The Telly Effect
Parents often bemoan the fact that their children spend a major portion of their days in front of the idiot box. Many complain that their children are hooked on to Hindi and Bangla TV drama serials and cannot be pried away from the TV when their favourite show is being aired. Children are watching all sorts of television programmes, often without parental supervision. Parents are concerned about the effects of unsuitable TV on their impressionable kids. Is TV all that bad for children? the Star Magazine finds out.
Shireen Akhtar has two full-time jobs. She works at a private firm from nine to five, and she has two school-going children. She isn't at home when the kids get back home from school, so she depends on a house help to keep them occupied.
Shireen, realising that her children will be restless after they get home from school, has instructed the help to turn on the TV so as to keep them busy until she returns.
She admits that her kids were introduced to the television quite early in their young lives: “I had to go back to work almost immediately after each child was born.”
Even though she is not particularly happy about the quantity or quality of television programming that her children consume, she says that there is little she can do about it.
“As the help watches Hindi serials, my six-year old daughter has grown into the habit of watching them with her. I can see how this has a negative impact on my child's creativity, but she refuses to engage in other activities,” Shireen adds mournfully.
Most of us are aware that watching TV isn't the healthiest of activities and yet, we give in to the sway of this seductive medium. We are willing to numb our brains and watch the shows that distract us from our daily lives. We don't think twice before introducing our infants to its corrupting charms. Children are found to be spending more and more time plugged into the world of TV even before they are able to string a sentence together.
Working parents like Shireen are often left with no choice but to leave their children under the care of family members or household helps. Children are often left unsupervised in front of the television and given free rein to watch whatever they want to as long as they remain quiet and occupied.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids under 2 years old not watch any TV at all. The first two years of life are considered to be most crucial for a child's mental development. But as we all know and grudgingly accept, even infants are exposed to more than a couple of hours of TV everyday.
General Secretary of the Bangladesh Paediatric Association, Professor Mohammad Shahidullah, agrees that children under the age of two should be kept away from the TV. Some parents have the terrible habit of plonking their tots in front of the telly without even realising the damaging effect this can have on their initial development.
“Many parents have come to me with the complaint that their two-year olds won't speak. It's not like they are speech impaired but there is definitely a speech delay. Most often we find out that the delay in speech is caused because the child spends long hours in front of the TV,” says Professor Shahidullah.
Young children can be restless when they are being fed. Parents often don't have the time or patience to indulge in tactics to engage their kids while feeding them. So they just sit their children in front of the TV, knowing full well that this would distract them into eating the food. Parents, however, fail to understand that this action can have a long term effect on their child.
Myesha, a third grader, will only eat if she is watching her favourite show on TV. Her parents have tried to encourage her to eat with them at the dining table but they haven't been able to change the habit.
Her mom informs us that Myesha used to be fed while she watched TV until she was three years old.
“When they are watching their favourite show on TV, children are too distracted to even know what is going in their mouth. Parents often fail to understand that they might be under or over feeding their child. The child will be so busy watching the show that he or she won't even register what is being fed to them,” says Mahjabeen Haque, Associate Professor of the Department of Psychology, Dhaka University.
Children who eat in front of the television from a young age are likely to continue this habit into their maturity, thus boosting the child's dependence on TV, says Haque.
Child obesity is a growing concern around the world. Children who watch TV are likely to be overweight or unhealthy. While watching television, children tend to snack as they are inactive and need something to concentrate on. The intervals between shows are filled with ads that encourage kids to snack on unhealthy food like soft drinks or chips that are high in calories, salts and sugars but low in nutritional value.
Kids See, Kids Learn
Children learn by example. Our habits and attitude shape theirs. If we behave rudely with others, they will learn to be rude. If we view books with disdain, they too won't learn how to love reading. Similarly, if we spend all our free time in front of the TV watching inane shows, they too will be motivated to watch them.
