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Tuesday 30 June 2015

Widening the View - Children and Entertainment Today

I cast my mind back to 2010 and my then three year old daughter has woken me up. It’s too early and I need my sleep. In desperation to grab a bit more dozing time she is given a mobile phone with various educational games. This will keep her happy for a while. Her eyes dark around the small screen as her fingertips tap and swipe. She performs various tasks that will stimulate her mind and build neural pathways. I was as dubious then as I am now by the benefits of early education, but these games cannot hurt. My daughter is actively engaging in something. She is being proactive whereas I will soon turn on the radio or the television and passively receive whatever information happens to be available. 

I was a child that grew up at the dawn of the fourth terrestrial channel. It was also the era of the video cassette, personal home computer and arcade games. With the romance of hindsight and that intoxicating drug we call self-righteousness, it is very easy for me to say that we had the perfect balance over today’s hedonistic, spoilt, overweight and unhealthy wretched brood. We were the last and most representative of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X and just followed the tail end of Andrew Collins’ “Where did it all go Right” brigade. Our generation were the last to experience good rebellious music as teenagers and the ones responsible for allowing our children to be baptized in Don Tapscott’s digital ocean. We were also the first to embrace large scale toy merchandizing alongside our traditional fairy tales. Many of us cried when a giant robot was killed in a motion picture in order to make way for a Christmas toy line. When we got to our adolescence we were filled with a combination of righteous indignation whilst being simultaneously softened by political correctness, which seemed set to ruin the childhood we remembered, sanitizing it for those not yet into double figures. We were cynics and sceptics, and we were also superficially sentimental. The science fiction and fantasy of our youth now dominates the cinemas, which is barely enough to distract us from the fact that we have been lapped by the Millennial Generation.  

Many of us have adapted very well to the rapid flow of changing technology. Our generation and the ones before us are heavy internet users. However, we are no match for those who have grown up in the digital world. My generation had to learn how to touch type if we wanted that skill. I completed module on keyboarding, where I was happy with the way I just about got the hang of not looking at the keys – except if they were numbers! I even recall a sit-com from the ‘80s where a professional secretary proudly showed her boss she didn’t need to look down in order to type. Touch-typing is no longer considered a skill for those born as little as 10 years after me. This generation does not require instruction manuals either. Their brains, along with the development of technology, have arrived at a happy agreement whereby people actively explore and learn how to work devices once they’ve found the start button.  

The internet has become an incredible resource for research, exploration and education. Wikipedia is often scoffed at by the middleclass intelligentsia, but its bottom-up method of collaboration has presented the most peer-reviewed resource available to mankind. It’s far from perfect and there are a myriad of examples of bad entries on there, but the self-correcting format has led to a huge database of scholarly references and a global picture on many subjects. The digital generation cooperates, builds, improves and searches. Many of the games that they play have been shown to improve hand/eye coordination and revolve around problem solving.  

The writings of Lt Col. Dave Grossman, a common resource of mine for certain aspects of self-protection training, have a political campaign against violent video games. That is an issue for another day, but it is worth noting the reasoning behind the argument is because of the level of sophistication of “shoot ‘em ups”. They are at military simulation level, but are being used recreationally. I cannot say I support his argument. Much of the anti-violent video game correlation with classroom killings has proven to be inconclusive at best and a result of confirmation bias for a certain political agenda at worst. Grossman is anti-TV too in a manner that might be compared to certain religious groups who restrict outside media influence. Such a thought brings me back to 2010 and my passive listening to the news whilst my latter day millennial daughter happily discovers patterns of coconuts on the mobile phone game. I have never been overly convinced by the violence in entertainment angle. After all, our great literature contains some of the most atrocious examples of cruelty, brutality and sadism, and often for no better reason than to titillate. If Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” and Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” aren’t enough to convince you, try looking up older versions of well-loved fairy tales for examples of cannibalism, rape, sadistic mutilation and a moral core that is out of sync with even our great-grandparents’ generation.  

