Category Archives: Social Issues

Threatening parents isn’t the way to protect children from videogame violence

Headteachers from 16 schools in Cheshire have warned parents by letter that they would be reported to the authorities if they allowed their children to play videogames marked as suitable for adults with an 18 age rating.

The letter argued that not only did videogames subject children to violent scenes, but that they also increased sexualised behaviour and led children to be more vulnerable to sexual grooming. The letter stated that in the case of children allowed to play such games “we are advised to contact the police and children’s social care” as parents’ actions would be “deemed neglectful”.

The letter’s author, Mary Hennessy Jones of the Nantwich Education Partnership, told The Sunday Times:

We are trying to help parents to keep their children as safe as possible in this digital era. It is so easy for children to end up in the wrong place and parents find it helpful to have some very clear guidelines.

The innocent days of Frogger and PacMan are largely gone, and popular videogames today often boast photo-realistic graphics depicting violence and other adult themes, which is why games such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty are age rated in the same way as films.

I’m sure the letter was written with the best of intentions but as a parent of three “screenagers” and someone who has spent almost 30 years researching the effects of videogames on human behaviour, this is a heavy-handed way to deal with the issue.

Although it is illegal for any retailer to sell 18-rated games to minors, it’s not illegal for children to play them, nor is it illegal for parents to allow their children to do so. It’s true that many parents may benefit from an education in the positives and negatives of videogames, but threatening them with the “authorities” is not helpful.

Don’t blame the game

I’ve been researching the effects of videogames on children since the early 1990s and played a role in the introduction of age ratings to videogames, writing educational leaflets for parents that outlined the effects of excessive gaming. There’s no doubt that there are many positive benefits to videogaming too.

Children often play age-inappropriate videogames. My 13-year-old son moans that he is the only boy in his class that doesn’t own or play Call of Duty. This anecdotal evidence is borne out by research: in one study we found that almost two-thirds (63%) of children aged 11-13 had played an 18+ video game. Of the two-thirds who had played them, 8% reported playing them “all the time”, 22% reported playing them “most of the time”, 50% reported playing them “sometimes”, 18% reported playing them “hardly ever”. Unsurprisingly, boys were more likely than girls (76% vs 49%) to have played an 18+ video game – and more likely to play them more frequently.

How had they got access to the games in the first place? The majority had the games bought for them by family or friends (58%), played them at a friend’s house (35%), swapped them with friends (27%), or bought games themselves (5%). So this certainly suggests that parents and siblings are complicit in allowing children access to them.

Does it do what it says on the tin?

With the development of age rating and descriptors of the games content to be carried on the packaging, there is a growing amount of research studying the content of these games aimed at adults. For instance, one study led by Kimberley Thompson examined whether the description on the box of violence, blood, sexual themes, profanity, drugs and gambling in 18+ videogames matched the game’s content. The study found that although warnings for violence and gore were relatively well handled, 81% of games studied lacked descriptions of other adult themes in the game content. The same researchers have found adult content in lots of games aimed at young children and teenagers.

Another study led by David Walsh tested the validity and accuracy of media age ratings, including those for videogames. The findings suggested that when the entertainment industry rated a product as inappropriate for children, parents agreed. But parents disagreed with many industry ratings that designated material suitable for children, with those rated as appropriate for adolescents by the industry of greatest concern to parents.

In truth, there’s no difference between the issue of children and adolescents playing 18-rated games and that of children and teenagers watching 18-rated films. It does seem, however, that parents are more likely to act on ratings for films than for videogames. So while parents could be better informed and more responsible in how they monitor their children’s activities, threatening letters from schools are unlikely to have the intended effect on parents’ attitudes.

The Conversation

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Can Mac N’ Cheese Make You less Lonely? According to One Study, it Can

Food has played a major role in families and communities around the globe for hundreds of thousands of years. When mom gets a promotion, when Sally gets a A on her math test, when dad’s favorite baseball team wins the World Series, or even when a grandparent passes or other traumatic event happens, it is more likely than not that a family uses the dinner table as a platform for celebrating, grieving or simply talking about their day.

