"Medical evidence is growing that for young children, being exposed to TV, computers and DVDs, -- irrespective of the quality of the program -- has an impact on their health and development," he said.

"There is a definite inverse relationship between time spent watching any kind of television or screen when you are young and your ability to read and concentrate when you are older."

With the BBC billing its new pre-school quiz as being "visually stunning and packed with gags" -- and adding that it was "designed with the assistance of teachers" -- Sigman bemoans a lack of confidence among parents and child carers in their own ability to entertain and engage children.

Studies of brain activity have shown that a child doing simple mental arithmetic with colored counters or beans has greater blood flow to the brain than one engaged what may look like a far more complex computer game, he says.

And it may be precisely the complexity -- the speed of edits, the colors and sounds and speeds children's media -- that is having a detrimental effect on their brain development.

"It may well be that your child learns from the TV that a certain country is in Africa, but that may well also come at the cost of doing something to their attention span," he said.

"Whereas if a parent is talking their children about geography or nature, they can learn without that risk and will physically exercise their brains in the process."

Sigman freely admits he has a TV at home -- only one -- which his children watch occasionally, but insists society is wrong to chastise as "kill-joys" the relatively few parents who ban television altogether, or allow only a few hours a week.

"My children have candy sometimes, and television is just like candy, it's recreational junk food," he said. "But it's a complete myth that children somehow inherently need TV -- otherwise they would be born with a television built into their stomachs, just like the Tellytubbies".

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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