The rise of `bedroom culture' spells trouble for our children

Children are not willing prisoners in their homes; they say watching TV is what they do when bored
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The Independent Culture
THE CABINET could profitably spend an entire meeting discussing the findings of a research project by the London School of Economics, published last week: "Children, Young People and the Changing Media Environment". First to speak should be the Home Secretary. He would perceive that parents' fears that their children could be the victims of crime or become involved with illegal drugs have significantly affected the way they are brought up.

About a third of the parents who were questioned said that their children spend "very little" or "none" of their time outside the home or garden without adults around. Most parents are more restrictive than they remember from their own youth.

These secondary effects of crime are rarely measured but can outweigh the more obvious results. Society always adjusts. Because parents no longer feel that they can let their children play in the street or run off to friends on their own, they spend a surprisingly high proportion of their income on providing media hardware for the home - television sets, videos, games machines, music equipment and PCs - often buying two of each in order to turn their children's rooms into media laboratories. At least the cooped-up young, they sigh, will have something to do. Indeed they do; they spend some five hours a day watching TV or video, listening to music, playing computer games, using the PC or reading.

At this point, the Prime Minister should turn to Mr Prescott. For there is a second reason why children spend so much of their free time at home. They cannot find affordable and accessible meeting-places. They complain about a lack of cafes, parks, swimming-pools, cinemas, skating-rinks and youth clubs. Nowhere else in Europe are young people so dissatisfied with what is available. I am not saying that Mr Prescott can easily make good this lack of facilities. But part of it is explained by planning rules and regulations and part by the inability of local authorities to meet local needs. Both are his responsibility.

The tragedy which everyone round the cabinet table should contemplate is this. Our children are not willing prisoners in their homes, with parents as more or less kindly gaolers. When the researchers asked children and young people what would comprise "a really good day", they replied: going out to the cinema, going to see friends, or playing sport. In contrast, watching television is widely seen as what you do when you are bored and have nothing better to get on with.

Yet six- to-17-year-olds spend on average two-and-a-half hours almost everyday in front of the television screen, to a large extent just filling in time.

Next to participate should be David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education. What does he make of the report's assertion that a print or reading culture as such does not exist among young people? I shall try to reply for him.

First, it is questionable whether many young people have ever done much reading. In the Fifties, before TV became a mass medium, American research showed that children read on average for 15 minutes a day. The London School of Economics study finds exactly the same figure. In fact, reading for pleasure declines with age. About two-thirds of primary school children read books for fewer than 45 minutes a day on four days a week, especially at bedtime. Thereafter there is a fall-off until, aged 15 to 17, only 45 per cent do so.

Second, history shows that new media hardly ever replace older media. The cinema did not extinguish the theatre. Television did not put radio out of business. Instead, new media add to the available options.

Third, still speaking for Mr Blunkett, I would say that Marshall McLuhan's famous aphorism - the medium is the message - is wrong. What matters is the message; the means of delivery is, in the final analysis, unimportant. Increasingly in education, the screen will supplement but not supplant the printed word, as it does in work and in leisure. Literacy nowadays is an ability to handle and learn from all media - from websites to classical text. There isn't book knowledge as opposed to, say, TV learning or what the Internet teaches. Knowledge is knowledge, regardless of its origin.

The report also has implications for another minister, Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. For it confirms beyond doubt that in many homes, children and young people are watching television, unsupervised, well beyond 9pm. Yet television scheduling, and with it regulation, is based on the notion of a 9pm watershed.

The report shows what parents with young families reading this newspaper know very well: from around nine years old, children's bedrooms become a centre of private activity. Overall, 72 per cent have their own rooms and need not share with a sibling. And what do you find when you look in? Some 63 per cent have their own television set and 21 per cent have a video recorder. Of course, with the door shut and their parents elsewhere, even many six-to-eight-year-olds admit that they often watch TV after 9pm.

In truth, bedtime is "bedroom" time, the end of the family day but not the start of sleep. Safe in their bedrooms, many young teenagers are watching the box up to 11pm.

Yet the report finds that parents are ambivalent. They "do not worry overmuch about their children's media use". Drugs, the impact of crime and poor job prospects are of greater concern. Nonetheless, parents strongly wish to be able to rely upon the good judgement of broadcasters and media regulators.

In the light of these findings, Mr Smith will have to examine the watershed afresh. The questions are whether it should be moved later and whether new rules regarding the type of material that follows immediately after it need to be devised. Bolder still would be to analyse the role of consumer advice to see whether it could be made more conveniently available. Prohibition is a difficult policy.

Of course, I have been engaging in wishful thinking. It is said that the Cabinet rarely has sustained discussions of policy matters. Everything is decided in committees and the results are merely reported to the full meeting.

Yet New Labour also believes in something called "joined-up" government. Very well then. Let the Cabinet have a joined-up discussion about the development of "bedroom culture" and what it means for trends in our society.