“My grandmother loves watching serials on Zee Bangla and Star Plus. Sometimes I watch them with her because I think the lead actors are very good looking,” says nine-year old Lina.
When asked about her favourite show, Lina shyly says that she likes watching a Hindi-language television serial called “Qabool Hain” on Zee TV. The show is about a girl who runs away from a marriage but circumstances force her to enter into an unwanted alliance. The show is a big success amongst adults and kids alike.
“Children are usually attracted to TV serials because their family members watch them. They learn from their family. This interest in Hindi serials is definitely a part of a faulty learning process,” says Haque.
Often parents and other family members complete all their chores before their favourite show is aired.
“Most television serials like to sensationalise issues. Hypocrisy, lies, conspiracy; these are the mainstay of most Hindi soap operas. Children can't discriminate between right and wrong or what is acceptable and unacceptable the way mature adults can. Even though, the family dynamics shown in these shows are quite abnormal, children often begin to believe that real life is an imitation of the TV and vice-versa,” says Haque.
When asked about what she wants to be when she grows up, six-year old Ananya confidently replies, “A dedicated housewife like Gopi in 'Saath Nibhana Saathiya'.”
Her mother looks on with an embarrassed smile. She says that her mother-in-law is a huge fan of the above-mentioned character, an archetypal self-sacrificing, “ideal” daughter-in-law. The character is a defenceless, spineless doormat, forever apologising to her family members even when they mistreat her. What is even more frustrating is that her in-laws are shown to be “relatable”, righteous people who wouldn't hurt a fly. But humiliating one's daughter-in-law falls right into the alley of these good people.
The female protagonists on popular Hindi-language soaps are usually either passive or vapid. The purpose of their existence is to moon for or to be wooed by handsome, aggressive men. They are far from the strong female role models we would want our daughters to look up to and emulate. Thus children learn to accept the stereotypes represented on the silver screen.
The Violence Factor
Apart from the regular soaps, many parents actually encourage their kids to watch crime drama on television, thinking that these shows would teach children about the dangers of the world. Most of these crime based shows deal with explicit images of the crime; be it murder, rape or theft.
Haque cites the disturbing example of a young patient, studying in grade two, who is fascinated by the private parts of the human body. His artworks feature the female nude; not something you'd expect in the drawings of an eight-year old.
“His parents denied that their child could draw something like that as they claimed that they were pious and religious-minded. Upon further inspection, we discovered that his parents have no control whatsoever on their son's television viewing. He watches shows with adult contents like CID and his parents have never objected to that,” she says.
Most shows aired on TV are not suitable for children. And yet, parents let their children be in the room when they are watching shows with mature content.
“My favourite show is the American crime drama 'Dexter.' It is about a serial killer, who kills only bad guys who are murderers themselves. I think Dexter is one of the coolest characters on screen,” says ten year old Adnan.
A number of children like Adnan root for Dexter, hoping that he doesn't get discovered, praying that he prevails in the end. After all, he is the good guy, the protagonist. He murders for good, right?
“Shows like 'Dexter' teach kids that it is okay to take another person's life if that person has done something bad in his life. No matter how evil a person is, children cannot be allowed to think that murder is an option,” opines Haque.
Adnan's mother tells us that she noticed some changes in her son after he started watching the show a year back.
“He was always a happy kid but that seems to be changing. He seems to be getting more aggressive with time. He gets into frequent fights with his class mates. We have spoken to a psychologist who suggested that we restrict the number of hours he watches TV,” she says.
The Children Television Foundation of Bangladesh (CTFB) states that exposure to violence on screen can hamper the psychological development of a child. Children's minds can't accept the brutality that they see on screen and that affects their behaviour.
“We don't allow our children to retain their innocence when we expose them to hostility in any form, be it in real life or on screen. Eventually, children who have seen a significant amount of violence on screen are likely to see the world as a sinister, frightening place, where nothing good ever happens. Children, therefore, become desensitized to real life brutality as they see violence being portrayed in a glamourised, glorified manner on TV,” says General Secretary of CTFB Fahmidul Islam Shantonu.