However, that isn’t to say that Grossman’s points regarding the level of training being offered in some of these games aren’t irrelevant and ironically there might be some positive benefits in what he is describing. The military certainly think so. From pilots to drivers, many personnel have been trained for years using computer simulations. Mind you, the military once explored remote viewing and telekinesis, so let’s not get too excited. 

So, having said all this, what about the big issue that so many of us are seeing regarding pro-longed gaming or computer usage? They might not make our children more violent or hinder their mental agility, but what about their social lives, their physical health and their ability to process information?
Socially there is perhaps even wider interaction than ever before. Social media brings more people together and easily expands a person’s social circle. With a global society working in real time, individuals are more likely to find friends that genuinely share the same interests rather being forced to compromise in order to fit into a local community. It also brings with it certain inherent dangers and cultivates a darker side, but I have already covered that in other articles. The rise of the “keyboard warrior” might be worth comparing with a fall in common courtesy. 

The physical issue is a genuine concern. Although a bad diet greatly contributes to the substantial rise in obesity seen at the turn of the 21st century onwards, overall health is more affected by whether or not an individual sedentary. There have been various attempts to develop more physically interactive games, but they rarely do a decent job of mimicking anything substantial. They’ll burn a few calories, but users swiftly get bored by the sheer gimmickry of the product and are more likely to get back into the consistently more popular sedentary area of gaming. 

I worry about the way the online community processes information. Although it seems like there is no excuse to be ignorant given the so-called Information Age we live in, human nature does not work in such simple ways. Firstly, we have confirmation bias. If holds onto and invests strongly enough in a belief they will be deaf and blind to contrary points. The internet cultivates niche communities. It is a place where you can go, find likeminded people and immerse yourself in a shared existence that will be impervious to anything that might contradict your shared ideas. This is why conspiracy theorists thrive online. Secondly, despite there being a fantastic array of written material, the confirmed success of electronic books and the internet providing more opportunities for writers than before, video and imagery trump everything as the most popular resource. I have watched the two sides to gaining knowledge from online videos in millennials. On the one hand they quickly learn nifty tricks around machines, which has saved them a fortune and added to their life skills. On the other hand their actual knowledge on subjects is fragile in its superficiality. By not reading literary material or good quality academic studies they come over as bluffers on certain subjects. Worse still, their arguments fall away as they scramble for sufficient underpinning knowledge and can do little other than bluster or bully their way through a discussion when it is quite evident to all that are present that they are out of their depth because they lack depth. In short, they’ve learnt the bluffer’s guide to information and it could be argued that the need to pretend expertise in everything is enhanced by the currency of fame that is never more evident than it is today.

I don’t worry so much for an over-reliance on online and computer entertainment, but rather a lack of access to a healthy surrounding environment. I grew up in a pretty unique environment, travelling until I was seven, living in a caravan until I was a teenager and living most of my life in the English countryside. Yet I was often referred to as a “telly addict”. My mother saw TV as a drug and bemoaned the day I discovered “Play School” and the “Godzilla Power Hour”. I got into films and I loved videos. She said some of the best times she had with me when we were touring was when we were on grounds that didn’t have electricity. 

Whenever I visited my godfather in St. David’s I was shown a life without television. Nevertheless, I was always skinny child with boundless energy and did moderately well at track events before I discovered a passion for martial arts. The countryside and the environment around me promoted exercise. You just couldn’t help but do things. Maybe I wasn’t channelled in a particular discipline until I reached my teens, but my generation of telly addicts would watch our programmes and then exercise our bodies and imaginations by acting them out together. I went to present a two-part documentary and appear in a live production whereas my best friend now professionally teaches/lectures on drama and dance. 

Life in an environment that allowed me access to space and natural instinctive exercise was more responsible for this introvert from becoming a couch potato. My mother once checked me for the beginning stages of arcade game addiction. She didn’t forbid me, but her words of warning helped curb my interest and let it peter out. 

