Leading Article: Parental panic on TV

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EVER SINCE Bill and Ben, parents have been the worst critics of children's television. The puppets mis-spoke, they were not intelligible - most of the criticisms levelled at the Teletubbies were anticipated at the dawn of the children's television age. Children in front of the screen become typecast as victims, things to be manipulated by advertisers, animators and the Woodentops. But listen to children themselves. Their huge capacity to understand the medium, to ironise and challenge its conventions is often neglected. The second World Summit on television for children, which opened in London yesterday, will do well not to underestimate children's televisual literacy. "Dumbing down" is an attractive argument for adults, who tend to forget it was their own parents who first alleged it. Has there been a generation since Adam when parents have not fretted about the cultural condition of their offspring?

Not all change is for the worse, but neither ought it to be uncritically accepted. Children's access to the Internet can be a tool for acquiring new knowledge; equally it can augment those forces in the modern world which make childhood innocence so short-lived. There are trends afoot in television which favour animation against drama and factual programmes. You do not have to fondly recollect Blue Peter of old to believe that programming for children should - as for adults - offer a rich mix. Wall- to-wall cartoons, the potential result of ghettoisation on children's channels with low budgets, bore them.

An academic study by Sonia Livingstone suggests British teenagers do live a rather different life from their contemporaries elsewhere in Europe. A "bedroom culture" would be worrying if it implied young people were growing up autistic, asocial. But other studies have suggested teenagers also often fall prey to peer pressure. And spare a thought for the teenager for whom privacy, in your own bedroom, is the most important thing in the world. Are British young people more materialistic? Parents do face brand-name pressure, to be sure - which tends to be all the sharper among those on low incomes. But not all children are acquisitive monsters; not all so lack sensitivity for their parents' feelings or their families circumstances that they insist they cannot live without Nike or Diesel. Conversation about young people's tastes goes on incessantly - but the most important thing is that, in families and in society at large, we ensure it is not one-sided: that children's aspirations and judgements are sought and carefully weighed.

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