Jordan Troisi, graduate of the Univerisy of Buffalo and lead author of a study conducted alongisde co-author Shira Gabriel who has spent years working with social surrogates (non-human things that make people feel as though they belong) engaged in experiements which found that lots of people, in an effort to cure their lonliness, are inclined to create bonds with their favorite television shows, create “relationships” with ther favorite charactes or celebrities from films they have seen, or even foster relationships with a loved one after weeding through old pictures or mementos and latching onto that “special someone.”

Tossing a monkey wrench into the experiment, Troisi and Gabriel were curious as to whether or not comfort food could have the same soothing effect in a person as would a consolating, “real-life” relationship. To begin, in one experiment, researchers had the initial goal of making people feel lonely. To instill this uncomfortable lack of attachment, researchers had a group of subjects do a 6-minute writing exercise in which they were to write about nothing else but a fight they’ve recently had with somone they are close to. Next, they split the initial groups into smaller groups. Within that larger initial group, one subsequent group was assigned to write about a recent experience eating a “comfort food” (the word comfort being in quotes because the idea of a comfort food depends largely on individual taste). The other group was assigned to write about eating a new food. The last part of the study had all participants answer questions pertaining to their lonliness.

Prior to the experiment, the subjects were given assessments concerning how secure or unsecure they felt in their current relationships. Writing about having a quarrel with a close friend or relative made people feel lonely. However, there was an interesting find: those who had been found previously somewhat secure in their relationships before the experiment were able to untangle themselves from the web of lonliness by writing about comfort food! Says Troisi,

“We have found that comfort foods are foods which are consistently assosicated with those close to us…Thinking about or consuming these foods later then serves as a reminder of those people we are close to.”

In their writings about comfort food, many people wrote about the connection of eating food in association with family, friends, and other close ones.

In a separate experiment, spooning in hearty helpings of chicken soup in a lab made people think more about relationships, but only if they considered chicken soup a comfort food – something they’d been asked before the experiement, along with a series of other questions so that they would not remember that they’d been asked in the first place.

Can comfort food serve as a ready-made, easy resource for remedying lonliness as much as it can be “a cure” for the common cold? Who knows? Only mac n’ cheese and mashed potatoes – and  of course, chicken soup – will tell.

Why is CRISPR the Science Buzzword of Early 2015?

CRISPR isn’t just the cutting edge of genetic modification – it is re-framing our understanding of evolution.

 What is CRISPR?
CRISPR is a DNA sequence that can do something most other genes can’t. It changes based on the experience of the cell it’s written in.  It works because of a natural ability for cells to rewrite their own genetic code, first discovered in 1987. The name CRISPR was coined in 2002, and it stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats”. They function as a method of inserting recognizable DNA of questionable or dangerous viruses into DNA strands so that the offspring of the cell can recognize what its ancestors have encountered and defeated in the past. By inserting a CRISPR-associated protein into a cell along with a piece of RNA code the cell didn’t write, DNA can be edited.A 2012 breakthrough  involved, in part, the work of Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna. Doudna and the rest of the team at UC Berkley were the first to edit human DNA using CRISPR.  Recently, in March 2015, she warned this new genome-editing technique comes with dangers and ethical quandaries, as new tech often does. Dr. Doudna in a NYT article, she called for a planet-wide moratorium on human DNA editing, to allow humanity time to better understand the complicated subset of issues we all now face.
CRISPR-related tech insn’t only about editing human genes, though. It affects cloning and the reactivation of otherwise extinct species. It isn’t immediately clear what purpose this type of species revival would have without acknowledging the scary, rapidly increasing list of animals that are going extinct because of human activity. Understanding and utilizing species revival could allow humans to undo or reverse some of our environmental wrongs. The technique may be able to revive the long lost wooly mammoth by editing existing elephant DNA to match the mammoth‘s, for instance. Mammoths likely died out due to an inability to adapt to natural climate change which caused lower temperatures in their era, and are a non-politically controversial choice but the implications for future environmentalism are promising.
Each year, mosquitoes are responsible for the largest planetary human death toll. Editing DNA with CRISPR bio-techniques could help control or even wipe out malaria someday. The goal of this controversial tech is to make the mosquito’s immune system susceptible to malaria or make decisions about their breeding based on how susceptible they are to carrying the disease. The controversy around this approach to pest and disease control involves the relatively young research behind Horizontal Gene Transfer, where DNA is passed from one organism to an unrelated species. A gene that interferes with the ability of mosquitoes to reproduce could end up unintentionally cause other organisms to have trouble reproducing. This info is based on the work of , ,
Even more controversial are the startups claiming they can create new life forms, and own the publishing rights. Austen Heinz’ firm is called Cambrian Genomics which grows genetically-controlled and edited plants. The most amazing example is the creation of a rose species that literally glows in the dark. Cambrian is collaborating with the rose’s designer, a company called Glowing Plant, whose projects were eventually banned from kickstarter for violating a rule about owning lifeforms. Eventually, Heinz wants to let customers request and create creatures:
The final example in an ongoing list of 2015 breakthroughs involving CRISPR is this CRISPR-mediated direct mutation of cancer genes in the mouse liver might be able to combat cancer. It’s the second cancer-related breakthrough in 2015 that affects the immune system, the first was on Cosmos about a week back: Accidental Discovery Could Turn Cancer Cells Into Cancer-Attacking Immune Cells.