I see a similar existence for my daughter. I look at the array of channels and programmes she has access to and I have to admit I am half-envious. I have acquired my previous generation’s level of indignation. “When I was your age”, I can hear myself saying, “I was grateful to piece together five minute segments of my favourite cartoons over a week of Timmy Mallet annoying me. Stories were rarely in the right order and there was no attempt to follow the US system of series of for kids. We had to endure the ‘Wide-Awake-Club’, Roland Rat, ‘Going Live’ and the mind numbingly moronic ‘Get Fresh’ on a Saturday morning to earn our right to watch entire old episodes of our favourite cartoons. You get a choice of several different incarnations of your favourite shows, played back-to-back!” She watches television every day, but she commands it in a way that my generation didn’t. She will watch a reasonable amount, get up and play. She doesn’t venerate it as I remembering doing.
Being involved in the entertainment industry, I have seen both a healthy reaction to digital and non-live media in the form of a richer variety of entertainment. Circus could be seeing a resurrection of sorts and theatre seems to be experimenting in many different ways. There are more schools teaching a wider range of skills for young people to access. On the other hand, I sit firmly with the grumpy old people who despair at the mobile phone culture. This is not just as a self-righteous member of my generation but as a reformed mobile phone cyborg. For a brief period I was one of them. I have to say it completely distorted a lot of my life and worked like a predacious virus attacking me at my most vulnerable. Worse still, I could see the way it consumed the lives of so many others. I watched on at lonely souls, living an imaginary world of their own justification, cultivating their own sycophants or misery feeders, “vague-booking” their statuses and oblivious to what they had become.

Now seeing a group of friends gather in one place only to immediately put their heads down and obsessively interact with their handheld devices is a pretty pitiful viewing experience. We are in the age of the constantly distracted conversation and where the actions of many dictate a seemingly eternal desire not to be where they are at that precise moment. Watching people endlessly put up pictures of what they are about to eat is a sad state of affairs, as are the endless pictures of people’s legs that have largely replaced holiday snaps. The ultimate extent of this cyborg existence can be seen when the mobile device and its entertainment world meets exterior entertainment. Few things are as irritating as being with people who want to continuously take “selfies” when you are engaged in an activity. The experience feels like the interactive equivalent of watching a movie and pressing the pause button every few seconds. Then there are those who watch live shows through their mobile devices. I see little or no justification for this activity. Why would you want to stand or sit through the majority of a performance you have paid good money to watch whilst holding your arms out in a fixed position watching it through a small screen? The point is that you are there to enjoy the “live” experience not create a bad piece of filming. If you want to re-watch it on your computer or TV buy the DVD or download and get a professional recording. The idiocy of such trends I hope and pray will soon become evident in our society as more people appreciate the value of actually living experiences.

My conclusion is that children have not, on the whole, become reliant on television, tablets and other forms anti-social media for entertainment. This worry reminds me of the 1964 children’s novel, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl. The book features an obnoxious child telly addict, Mike Teavee, who exhibits all the worst fears of those who blame television for many of the society’s ills. It even features a song that lists all the damage television does and concedes its only backhanded virtue is in its ability to keep children occupied whilst parents can get on with chores. The book was just one example of how many artists responded to the proliferation of television in the 1950s. My family’s circus even fled the country to tour in South Africa in the same year as the book’s publication as a direct response to the emerging TV menace. The incident is referenced in the novel “Love, Let Me Not Hunger” by Paul Gallico. However, the sky did not fall down, creativity did not peak and, despite the rise in obesity, we have some of the fittest people to have ever walked this planet. Now circuses encourage their audiences to use their mobile devices to help spread the word via social media. 

However, the environment we create around children is perhaps more at issue. We live in a climate of fear. We jump at shadows when it comes to our children, preferring them to be locked away in the safety of their own home. The tragic irony is that most accidents and deaths occur in the home and the majority of people who will commit offences against children will be those the children know. We need to encourage a better sense of community in order to safeguard security for our children and ensure their health. Most children don’t want prolonged to be plugged all day long into their devices, but they will be if they don’t have many other attractive alternatives. We can create a balance for them that need not be a lot of hard work, but a simple reassessment of daily life. 

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