As a child, my brothers and I were banned from watching ITV. Apparently, we weren’t the only family to do this, but this arbitrary rule certainly caused me a little embarrassment at primary school, as at the end of each day the teacher would allow a ten-minute improvisation session, where each of us, or groups, had to act out advertisements of our choice. The other children loved for example the cackling Martians from Smash, one of the favourites in the early 1970s, but I had nothing to contribute.
Later on, in our teenage years, we mocked our mother for her apparent prudishness, but with four boys, this may have been an impromptu but convenient solution to the problem faced by all parents, namely how to control what our children watch. Thirty years on, television is almost the least of our worries, as we fret over the Internet, video and computer games, MSN, Bebo, email and any number of new social networking websites like Facebook and MySpace.
There are two issues for us as either parents, policymakers, or both. The first is how to police detrimental content, in other words pornography, violence and the like. In this short posting, I will focus on the second problem – the effect that even entirely innocent content, taken to extremes, can have on our children.
In October 2005, I hosted in the House of Commons a book launch for two Fulham sisters and authors, Teresa Orange and Louise O’Flynn, and their first book, “The Media Diet for Kids”. The book is a practical guide to helping parents fight back against “screen binging”. It informs parents when and how to say no, how to properly count and assess the time spent by children in front of a screen, and how to even set up a “diet plan” to wean them off it. The book also lauds some of the benefits of modern media, and how parents can actually ensure that only the best of it is available. Teresa and Louise’s techniques are far more sophisticated than my mother’s and for more about them, see their website at http://www.mediadietforkids.com
According to Teresa and Louise, eleven to fifteen year olds spend on average 53 hours a week in front of a screen. This compares with 38 hours a week in 1994. The majority of children spend more time watching TV than actually learning at school. Watching TV is actually in decline, and average Internet use has increased in this age group from 5.2 hours a week in 2000 to 7.3 hours in 2004.
After the publication of their book, the Observer described the authors as “two mothers on a mission to save children from television.” The two are no ordinary mums either. Teresa was the children’s expert at advertising giant, J Walter Thompson. Louise was director of communications at Camelot.
The really nice thing about Louise and Teresa’s approach is that is doesn’t involve state intervention. It is all about parental empowerment, not parenting classes run by local authorities. I introduced Teresa and Louise to the Party’s Quality of Life policy group, and knowing that David Cameron has rightly pledged to put pro-family policies to the fore, I look forward to seeing some high quality proposals this summer on how the Conservative Party will back parents in taking back control.
Greg Hands is MP for Hammersmith & Fulham