Young children, in particular, can be easily scared by frightening and violent images. They suffer from nightmares or have difficulty sleeping. In some cases, children may even suffer from depression due to over exposure to violence.
“You can't just expect a child to understand that what they see on screen is not real as they can't tell the difference. I have had cases of children aged three to five who find it difficult to sleep at night when they are exposed to too much violence. They wake up in their dreams, screaming or calling out for their parents. One can only imagine the debilitating effects violence shown on TV can have on small children,” says Professor Mohammad Shahidullah.
Nilufer rolls her eyes as her best friend sings praises of the main lead of a popular Hindi soap opera. Cutting her friend short, she says, “I can't bear these idiotic shows.”
Ignoring the hurt expressed in her friend's eyes, 12 year old Nilufer continues, “I love “Gossip Girl.” The actors are so talented and good looking. When I grow up, I want to be just like Blair, my favourite character of the show.”
Interestingly, “Gossip Girl” is an American drama series revolving around a group of rich, spoilt young teenagers engaging in similar themes that mark the typical Hindi serial that Nilufer hates. The main lead, Blair, is the queen bee of her high school, who uses her friends as pawns on a chess board whenever it suits her.
Unfortunately, we live in a material world, where you are mocked for being unique. Adolescents, in particular, struggle to find a balance between how they see themselves and how they want the world to see them. In this image-conscious world, children are constantly searching for role models who they can relate to. They won't hesitate to look up to and imitate the behaviour that they see on screen. In hopes of being the popular, pretty one in school, they ape the shallowness represented by characters of a show like “Gossip Girl.” These kids may not even understand what the show is about but they like what they see on screen. That is enough to keep them glued to their chairs when the show is being aired.
The Japanese cartoon series “Doraemon”, telecast on Disney, was a favourite amongst most children under ten. The show, which focused on a 22nd century cat like robot living amongst human beings, was a daily staple in the lives of a number of children in the country. Parents have found this show, dubbed in Hindi, to be intolerable as they complained that their children were getting more adept in the language of our neighbouring country than in their own native tongue. Parents also noticed behavioural changes in their children as they started to act in a manner similar to the show's main lead, an annoying and whiny child called Nobita.
“My son used to be crazy about that show. He thought that it was fine to throw tantrums because Nobita would do the same. The character was shown to be an essentially “good” boy, who would fall into misfortune because of his carelessness. My son would make faces the way Nobita and Doraemon did and even started to walk the way the characters walked in the show,” says Nilufer Azam, a homemaker.
Doraemon was recently banned in Bangladesh over fears that children hooked to the show would be encouraged to communicate in Hindi, preferring the language over their own mother tongue. The government also ordered an end to the airing of unapproved foreign satellite television channels such as Disney, Disney XD and Pogo.
Even as some parents are heaving a sigh of relief, many think that a ban can never be the solution.
“It doesn't take children long to get attached to a new show or character. As for learning Hindi, there are a number of Indian channels broadcast in Bangladesh. Hindi soundtracks are extremely popular amongst kids. If we want to discourage our children from adopting a foreign culture, our local television industry needs to introduce better, more attractive shows for children” says Abul Hamid, a father and school teacher.
Little to offer
People growing up in the 90s always bring up an animated series about a young girl from a village whenever they talk about good television programming for children. And with good reason! “Meena”, developed by UNICEF, is a prime example of the sort of TV kids could benefit from watching. Set in a Bangladeshi village, it used humour and relatable characters to touch upon issues ranging from sanitation to female education.
“Sisimpur”, the Bangla version of the children's television series Sesame Street, is another show that offers immense entertainment and educational value for children. With characters like Halum, Ikri Mikri and Tuktuki, the show teaches young children valuable life lessons in a fun manner.