Other Related articles:

Pre-Darwinian Theory of Heredity Wasn’t Too Far Off

Wooly Mammoth Poised to be the First De-Extincted Animal, Son~!


Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Street Harassment Has to Stop

You may not have heard the term “street harassment”, but if you’re a woman in Australia, you’ve probably experienced it: whistles, stares, unwanted comments, touching or being followed by strangers in the street.

According to research by the Australia Institute, 87% of us have experienced some form of physical or verbal street harassment, often before the age of 18. Internationally, this figure is higher, at 96%.

As with other forms of sexualised violence, men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of street harassment and women the victims – although victims may also be targeted on account of ethnicity and or sexual orientation.

While it may be tempting to dismiss such occurrences as “minor” or “harmless”, there is a substantial body of research that tells us this is not the case. The impacts of street harassment vary depending on the context, and range from the immediate, visceral responses of anger, repulsion and shock, through to longer-term effects such as anxiety, depression and, in some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder.

Street harassment also has a very real impact on women’s use of and access to public spaces. Women consistently report that they limit their movements in public in order to avoid street harassment as well as more “serious” sexual violence.

While there is considerable merit in documenting the prevalence and impacts of street harassment, we need to ensure that this is not all we do.

Violence against women

Street harassment is part of the continuum of men’s violence against women, which includes what we might consider to be more “serious” forms of gender-based violence, such as sexual assault, rape and physical abuse. These seemingly vastly different forms of behaviour are interconnected, and all contribute towards women’s oppression and inequality.

A hidden video camera records the unwelcome advances a woman in Manhattan, New York, over ten hours/Hollaback.

Despite this, minimal attention has been paid to how we might prevent and respond to street harassment. There is little legal or other recourse for women who have experienced street harassment. And street harassment is notably absent from policy documents and discussions on the prevention of men’s violence against women.

Yet, if we are to eliminate all forms of violence against women it is vital that street harassment is included in our prevention efforts.

Avenues for prevention

So, what avenues are there for responding to, and preventing, street harassment?

Improving justice responses to street harassment is one option that could be pursued. Although some forms of street harassment are covered under current legislation, others, such as staring, are not. We know relatively little about victims’ experiences of reporting to the criminal justice system, although as with other forms of sexual violence it is likely vastly under reported.

However, a formal justice response may not be the best, or most appropriate, option for responding to and preventing street harassment. Certainly, it is an avenue that should be kept open to street harassment victims should they desire to pursue it. Yet, the justice system has a long history of responding poorly to violence against women – a problem that persists, despite efforts to reform the system.

The nature of street harassment makes it difficult to respond to through the justice system. The often-fleeting nature of street harassment means that perpetrators have moved on, often before women are able to identify who they were.

Additionally, the harm from street harassment may arise from the cumulative experience of repeated harassment and not from the action of individual perpetrators.

