What are they looking at?

By the time they're 18, children have seen more than 20,000 acts of killing in films and on TV. That's why they need to be taught how moving images work
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The Independent Culture

"I see dead people," says the little boy in The Sixth Sense. Notice that he says "I see", in the way perhaps that one of your own children this morning said he "saw bad dreams" - about bad spirits coming into his room. And only last night (I am writing this in Palm Springs, where the house ends and absolute desert begins), when our son wanted a late-night swim in the pool, his mother and I said something about coyotes or bobcats in the mountains. You see, we didn't dare mention rattlesnakes.

"I see dead people," says the little boy in The Sixth Sense. Notice that he says "I see", in the way perhaps that one of your own children this morning said he "saw bad dreams" - about bad spirits coming into his room. And only last night (I am writing this in Palm Springs, where the house ends and absolute desert begins), when our son wanted a late-night swim in the pool, his mother and I said something about coyotes or bobcats in the mountains. You see, we didn't dare mention rattlesnakes.

There are horrors and dreads everywhere in childhood. There are serpents that come into the house, though they are usually called poverty, illness, divorce, alcohol, or that fatal career, bad luck. There are visions that the child has - sees, dreams, grasps as a total experience - that will never go away. They are like the idea and the meaning of dead people. They are like that black, dusty screen, the television set.

After all, who put that in the house? The parents. Why? To help educate their kids. To occupy them at times when the elders are too exhausted, and because everyone has one. And the kids exult in TV: it is untiring story at a switch: it is places far away as the veldt or Antarctica; and it is grown-ups doing their strange, naughty things, like killing other grown-ups. "I see dead people, all the time" - the average 18-year-old in our society has seen 20,000 acts of killing on film or TV, real, imagined, acted out, all levels joined together. And the child looks at the parent with the first open sign of hatred or contempt when the feeble adult says, "No, it's time to turn it off." That's a moment when your kid is looking at a dead person.

Or, if you have a TV in the house, why not take it seriously?

It is common knowledge that the thing called "verbal literacy" is on the decline. Either from our own experience, or from newspaper stories, we grasp the fact that some children - and sometimes our children - spend three, four, five, six, seven or more hours a day watching television. Vaguely we are aware that even "bright" children, even those naturally ahead in any educational test, may spend more hours a week looking at screens than they do reading and writing. We sometimes hear that the kids farthest "behind" in education spend the most time looking at TV, or whatever. There are stories of 10 and 12 hours a day.

But the word "screen" has come to mean so much more. In Britain, once, it meant the two or three fairly sedate choices offered by broadcasting. Then the VCR meant that nearly any movie ever made might be added in to the mix - and children on their own can run any movie on the shelves, not just those deemed "suitable". Cable television will bring a nearly infinite range of choices into the house, all at the bidding of the remote control button. That doesn't only mean such things as "pornography". It means the chaotic montage of the remote - the violent, yet easy passage from one kind of image to another without control, warning or advice. It means the abandonment of reality once those children watching feel they cannot decide which is which, or whether it matters.

I have never known a parent not driven to distraction by these prospects. You can see and feel the indolence, the passivity, the legitimised boredom of children on the sofa watching TV - you feel the same lethargy in yourself. Equally, you know from direct experience how steadily deceiving and confusing television is, if only because it employs two radically opposed genres or forms - fact, news footage from Downing Street this afternoon; and fantasy, the mind's eye's amber dream of what life would be like with this underwear.

And, of course, the medium long ago stopped separating the two - because it chose to assume that we were smart enough to be able to decide for ourselves. Which is all very well, until you realise that this or that political figure is not actually a real person, but a concoction of poll trend data and acting. So our television shows us a Clinton assuring us, and assuring himself, that he did not lie.

I am painting a very modest picture of the problem. It is one in which "adults" - the people who are allegedly "educated" - are regularly prompted to believe in, to purchase, to vote, for more or less worthless and dishonest claims. It is within our power as human beings to laugh that dismay away and say that it is all part of the human comedy. We muddle along; we do our best; give us a chance.

