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Martin Large, Hawthorn Press, 2003, pp 229, £10.99. ISBN 1903458 43 9
One third of children under 4 have a television set in their bedroom. The average child will see over 20 000 adverts on TV each year. Children between the ages of 6 and 17 spend about five hours a day in front of the TV or computer and only 15 minutes reading books. Do these statistics worry you? They probably should. Increasing time spent watching television has been implicated in many childhood health problems, including obesity and poor diet, use of cigarettes and alcohol, and violence and aggressive behaviour.
Martin Large is concerned and in Set free childhood he explores the impact of the media on child development and family functioning. The book is written from the standpoint of the Steiner education network, whose proponents believe that children should be allowed to learn at their own pace through creative play rather through formal teaching.
Large argues that the amount of time children spend watching TV and using computers is having both physical and psychological effects on a whole generation. Some of these arguments are clear and cohesive, such as his discussion of the effect on social interaction and language development. Others are presented as scare stories. “Games stunt teen brains” and “Kids’ eyesight in peril” are two of the section headings. The symptoms of attention deficit disorder can be explained almost entirely by excessive or inappropriate use of television and computers, in Large’s opinion.
The suggestion that we are being manipulated by advertisers and large television companies, whose main goal is, of course, that the TV is on for a longer rather than a shorter time, is thought provoking. Large proposes that television is, by its very nature, addictive. Advertising directed at children is not illegal in this country, although children younger than 8 are developmentally unable to understand the aims of advertising, simply accepting all claims as true. Children’s programmes, such as Teletubbies, are marketed as educational when there is no evidence to support the suggestion that they have any beneficial effect on development.
The final section of the book offers parents some practical advice on controlling and monitoring their children’s TV and internet use. Large suggests that children younger than 7 should watch no TV, benefiting much more from creative play and adult interaction.
Awareness of the impact of the media on children is steadily increasing. Set free childhood presents an extreme view of the possible negative consequences of our current viewing habits. The issue is not as clear cut as Large suggests, but it is time that we take greater interest in the media habits of the children we see, and consider the ways this may be influencing their health or development. A media history may be as necessary a part of every clerking, as the social and family history.