Internationally, public transport companies have run campaigns communicating that harassing behaviour will not be tolerated.
Anna Jurkovska/Shutterstock

When it comes to responding to street harassment, we need think outside of the formal justice box.

Bystander intervention, for instance, is gaining increasing prominence as a response to gender-based violence, and offers much potential when it comes to the prevention of street harassment. Bystander intervention can mean directly confronting the perpetrator – where safe to do so – and other actions such as asking the victim if they are okay.

Speaking up when we see street harassment tells perpetrators their behaviour is not acceptable, while simultaneously offering our support to victims.

Internationally, public transport companies have run campaigns communicating that harassing behaviour will not be tolerated. Australian-based companies could easily do the same.

Continuing to challenge the attitudes towards women and gender stereotypes that underpin street harassment is also vital. While programs such as “Sex and Ethics” are increasingly being introduced into our schools to help achieve this, research shows that we still have a long way to go in shifting attitudes.

A lack of current responses to street harassment, while disappointing, allows us to develop responses from the starting point of victims’ needs and experiences. While some victims may prefer to access the traditional justice system, others may desire innovative or new responses such as voicing their experience online. A one-size-fits all approach is unlikely to be successful; we need a suite of responses.

Whichever options we ultimately decide on, one thing is clear: it’s time to stop just talking about street harassment and start taking some action.

Editor’s note: Bianca will be answering questions between 1 to 2pm AEDT on Tuesday March 17. You can ask your questions about the article in the comments below.

The Conversation

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Yes, sexism is rife in surgery – and it’s time to do something about it

You would expect women to flourish in medicine. Since 1996, women have outnumbered men in Australian medical schools. More than half of general practice trainees, two out of three paediatric trainees, and close to three in four obstetricians in training are women.

Look at surgical training and this pattern stops: fewer than one in three surgical trainees are women, and the numbers fall further as doctors reach advanced training. Just 9% of surgeons in Australia are women.

Late last week, vascular surgeon Dr Gabrielle McMullin unleashed a storm by suggesting that sexual harassment was common in surgical training. She said gaining redress was so compromised that if a female doctor was propositioned, providing a sexual favour may be the only way to sustain her career.

Data from medical schools in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia all confirm that sexual harassment occurs in medical school. A 2005 US study of medical students found 92.8% of female students had experienced, observed or heard about at least one incident of gender discrimination and sexual harassment during medical school. This harassment continues into specialist training.

Systemic bullying and harassment ranges from crass sexualised jokes, inappropriate touching and crass commentary on female doctors’ bodies, to frank requests for sexual favours. Some of these may occur in public, but much is unwitnessed.

Women doctors report that they may be able to manage harassment by patients and by their peers, but harassment from supervisors is much more difficult to deal with. Many women doctors are reluctant to come forward and develop feelings of guilt and resignation.

Sexual harassment occurs within a larger culture of discrimination against women in post-graduate medical training. A recent US study of female surgeons found 87% experienced gender-based discrimination in medical school, 88% in residency and 91% in practice.

Anecdotal reports suggest some women trainees are asked at interview about their intentions to have children, or advised that only certain careers are suitable for women with children. When employed, some female trainees report being given job contracts that are structured so they can never meet the criteria for maternity leave. Others say their rosters make it impossible to carry on with a career while maintaining caring responsibilities.

The toxicity of surgical training arises because it’s highly hierarchical, male-dominated, and – like most hospital-based training in the specialties – involves an intense apprenticeship training mode. Career advancement depends on personal recommendation from supervisors, and careers can be stymied by withholding this.

Junior doctors face increasing pressure for specialist training places. Although positions for many specialties are gradually increasing, this is out of kilter with the large increase in medical graduates, following the establishment of new medical schools over the last ten years.

In a high-pressure surgical environment, where older male consultants dominate, and there is great competition for training positions and jobs, women can often find themselves in very poor bargaining positions, vulnerable to sexual harassment.

Although female surgeons may face the worst of sexual harassment, this culture is endemic to medicine more generally and is so common that many doctors do not even notice it. A recurrent theme expressed by victims is the difficulty being believed, and once believed, not seeing any consequences for the perpetrator.