To that, let me add one more thing: for 150 years or so, there was a fundamental trust in photography, that "the camera cannot lie". That claim was always questionable, but it stood for a general notion that light was light. Open a camera lens, and you got an image of what was there in front of it. The photograph was a useful, provable reliable record - that's why we use it in passports. But no more. The light can now be tricked electronically. Just about any image the mind wants can be composed and made to look like photography. You could see James Dean kissing Lady Diana, or yourself.

And yet, our educational impulse has done nothing to determine that children now require some education in moving imagery. What do I mean by that? Well, the nature of photography, for a start; the dynamics of editing; the realm of special effects; the commercial structures in film and television. I mean at least the beginnings of an ability to use all the languages (light, framing, angle, acting, editing, music, sound) that are being pressed into the young human soul at every instant of a good, well-made movie. I am not talking about something like the film appreciation courses now offered at GCSE level. I am trying to describe a system that should begin at the earliest stage of education. I mean a way of approaching this pervasive, inescapable and sometimes dominant influence on the way children come to "know" and "understand" things.

There may be protests that the present curriculum at age five is already so crowded, there is no room for anything as large as what I am recommending. I disagree; in fact, I think that a judicious amount of attention to imagery could easily improve our children's verbal skills. Consider this example: five pictures are shown to a class of seven-year-olds, one of the actress Lillian Gish when she was about 50; one of Fred Astaire in about 1940; one of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky; one of Barbra Streisand around the time of Yentl; and one of Rupert Everett aged about 20.

The children look at the pictures, and discuss the phrase "good-looking" or "nice-looking" in some of the ways we use it now. The concept of looks is questioned: do some people look better than others? Why do we think that? Is there a link between looks and virtue? Can you know things about people by looking at them? What do we think of these pictures? Do assume some link between looks and character? In these five pictures, for instance, there is the difference between young and old; face and full figure; male and female; strength and docility; flat lighting and dramatic lighting.

The range of pictures could be added to. The picture of Astaire could break into a movie of him dancing; that of Streisand into her singing. And so on. The children would talk "better" than they do in normal class situations. They would feel a kind of release in being able to discuss an area of their experience that is not much explored. They would disclose some surprisingly sophisticated responses to imagery. They would become very interested in the least guidance or information on how the pictures were made, and what intentions lay behind the process. Verbal skills would improve and develop as the study of moving imagery advanced. For one of the worst things we have done now is to suggest and maintain a wall of separation between the two. For myself, I do not simply echo the thought that the TV child is dull and stupid next to the child raised on books. There are vast resources of complexity, wit and interactive understanding to be had in "mere" channel surfing. But any child needs assistance before those benefits set in. Throwing a child into the ocean when the child cannot swim may lead to criminal charges. And surfing is a very advanced, magical way of walking on water.

This is no place for setting down a detailed curriculum, even if I were able to come up with it. But over the years, teaching film and television to 18-year-olds and older I have found innumerable methods that work, and which prompted intense, eager class discussion. For kids know within themselves how much these things matter, and how much their minds have been shaped by them. But 18 is too late to start.

None of this can happen overnight. But it could not resist coming into being if enough parents thought it necessary. And, to take the first small steps in that direction, adopt one simple household policy: that your children cannot watch anything on television unless they are prepared to talk about it with you afterwards. Unless they are prepared to defend their choice. For nearly every parent in the world that will be a novel experience, because it was denied you in your own education.

"Good-looking" is one of many concepts in most films that help and hinder us all. Try "love", "happiness", and "death" for follow-ups. Go back to the material of The Sixth Sense. Ask children to watch it a second time, so that they may begin to gather clues of when, why or how Bruce Willis is dead. Is it that he is acting in a strange way? Is there a narrative code (like lighting) that signals detachment? Or is it even that the great spectacle of film requires something like death or passivity in the watcher? If we fear that TV turns our children - and ourselves, surely - into sleepwalkers, we have to define the difference between being alive and dead. I can think of no surer distinction that when being shown something wrong or dangerous. You can say I am not involved in that. I am just an audience. Or you can say, I will try to stop that. That is being alive. Saying I am not alive, or here, or a real being - that is death. You see it everywhere - and it is the greatest plight that faces democracy.