Even in this saturated, hyper kinetic media environment, “Meena” and “Sisimpur” remain valuable examples of appropriate programming for children. Unfortunately, only reruns of both these beloved series are shown on BTV now as they have been cancelled.
There is no point beating our heads about the contents shown on TV or berating the kids for their viewing preferences. We want our children to learn our culture; we want their viewing experience to be in a language that is ours. But does the television industry of the country offer our kids the kind of quality, entertaining television programming that they seek?
The only shows for children that are worth watching on Bangladeshi channels are the ones dealing with talent hunts. Shows like “Notun Kuri”, brought a creative side in the children of yore, who were inspired by the gifted kids performing on screen. Luckily, our television channels are still telecasting some programmes which aspire to engage children through their creativity. “Khude Gaan Raaj” on Channel i is one of them. However, if we want better television programming aired on our local TV channels for children, we cannot just depend on a couple of good shows.
The Bangladeshi television industry needs to understand this young demographic to cater to their demands. TV's most enthusiastic viewers are also its youngest and most vulnerable. Once the country's television fraternity understands this simple fact and makes a serious effort to offer standard, quality programming for kids, our children won't turn to superficial shows imported from abroad for entertainment.
What can we do?
Like any other child, Nusaira enjoys her time in front of the telly but her mother has laid down some rules regarding her TV viewing. Nusaira has a set time-table that her mother, Prema, is quite strict about. Nusaira is only allowed a couple of hours of TV. Prema also makes sure that her daughter is not exposed to violent shows as she tries to monitor what her child watches on TV.
“I like watching “Tom and Jerry” and “Oggy and the Cockroaches” on Cartoon Network. I spend around a couple of hours each day watching TV but I also have a number of other hobbies. I love playing football, I like going to the hardware store with my dad and I enjoy spending time with my friends,” says the lively eight-year old.
Nusaira's parents understand that if they want to provide their daughter with a healthy childhood, they have to limit the TV hours.
Instead of despairing over your children's addiction to your television sets, parents can easily change the situation by making an effort.
Children should not be allowed to watch TV during meal times or when they are doing their homework. Tell your children that they must finish their homework before they can watch the TV, even if their favourite show is on. You could record the show so that your child can watch it later on.
Social interactions are a must for a child's holistic development. You should spend as much time as you can with your children. Your interactions with your child will improve his/her conversational skills and your relationship with them.
You could also encourage your kids to engage in other forms of recreation like sports, art, music and literature. One day of the weekend could be dedicated to family time. You could set a game night or plan a picnic.
Don't place too much value on the TV. You should never use it as a reward or punishment as your children will then attach importance to it as well. If you want to keep your children busy, involve them in what you are doing. If you are making a meal, your child could set the plates. If you are working on an assignment, set her up with drawing pencils, a notebook and other stationery items to make her feel like she is doing something important as well. Most importantly, discourage others from using TV as a distraction for your kids. When they are with other adults, supply them with puzzles, crayons and other fun items so that they are kept engaged.
Supervision is important if you want to understand what your child is watching. Instead of imposing an immediate ban on a show, watch it with your child and talk about it later on. Tell them why it is unsuitable for them. Talk to them about how certain shows stereotype people and situations. Discuss reality and fiction with them so that your children are aware that what they are watching on the telly is not representative of the real life.
As said earlier, children learn by example. So you need to be sure that you practice what you preach. Don't watch shows with mature content in front of your kids. Just as your child needs to spend time away from the TV, you too need to spend your free time engaging in healthier activities like reading, listening to music or even exercising.
TV for kids ought to combine entertainment with some sort of value, be it educational or artistic. Furthermore, while it needn't be juvenile or dumbed down, it cannot contain elements that are completely unfit for a very young audience. Unfortunately, we cannot control what is being shown on our television sets. We can, however, lead our children to understand that there is a world outside of the virtual one. And it's not all that bad out there.