Sexual harassment is fundamentally about power. Saying sexual harassment is about “sex” is like hitting someone over the head with a shovel and calling it gardening. Identifying sexual harassment as it occurs can prove challenging for the doctors and medical students involved, especially if senior peers, including women, laugh it off or engage in collaborative bullying.

Nor is it limited to women. Bullying on the basis of sexual preference, race and age have all been reported in the medical workplace.

To solve the problem, we first need acknowledgement that career repression via sexual harassment, bullying and humiliation occurs, and that victims are not supported when they report.

We also must recognise that full-time apprenticeship mode of training, particularly when there are limited training positions, places junior doctors in a structurally vulnerable position.

We need more and broader modes of training. Part-time training remains unusual in most training programs except general practice. There are currently six part-time surgical trainees, accounting for 0.5% of all training positions in surgery, despite evidence that these trainees are as successful as full-time trainees.

The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons’ announcement yesterday that it will establish an expert advisory committee into bullying and harassment is very welcome. Other specialist colleges should also review harassment in their own programs.

Written policies on harassment in the workplace have existed for many years in health workplaces, but they have not changed the culture. It is time for a concerted approach from both colleges and hospitals to recognise and embrace the kinds of changes that will make medical training inclusive and safe for all medical graduates.

The Conversation

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Can a new university close the gender gap in engineering?

Fashioning itself as the “first purpose-built university in the UK for 30 years”, the New Model in Technology and Engineering (NMITE) aims to “radically evolve the way technology and engineering are taught to undergraduates”. NMITE will be based in Hereford, with the intention to open in 2017-18 with around 300 undergraduates, expanding to 5,000 students by 2027. It can’t quite call itself a university yet – NMITE will have to approved by the privy council, which will take some time.

Backed by the universities of Bristol and Warwick and Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, NMITE will focus on teaching, rather than on gaining research funding. The economic rationale for the project is based on the well-publicised shortage of technology and engineering graduates in the UK, as well as supporting local economic development in Herefordshire.

Gender balance

NMITE will also focus on increasing the number of female graduates in technology and engineering. Its website says the aim is to admit an equal number of women and men to the programme, with a similar profile for faculty members, but there are no clear answers as yet on how they will go about this. They may find it difficult to obtain gender equality, especially if other universities’ technology and engineering departments are anything to go by.

Looking at undergraduate degrees, women do study science subjects – particularly in human and veterinary medicine, and dentistry. However, the percentage of women studying technology and engineering at university remains stubbornly low. According to the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Authority, women made up 39% of all enrolments in science subjects in 2013-14. At undergraduate engineering level, the percentage was even lower, at 24%. The table below helps illustrate the gap.

Technology and engineering are very female-light.
Department for Education

At GCSE level, due to the structure of the curriculum, there are almost equal numbers of male and female students studying all three sciences. But as the graph below shows, this balance changes at A Level. While biology continues to appeal to both genders, chemistry and physics – along with maths and computing – attracts a significantly lower percentage of female students.

Percentage of girls and boys taking A Level subjects in 2014.
Carol Davenport, data from JCQ

The likelihood is that NMITE will end up with a similar composition, with a very male-dominated student population. This is certainly what has happened to the University Technical Colleges (UTC), a form of free school for 14 to 19-year-olds funded by the Department for Education. Many of these UTCs focused on technology and engineering, and have a student population which is predominantly male. One of the few that isn’t is the Liverpool Life Science UTC which, as its name suggests, focuses on pathways into life science careers such as medicine, healthcare and animal sciences.

Start early

Unfortunately for NMITE, the answer to gender equality probably lies much earlier in the educational journey of young people. The longitudinal ASPIRES project at King’s College London, which looks into maths and science education, found that although many young people enjoy science, even at the age of ten they don’t see it as being something that “people like me” do. The ASPIRES research team recommended that careers information and activities start earlier, in primary school, not in Year 9, and that the idea of science careers need to be embedded into everyday lessons.

Unless NMITE works with primary schools, that isn’t something that they’ll have much influence on. And even if they do work with primary schools, they won’t reap the benefit for at least seven years.

