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    Volume 9 Issue 21| May 21, 2010|

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Boring Babysitter

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

A purple girl in piglets, a furry tiger, a fox and a blue monster team up to put the Bangla alphabet 'Gha' to sleep using objects whose names start with the letter -- the jingling of the 'ghungur' (an anklet with bells), the 'ghuri' or kite flying in the breeze and the 'ghaunta' or bell. The sweet chiming of the latter finally succeeds in lulling the fuzzy alphabet to sleep.

'Sisimpur' is a fun as well as educational show for kids.

An innovative way of teaching children the alphabets and words they begin with. But, while Bangladesh Television's (BTV) 'Sisimpur' (the local version of America's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television series 'Sesame Street') has been a hit with children and adults alike, there is a general dearth of fun, healthy and educational children's programming on Bangladeshi television channels.

The one state-run and over 10 private channels on air today broadcast an average of about an hour's, if not less, of children's programmes daily. Children, who account for 43 percent of the population -- 64 million under the age of 18, 19 million under the age of five, according to Unicef. Neither is quantity the only concern. The quality of the programmes, too, leaves much to be desired.

The college teachers with their chemistry formulas, the school students with their tips for acing the board exams and the pair of youngsters going from school to school quizzing students on general knowledge are not all that interesting to watch on television. The magazine or variety programmes are an overwhelming combination of song, dance, drama and education not quite targeted at any particular age group. This is apparent from the same show teaching children about the five senses followed by the intricacies of how a cell phone is built and functions. Another programme features a games segment where boys compete in a sack race while girls struggle to put thread through a needle. A relatively new phenomenon is the whole range of song and dance competitions, with children anywhere between five and 15 singing and dancing to the most romantic and/or tragic songs. Good humour is hard to come by, with themes of divorce and extramarital affairs, which are unsuitable for children, used in dramas.

There are, however, a handful of good programmes. Debate programmes encourage critical thinking in young people, while news produced and presented by children help develop creativity as well as professional skills. Dramas on the importance of going to school or the evils of child labour give positive messages to children. Obvious efforts are made to strike a gender balance in some of the programmes, while others reach out to children from different social classes. Imparting knowledge and information seems to be key in these programmes for young people. However, doing it in more exciting ways may encourage them to want to learn. While education is essential, it is not the only need of children. Leisure and play too are vital. Entertainment programmes can contribute to children's social and psychological growth, teaching them everything from language and social skills to knowledge about their own and other cultures. At the same time, extra care needs to be taken in designing content for children due to their impressionable age. While a dance drama on acid violence on one of the several dance competitions is thought-provoking, the victim committing suicide at the end of it may not give children the correct message about the consequences of such situations.

Perhaps of even greater concern than programmes for children which are not very appealing, are advertisements that are not for children but which do attract them. The youngest children are the ones most drawn to the exciting images, fun animation and catchy jingles, their eyes lighting up during commercial breaks. Some parents actually sit their toddlers in front of the tube while feeding them, because it is the only way they will stay glued to their seats.

But what are these ads that children are exposed to and what do they learn from them? The first is a small and unhealthy range of junk food advertisements -- everything from chocolate, candy, bubble gum and lollipops to chips and carbonated drinks. Then there is the slightly healthier range of food and energy drinks, but with larger-than-life promises of making children taller, stronger, healthier, more intelligent, energetic and everything else a child would want to be. These ads, however, comprise only a small percentage of the ads which children are exposed to during children's programmes themselves, not to mention during the rest of the day. The majority of ads are for toiletries, cosmetics, cleaning agents, cell phone operators, electronics, household goods and even real estate. The toothpaste that makes one fall in love at first breath and the shampoo that removes dandruff 100 percent; the beauty soap that makes one's skin soft and supple and the fairness cream that turns the poor, dark woman into a star; the wife with the laundry detergent who is the envy of other husbands with dirty shirt collars and the dishwashing soap that turns pots and pans into looking glasses. Then of course there are the cell phone companies which make one and all sing and dance -- literally -- out of sheer joy for no apparent reason. The fridge, air conditioner and television set, plastic furniture and tin sheets are indispensable for the groom-to-be to win over the love of his life -- all housed under the roof of a luxurious apartment building in the newest residential/garden city in the midst of an otherwise concrete jungle. The promises are endless, the message of the ads is clear -- the more one has, the happier one is.

International guidelines may serve as a standard for advertising to children. In Britain, for example, in a bid to counter childhood obesity, ads for unhealthy food and drinks have been banned during programmes for children under 16. Canada has a comprehensive set of rules prohibiting, among other things, exaggeration in advertisements, the use of cartoon characters, jingles, etc., that may attract children to products not meant for them, showing people doing unsafe things with the products, suggesting that a product will make a child better than other children and airing a commercial for the same product more than once in a half-hour period.

Children often have no choice but to watch shows for grown-ups.
Active participation on programmes allows children to bring in their own perspective on things.

Increasing and livening up programmes for children is crucial in a world where the role of television can hardly be debated. The tube today is babysitter, teacher and a member of the family, all in one. Media theories have more or less proven a link between media portrayals and people's, especially children's, inclination to imitate what they see. They have also found that the media have the power to shape people's perceptions of reality, of the people and the world around them. In the US, for example, where children are exposed to an excess of violence on television, this results for many in what is called a 'mean world syndrome', making people believe that the world is a more violent and dangerous place than it actually is. Violence does not have to be the only reality, however. With children exposed to programmes and advertisements featuring only upper-class, beautiful people with men going to work and women staying home to cook, clean and raise children, stereotypes of class and gender are reproduced. The near absence of religious and ethnic minority communities on television also leaves incomplete children's knowledge of their own cultural diversity.

A local 24-hour, commercial-free, fun channel for children may seem like an impossibility at this point, but children deserve at least a few hours of healthy entertainment dedicated exclusively to them. A balance must be struck between exposing and protecting the child, between targeting the child as consumer and as citizen. This necessitates initiatives from the government as well as responsibility on the part of programme producers and ad makers. Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) -- which Bangladesh ratified back in 1990 -- recognises the importance of the mass media in promoting a child's 'social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health' and urges States to ensure this. This is one promise to children that needs to be fulfilled.

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