Spare the Teletubbies: they've dumbed-up Watch with Mother

Children are more media literate than adults, says Suzanne Moore. They don't need the protection of censorship

Related Topics
I HAVE tried, I really have, to remember the golden age of children's television, a time of intellectually stimulating, frightfully educational programming which have since given way to the psychedelic spawn of Satan - Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po. Before the cleverly marketed mutant Teletubbies took over we watched and we encouraged our children to watch ... well what exactly? Those whistling socks - The Clangers? Those poorly drawn Ninja turtles? Those realistic male role models Bill and Ben? That horrid sexist Postman Pat? The class-ridden Thomas the Tank Engine?

The Teletubbies' biggest achievement is that they have become a symbol for those who want to argue that children's TV is "dumbing down". The fact that the Teletubbies are designed to appeal to pre-school infants: to babies in other words, seems to have been forgotten. If the Teletubbies appeal to toddlers and wacky student types this may be due to the hard truth that compared to grown-ups, toddlers are quite dumb. But of course you mustn't say that because in this game every child is a regular little tabula rasa ready to have its head filled with the encyclopaedic knowledge that "proper" children's programmes should be full of.

So let's, in the words of Mrs Merton, have "a heated discussion " about all this nonsense. There has already been one this week at the World Summit on Television for Children. Quite delightfully in the midst of all this concern about what it is correct and proper for children to watch, one female speaker, Alice Cahn of the American Public Service Broadcasting service PBS, called another speaker, Ada Haug, head of pre-school programmes in Norway "an ignorant slut" in an argument over - you've guessed it - the merits of Teletubbies. What a shame all this wasn't televised and put out just after Blue Peter. But then you can't have everything. An awful lot of tosh is spouted about children and television from people who should know better, yet the only way people will know better is if they sit down and actually watch what is on offer to their kids. No one expects to be a film critic without having seen any films. But everyone from stray MPs to right-wing watchdogs to concerned liberals gets to mouth off about programmes they have heard of but never seen. years of working at home have meant that I have watched a lot of kids' TV with my children. Years of lying in bed have also meant that my children have watched a lot of television without me present to monitor their every reaction. So that means that they are either terribly deviant or terribly average.

In my considered opinion children's television is getting better and better. Yes there are some pretty boring cartoons. "Why don't the people in cartoons ever change their clothes, Mummy?" asked my youngest the other day, but there are also some good dramas, from The Demon Headmaster to Byker Grove to The Phoenix and the Carpet, which kids actually prefer to an unrelieved diet of cartoons. No kid these days can get away from being confronted with social issues, from drugs to abuse to prostitution. There is also a reluctance to admit that children after a hard day at school have just as much right to be entertained as adults have. Pity the child whose every waking hour must be filed with educational activity. The work ethic now reinvested with Blairite zeal has filtered down to our children who are never allowed to be bored or idle or any of those states that might encourage something truly creative to enter their minds.

The category of separate programming for children needs itself to be questioned. Who watches Hollyoaks, The Big Breakfast, EastEnders, Casualty and Top of the Pops if not children and teenagers? Zoo TV, that late-Eighties trend, was born out of the arranged marriage of Saturday morning kids' programmes and a generation of presenters like Chris Evans and Johnny Vaughan who instinctively understood how television worked long before they ever worked in the medium itself.

These princes of media literacy may be currently lauded - they are ironic and self-referential in their constant emphasis on the process of production itself. Now they stand out. Surely though, the coming generation will be so media literate that they will eat these guys for breakfast. "Media literacy" is what much of the debate is currently about, but we get it all the wrong way round. It isn't children who need to be taught media literacy: it's their anxious parents and teachers. Even the concept of Media Studies makes people nervous. The study of literature is still regarded as far more useful than the study of anything that emanates from a screen. Despite Brit Art and Brit design, we still place our trust in words rather than pictures, a residue of our profoundly puritanical and anti-visual culture. The message of those concerned with the medium must be that media literacy is not the enemy of good old fashioned literacy.

If we cannot live in a world where we get information and entertainment both on the page and on the screen, we will not get very far at all. Likewise if we always see one medium as infinitely superior to the other then we will loose out. Anyway, even if your virtual teenager has turned into a virtual nerd stuck in their virtual bedroom cruising the Net all night long, he or she is reading and maybe even writing.

I am not denying that there are genuine problems around children and the screen: the spectre of the global child who has no sense of locality or community has been conjured up. This is the child viewed purely as a consumer to be targeted by huge corporations. The mediated child also gets little exercise or direct experience of the complicated world that flickers before him or her and will have a different relationship to it than those who spend a mythical childhood climbing up apple trees.

The overriding concern continues to be censorship. Most parents act as censors of their children's viewing until the child reaches an age where regulation is no longer possible. Inevitably greater access - TV sets in every kid's bedroom - means that parents demand more regulation from broadcasters. We have lost control over what our kids see because new technologies are outstripping our ability to censor them.

Perhaps then we should approach all this the other way round. If our children are seeing far too much, much too young we should make more of an effort to engage with what they do want to watch even when we forbid them to watch it. This is the opposite of dumbing down. It means entering into some form of critical discussion of the material available to them. When you listen to what they say, they are rarely duped and rather sensible about what they value and what they don't. When I used to watch with mother I got Andy Pandy. When my kids watch with mother they get The Simpsons. If that counts as dumbing down I'll eat my shorts.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Dom Joly owns a pig. That thinks it's a dog.  

I'll bow out. Let Wilbur, the pig that thinks it's a dog, bring home the bacon

Dom Joly

Forget charging by the page - with books, heart matters more than heft

Katy Guest
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'