Island airs good news on TV for children

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The Independent Online
Behaviour among children exposed to television for the first time improves, according to a unique study which contradicts the stereotypical belief that television increases violence and anti-social behaviour.

The "remarkable" results, to be published tomorrow, have been taken from a study among children in St Helena, a remote British dependency in the South Atlantic, which had no access to live television until 1995.

Professor Tony Charlton, who has been leading the research, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council, said that the study suggested that it was wrong to blame television for society's failings.

"Our technophobic minds have prejudged television unfairly as a Pandora's box, in much the same way as we view each new technology, such as video games, the Internet and virtual reality," he said.

There have been fears in the past that television violence could be responsible for rises in levels of crime and violence in real life, particularly following statistics which suggested that the average American child would see 32,000 murders, 40,000 attempted murders and, altogether, 250,000 acts of violence before the age of 18.

The Tory government had supported the idea of a V-chip which would stop children viewing sexual or violent programmes - but this was dropped by the new Government last month.

The St Helena study, now in its sixth year, collected data on the children's leisure-time pursuits and behaviour prior to and following the introduction of television. The island can now receive CNN, SuperSport channel, the educational Discovery channel, Cartoon Network and a film channel, Hallmark. Content analysis of the programmes suggests a similar level of violence as in those broadcast in the United Kingdom.

While St Helena children have always been among the best-behaved in the world - only 3.4 per cent of 9- to 12-year-olds on the island have behavioural problems, whereas in London the figure is 14 per cent - the researchers said that the most recent findings show that "in classrooms and playgrounds young children in St Helena are at least as well-behaved now as they were two years ago, before the availability of television. Moreover, they are significantly less likely to display temper tantrums, tease other children and engage in fighting".

Professor Charlton said there were probably two reasons for this: "We think that they have been more influenced by pro-social behaviour that they have seen than anti-social behaviour. And, probably just as important, we think that, for the first time ever, children are having a commonality of viewing experience that they have never had before. The next day they can all come together and share their feelings about the programme."

Children in the upper end of secondary school were asked for their views on television. Their answers showed that they were convinced that, while people were being influenced by television, it was adults rather than their own age group who displayed that influence.

Referring to a recent march following an announcement on cuts in aid by the UK government, one student said: "They got their Governor by the necktie. Big riots and everything. And then you got the teachers marching ... Now where did they learn that? By watching the news. You always see them doing that sort of thing."

Another student added: "TV is helping us stand up for ourselves ... We see others doing it and we learn that way."

The most popular programmes for children appeared to come from the sports channel. One student said: "If Newcastle play somebody, we don't get the homework done".

Susan O'Bey, headmistress of Prince Andrew school, the only secondary school on the island, said: "The English Premier League has taken the island by storm."

Television news broadcasts have taken over in popularity from the longer- established radio news programmes. One student commented that: "TV took you to real places", and enabled "your eyes as well as your ears to tune in".

Television reached the island at about the time of the OJ Simpson trial, and the daily bulletins transfixed the islanders. Explaining the shock of the immediacy of live news, Mrs O'Bey said: "There were incidents like the Oklahoma bombing. I was surprised how much that affected people. And the Dunblane shootings - people were affected, they felt for the parents and the victims and this really brought it home."

Before television, people had to rely on radio or newspapers, which could take between a week and two weeks to arrive.

Most of the teenagers admitted they watched "some" violence on television. One said: "When we come home in the afternoon, we watch a bit of violence ... Some of the films on Hallmark are packed with horror and violence. Blood and brains ... ugh".

While they were sensitive to fears that television could make viewers violent, they did not think that would be the case on St Helena because of the close-knit community on the island.

Students said it was difficult to misbehave because "everyone watches you ... everyone knows you"; "you've just got to behave, if you don't ... someone will see you."

Professor Charlton said: "Students talked about a `neighbourhood watch' on St Helena, a kind of unco-ordinated pastoral network in the community.

Their comments implied that this watchfulness becomes translated into individual and collective accountability practices."

He added that emphasis should be put on a stable home and community in order for children to behave socially. Most behaviour, whether positive or negative, was learned from the home, the peer group and from the wider community.

"TV has the capacity to become a teacher - and perhaps not a very good one - if others (and parents in particular) are unwilling or unable to fulfil their obligations as responsible teachers," he said. "If TV does influence viewers unfavourably, then it is likely that we - as individuals, as a neighbourhood or society - not TV, who are to blame."

Interim results of the St Helena project will be published tomorrow in Elusive Links: Television, Video Games and Children's Behaviour by Tony Charlton and Kenneth David, price pounds 9.95, published by Park Published Papers.