So, let us get this straight. Just over a year ago Kevin Rudd invited 1000 of Australia’s best and brightest to the 2020 Summit "so that Government could shake the tree to see what ideas were out there in the Australian community about our country … out to the next decade and beyond."
But which coconut did the Government decide to run with? A dedicated television station for children. This is perplexing.
Do we really need to add more media to our children’s lives? They are developing in a world where they can watch television in the car to and from school, focus on the electronic whiteboard all day, then retreat for playdates with Nintendo and Playstation. Playground games such as skipping and pat-a-cake will soon be made into a Wii game, so only virtual friends will be necessary.
But what children crave, and need most, is time with a parent or other trusted adult — not cursory glances over a laptop or nods meted out while texting, but undivided and active play. Regrettably, these days this is harder to give than it sounds, and so children are learning to live without it. But as the adults who are selecting and devising replacements for such contact, let us do it intelligently.
There is a place for television — which promotes visual literacy. But, like anything, it is best in moderation. And that’s where we fall down. A television set is on in Australian households for an average of 4.9 hours per day and 28 per cent of households have the TV on for an average of six or more hours per day, according to a recent Newspoll study.
In June 2009 the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released A Picture Of Australia’s Children 2009. The report says that far too many children spend more than the recommended time of two hours a day (of non-educational) "screen time". It goes on to cite evidence from the CSIRO that "children who engage in more than two hours of screen time per day are more likely to be overweight; be less physically active; drink more sugary drinks; snack on foods high in sugar, salt and fat; and have fewer social interactions".
The University of Washington Medical School recently published a study finding that television reduces adult-child conversations and concludes that this "may help explain why early exposure to television has been associated with language and cognitive delays".
And this is why a television station dedicated to children is so perplexing.
During children’s peak viewing times almost every channel already has children’s programming scheduled. Between ABC1 and ABC2, children’s programs are aired from 6am right through to 6pm. But children’s peak viewing times have experienced bracket creep. Peak times can now run until 9pm. And this is where ABC3 comes in.
If children are going to watch television until 9pm it is positive that there is a commercial-free, "quality" option — which is what the ABC is promising. But is this the direction we really want to go in? The 2020 Summit aimed at "harnessing the best ideas for building a modern Australia ready for the challenges of the 21st century". Is this really the best we could come up with?
Let’s try thinking outside the box for just a moment. What about a radio station for children? Almost 20 per cent of the Australian population is under 15 years of age. There are hundreds of radio stations in Australia. And the market share for children? Zero.
Radio is evolving with the new media — it is just a quieter revolution. Over the past two months, digital radio has become available in most Australian capital cities. Digital radio offers improved sound, reception, a pause and rewind capability and scrolling text.
There is a growing body of research that children are arriving at school with poor listening skills and stunted imaginations. Perhaps exposure to a different medium — one without a screen — could help.
Radio can be a shared experience: it has always been about communicating, networking and reaching people. Listening to stories together enables opportunities for discussion later. Without a visual, the language is more descriptive, the vocabulary is thoughtful. Imaginations are exercised. And you can do something else, like build Lego or make dinner, while listening. Radio can be interactive.
Marketing departments have convinced parents that the optimum is having a screen and headset for each child. This is not an "advancement", nor is it creative. Give us an alternative — say, a quality children’s radio station — and we will listen. In numbers that will slide ratings.
According to Nielsen Media Research, every household in Australia has a radio — the average per household is actually 5.1 radios. And 8 out of 10 adults listen to radio every week. It is hardly a dying medium. The only way to ensure its death is not by offering radio at all. Since the birth of radio there have always been programs for children and families. Until this generation.
There are radio stations for children in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and many European countries. Fun Kids, a UK radio station for children, won "Digital Station of the Year" in May 2009 at the prestigious Sony Radio Academy Awards.
Radio programming for children could include songs, stories, age-appropriate current affairs, jokes, homework help and interviews with role models. During school hours it could be tailored for the pre-school set with songs, talking through an activity or craft and uninterrupted soothing music for sleep time. It is also a platform for Australia’s excellent children’s writers, like Morris Gleitzman, Andy Griffiths and Paul Jennings. Sales of audio books from these writers, and others, have significantly increased. Kids can’t get enough of reading these stories, or listening to them.
Our television viewing used to be punctuated by calls to "Life. Be in it". The catch was you had to "be in it" by participating, not watching. Helpful suggestions paraded across the screen: surfing, sailboarding, scootering, canoeing, skiing, bushwalking, snorkelling, horseriding, photography, reading, even T-shirt printing. Maybe Norm should make a comeback for this generation.
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