Children’s screen time, watching television and films, internet time and gaming, is often cast in a negative light. The American Academy of Paediatrics, for example, warns that:
“Studies have shown that excessive media use can lead to attention problems, school difficulties, sleep and eating disorders, and obesity.”
Parents limit screen time not only on the strength of such warnings but because they feel that their children should be playing outdoors, socialising, doing their homework or something else that is more constructive. The elders may have forgotten the equivalent diversions of their childhood – comics, radio and yes, screen time.
The screen is an ubiquitous part of cultures worldwide. For children it is simply there, part of their everyday world and one more thing for them to experience, understand and master. It is more than that though. Children need stories to build the power of their imaginations and to contribute to their own life narratives of who they are and who they might become. Screen time is a potentially rich source of stories.
Imagination is a prime human attribute and a leading contender for what has provided us with our evolutionary advantage as a species. It has given us the ability to construct scenarios to test out what the consequences of our actions might be and to create templates of future realities in our minds that we might then aim to achieve or avoid.
If imagination is one of our most prized possession, how are we to ensure its fullest development? Fortunately, children have it in abundance from their early years. They create and have a hunger for imaginary scenarios in which they play a part. We, as their parents and wider family seem to be programmed to participate in these scenarios and tell stories of our own so that the imaginative possibilities available to children are enhanced.
In New Zealand we have stories from our various heritages; English, Norse, Celtic, Maori, Pacific, Asian, Biblical, the stories of our ancestors, communities and families and stories to tell from our own experiences. In the modern world there is a richness of imaginative material in books, television, films and the Internet.
Up to a point the popular Spongebob, Dora, Hannah Montana and the host of other programmes do fulfil the need for entertainment, provide building blocks for the imagination and suggest models for behaviour. What is missing is the connection with our children’s life experiences and the life of our country.
We hold dear our way of life. It is distinct from other countries. We want to pass on the best of it to our children so that they can make their own contribution to its development based on our values and experiences. For that to happen, children need to see and hear stories and entertainment set in their own country.
Dora and Hannah Montana will, without doubt, fire children’s imaginations. The images, life strategies and values from these programmes will be built into life stories. That is all to the good but where is the connection with living life as a New Zealander and what is going to reinforce the sense of belonging to our communities and to this country?
A strong sense of identity is a pre-requisite for creativity of the highest order. The relevance of stories to our own experiences enhances our sense of who we are. Our mental health depends on a belief that we have an identity and a place.
At present we have less locally-produced local fictional content for children than any other OECD country. Children’s drama is a poor cousin to both New Zealand-sourced adult drama and foreign-sourced children’s drama. Other countries protect the proportion of local content and support the production of local material.
The New Zealand Children’s Screen Trust was recently launched with the aim “to enrich the lives of NZ children by advocating for more diverse and accessible local content on our screens.” Its Australian counterpart, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, has been very successful in fostering the making and broadcasting of local productions. They and practically every other developed country have shown us that we can do better for our children and our future as a country.
– Dr Ian Hassall
Dr Hassall is a research associate at AUT, and a trustee of the NZ Children’s Screen Trust. He is a panellist at the Big Screen Symposium on the topic “Where are Kids in The Big Picture?”