But there is good news: their approach to teaching engineering and technology may appeal to female students. In its 2006 report, Girls in the Physics classroom: A teachers guide for action, the Institute of Physics identified a number of useful similarities in schools where high numbers of girls chose to study physics.

The report said these schools give pupils a glimpse of the “big picture” by reinforcing links between topics, key ideas and their applications wherever possible. The schools also tried tackling applications first, and then the principles behind them, so that the rationale for studying a topic were clearer throughout.

NMITE’s approach of creating a curriculum with a focus first on applied engineering rather than theory may provide the big picture and the practical application that appeal more to women. Part of the degree will be called “human interaction”, with a focus on a liberal education akin to a broad-based liberal arts degree in which students learn about “the historical, cultural, political and ethical context of technology and engineering” alongside employability and communication skills. This may also help improve the gender balance. Or, of course, they could simply include life sciences in their curriculum as well.

The Conversation

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Feeling a little jet lagged? It must be daylight savings time

On March 8 in (most) of United States we again advanced the time on our clocks by one hour. Shifting clocks an hour can’t be that much of a big deal, right? Actually, it is. In our sleep-deprived society, every minute counts. Losing 60 precious minutes of sleep can really hurt.

Your mom always told you get eight of sleep (and might still be nagging you about that no matter how old you are). We all know that getting enough sleep is critical to our minds and bodies. And yet despite this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2009 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey revealed that more than one-third of American adults typically sleep less than seven hours over a 24-hour period.

And, although less-scientifically rigorous, a 2013 Gallup Poll found that 26% of respondents sleep only six hours per night. This means that up to one-quarter of our population may be sorely affected when the clocks jumped ahead.

What’s the risk to those who are already “sleep starved” when they lose an additional hour? I, for one, would not want to be driving next to that group of people on the freeway. A 2001 study looking at 21 years worth of data on traffic accidents, found a significant increase in accidents occurs during the day after the “spring ahead” time change.

Daylight savings can also have an impact on workplace productivity. A 2012 study found a dramatic increase in cyberloafing – using the internet at work for non-work related purposes. Researchers found that people search for 3.1% more entertainment related sites on the Monday after the daylight savings switch compared to the Monday before.

Tough time?
Alarm clocks via

What happens to your body when you don’t sleep enough?

If you already tend to get less sleep than you need, you may have already noticed some of the cognitive impacts. If you have trouble concentrating at work or school, find your mind wandering or have trouble remembering things, you’ve experienced some of the negative consequences of sleep loss. So shifting clocks ahead an hour probably isn’t going to help things.

Generally speaking, adults need approximately eight hours of sleep each and every night. The need for eight hours of sleep is largely based on studies showing that brain performance and body homeostasis are optimal with eight hours of sleep and deteriorate with less sleep.

Studies done by Timothy Roehrs at Henry Ford Hospital as well as Hans Van Dongen at the University of Pennsylvania show substantial cognitive impairment occurs with sleep loss. And Eve van Cauter from the University of Chicago has shown that insulin resistance, the first step toward diabetes, is triggered by sleep loss.

Too early?
Alarm clock via

Our biological clock is also unhappy with the time change. During the days and weeks before the time change we awoke (hopefully) to sunlight, which is the biological clock’s morning wake-up alarm. Sunlight stimulates the biological clock to activate other brain regions involved with maintaining wakefulness and homeostasis. However, starting on March 8, our early morning hours are filled with darkness and our biological clock may prefer to “sleep-in.” The absence of our biological clock’s wake-promoting drive may create a sudden jet lag-type feeling. We’ll find it a little more difficult to get started in the mornings.

The spring time adjustment also affects school children. Monday morning they will find themselves standing at the bus stop in the dark. Their biological clocks will still be asleep and their bodies will feel like it is only 6am. Yet their wristwatch (or these days, their phone) tells that it is 7am. So our children will also feel jet lagged without leaving their home timezone.

