Parents find role for videos as babysitters

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The Independent Online
VIDEOS used as "electronic babysitters" can benefit children by taking place of the old-fashioned story tellers and make them more sociable, according to a report commissioned by entertainments giant Disney.

But academics and social commentators said research showed that children who sat for hours in front of a television screen were more prone to anti- social behaviour and that while videos could be useful, they could also have detrimental effects.

The Disney research claims that video viewing can encourage children in active play and gives parents more control over what their child watches.

About 96 per cent of children in the United Kingdom live in homes with videos and the videocassette industry exceeded pounds 1.2bn in 1996. With children no longer able to play out of the home because of safety fears, the video has become an "electronic babysitter" coming to the aid of harassed mothers.

A MORI poll of more than 300 parents revealed that four in five parents felt videos gave them most control over what their children watched, compared with television and other forms of mass media.

"They represent a step back towards parents deciding what stories their children should be exposed to," said Dr John Richer a clinical psychologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, who carried out the study. "This is a good discipline on videomakers who must make their offerings consistent with parents' views of their children's welfare.

Six in ten parents also said their child would draw scenes or characters from the video and nearly three-quarters said their child would play a make-believe game based on it.

Dr Richer said that all of these things were skills that children traditionally picked up from adults reading them stories and encouraging "active play". "Video watching can reflect the role of the traditional storyteller who introduced children to folk tales, myths and legends of the community and repeat viewing can enhance children's interpretive skills as they are able to absorb themes and plots."

But other academics say that television and videos can be a force for good, but are also open to misuse.

Professor Barrie Gunter, social psychologist at the University of Wales, is the author of a report which says children who sit in front of a television for more than four hours a day are more prone to rebellion, drug-taking, crime and failure at school. "The research that we have done shows some consensus that children who become telly addicts are associated with a range of circumstances that one would call anti-social." Dr Gunter said. "I do accept that television and videos can be useful if the circumstances are right, but they can also be associated with more detrimental effects on youngsters."

Jonathan Bartley, general secretary of the Movement for Christian Democracy, said: "When you plonk children down in front of a television they are not interacting and they are not learning social skills and we think it is damaging for children to sit in front of a TV for hour after hour."