Kids are 'interested' in TV, but so are apes

Carolyn Moynihan
10 Aug 2010
Reproduced with Permission

I promised something more on Aric Sigman, the (American-born, as it turns out) psychologist who has made a name for himself in Britain as a fiery critic of the way television and other screen media are dominating the lives of children. So here is the next instalment.

I heard Dr Sigman address a forum of about 200 family-minded people in Auckland, New Zealand, a few days ago. He appeared on the stage looking like a 20-year-old (in fact, he is over 50) who had just done a workout at the gym, in a black t-shirt and grey jeans and almost vibrating with energy as he launched into his presentation on how "screen time" is ruining a generation.

Not that he isn't grateful for PowerPoint ("I could kiss Bill Gates for that -- and ditto Google") which he used to good effect. And not that he doesn't use a cellphone, a computer, or watch anything on TV. No. But what is good and useful for adults is not necessarily good for kids, especially very young ones and especially in large doses. That is the message he is trying to get across to parents and government committees and people in general.

Aric Sigman "The trend towards pushing kids to use technology early, on the basis that otherwise they will miss out later on is absolute nonsense," he declared, in characteristic hard-nosed style.

The fact that children like computers and that they are "interested" in them might melt the heart of an educator who thinks, well, at least they are interested in something, but it cuts no ice with father-of-four Sigman. Apes can appreciate TV, Sigman pointed out; gorillas at New York zoo have their favourite programmes -- they like music, colour and movement. Just like little children.

"Just because children are interested in something doesn't mean they ought to have it," he stressed, to approving nods and knowing murmurs. He labours the point because politicians who control education do not seem to be able to get it, and that is because the advice they receive is dominated by people with a vested interest in technology and e-learning, he claims. "We need people who are only interested in child wellbeing."

Sigman cited a lot of research to prove his points, among them a couple of recent studies that showed giving poorer children computers to use at home did nothing on the whole for their academic grades but did give them "computer skills". Of course; you can learn a lot of skills using a computer, even if it is only to play games. I did a post on these studies a few weeks ago.

There is a lot more I could report about Dr Sigman's work on technology and also the decline of parental authority, but MercatorNet will run a review of his books later on. For the moment I will just note that the biggest damage he sees being done is to children's ability to relate to others -- their parents, siblings, friends, anyone. Kids mesmerised by screens do not learn to make eye contact; they do not acknowledge that they are passing another person. They lack empathy. And that is very bad news both for them and for society.

Here are some live interviews with Dr Sigman in Auckland.