Get your dose of sunlight

To help your brain and body adjust to the new light-dark cycle, it will be important to get an early morning dose of sunlight, every day. The blue color spectrum in natural sunlight stimulates our biologic clock, which in turn, activates other areas of our brain to “wake up.” The absence of a dose of sunlight shortly after awakening may lead us to feel sluggish or only half-awake. We will also feel a loss of vigor and vitality during the daytime.

Let the light (therapy) shine.
Woman via

Those of us living in areas in which it is difficult to get an early morning dose of sunshine may consider something called light therapy. This established treatment simply involves sitting close to special, blue-light emitting bulbs that replace standard light bulbs in the fixtures at our office desks or other locations where we spend our daytime hours. The blue light frequency informs our biological clock that the sun is shining. Although we cannot fool mother nature, we can trick our biological clock into thinking that it is sunny outside.

Fortunately, within two to three days, most of us will adjust to the new time schedule. And, hopefully, we’ll begin enjoying the benefits of an increasing daily amount of sunshine as the days lengthen as we advance toward summer.

The Conversation

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Watching TV can actually be good for toddlers

Scaremongering about the negative effects of children’s TV-watching is not new. But in our busy lives it’s more and more tempting to let your child watch television for half an hour or so while you tidy up, wash up, make phone calls, pay your bills or simply take a moment to sit down.

Despite the prevalence of television programmes targeting young children, the American Academy of Paediatrics discourages television exposure for children under the age of two years and recommends that exposure is restricted to less than one-two hours thereafter. But new research has shown that after watching an educational children’s television programme, toddlers can learn to count to five and learn to read a simple map presented on the show.

Bad reputation

In its 2011 policy statement, the American Academy of Paediatrics reported that television viewing was associated with an overall reduction in both parent-child interactions and children’s creative play, irrespective of whether the television was on in the background or the foreground. Television itself does not offer an ideal learning situation for children. We know that children up to three years of age exhibit a video deficit – meaning they learn less from television than they do from a live interaction. So it’s clear that children’s television exposure should be moderated.

When presented with TV programmes, children are faced with a transfer task, meaning that they must transfer what they learn from a 2D television screen to the 3D world. The poorer quality of visual and social information presented on TV can lead to a less detailed representation of the information in children’s memory and subsequent difficulties transferring learnt information to the real world.

Visual information such as size and depth cues are reduced on a 2D television screen compared to the 3D world. Likewise, in contrast to a real world social situation, an actor or character on television cannot respond to what the child is looking at, saying or doing at a given moment in time. Characterising the video deficit as a transfer problem is helpful for understanding how to support children’s learning from television.

Learning about 2D the 3D way.
Baby boy watching TV via Frantisek Czanner/Shutterstock

Helping children learn from television

There is still hope for educational children’s TV programmes. Children’s television producers and parents can employ a number of techniques to enhance learning from TV and support children’s knowledge transfer to the real world. One reason that children often ask to watch the same TV programmes over and over again is that they learn better from repeatedly being exposed to the same thing.

Repetition within a TV show, such as repeating sequences or new words, or repeatedly watching the same show across a number of days can enhance children’s learning, memory and transfer of the information to the real world.

What’s more, the more familiar the television character, the more likely it is that children will learn from a television programme featuring that character. Repetition helps children to store more detailed representations of the information in their memory. While watching the same children’s TV show with your child may be tedious for parents, it is beneficial for children.

Interactivity is key

Making children’s TV an interactive activity is also beneficial for children’s learning and later knowledge transfer to the real world. Television programmes aimed at children aged 2 years and above such as Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues try to promote a social interaction between the child and the television character by getting characters to look directly at the camera, and using questions and pauses to allow time for children’s responses.

Children are more likely to understand the content of a children’s television programmes when they respond to a character’s interactive questions. In programmes like Dora the Explorer, television characters’ feedback responses to children are limited to things like “Good job” and “That’s right”. Watching television with your child and giving them better feedback on their responses will give you the opportunity to further support their learning from television.

So yes, children’s TV does have the potential to be educational for young children. But not all children’s TV programmes are created equal. While some provide a good learning platform for young children, others are better suited to entertainment purposes only. Watching TV with your child and making the experience more interactive can enhance the educational value for your child.

The Conversation

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