Children use TV

Carsten Jessen

Printed in Unge Paedagoger No. 5, 1991

What should educational media studies be aware of in children's culture? That was the question I was asked in connection with this article. The answer is straightforward: first and foremost, that there exists something we can call children's own play culture, and that children in this context consume the media material in their own way.

When we discuss children and the media today, it is usually mainly a matter on the one hand of the way the media affect the children's relationship with reality; and on the other of the way so-called "passive" use can be turned into something active. The latter point in particular has become more and more crucial in recent years, as the many new TV channels flood the lives of children in Denmark, as everywhere else, with commercial TV material that is often an immediate hit. The discussion often makes you envisage a lonely child in front of a screen in a multiple, eternally reflecting perspective. There they sit, thousands and thousands of them, isolated from one another while, like "empty vessels" they are filled up with "Master of the Universe", "Lady Lovelylocks" - not to mention the "Turtles".

The TV medium is no longer confined to the screen. It reaches out beyond it. Danish children's shelves are chock-a-block with stacks of dolls, cuddly toys, vehicles etc. that all seem to have jumped out of the TV.

However, it has to be admitted that the children sometimes play with the toys, often in fact in extremely active (and noisy) ways, and in a way we could claim that the multinational children's culture producers have performed the feat of getting the children up from the TV chairs and into play!

Well, it is hardly the toy producers who should be credited with the fact that the children are active, any more than it is the toys that are the cause of the children's playing. The producers exploit the fact that the relationship between children and TV is not limited to the minutes in front of the screen. It goes much further and is about much more than the media as such.

Certainly TV takes up a good deal of the children's time, but the children use the TV too. Among the children themselves there is extensive, active use of the material that TV and other media provide. The He-Man and Turtles toys only form a part of this. It is a conspicuous part, there is money in it, so it gets noticed.

The media influence is converted into games, stories, rhymes, jokes etc. In this it does not differ from earlier generations and other media. Whereas we as children (boys, at any rate) were cowboys, Indians or Zorro, children today are Batman, He-Man, Michelangelo or Donatello. Pistols and bows have been replaced by karate and laser weapons.

In children's own play culture the role of the media is to supply inspiration and raw material. The children adopt the figures if they are good as a basis for playing and telling stories. The type of medium is not the most important thing, as Tarzan and Robin Hood exemplified before the dominance of the media. The important thing is that everyone knows the figures, so they don't have to be invented all over again every time the children want to play. TV figures in particular belong today to the things that children have as a shared experiential heritage.

Criticism of children's media-inspired games often claims that they are stereotyped and violent. This is far too simplistic a view which, deep down, is not about media, but is rather a result of the devaluation of boys' games that has been dominant in recent years. The "wild" games were not created by the media. They are games of strength with ancient roots, and they may be more violent than playing house, but that does not make them "violence". Play and violence are in reality opposites - even when the play is fierce. There is for example a fine-drawn, but not clear limit to how far a child can go before he "really" hits someone and thus spoils the game.

The wildness and fierceness, as well as the shouting and noise that are associated with the games are what we adults first notice and get irritated about. This can make it hard to see that the games for example involve a huge repertoire of sounds and movements or sheer "stunts" that are not simple and straightforward. Joining in these games takes practice, like all other games, and in a practice phase the games will of course be experienced as stereotyped.

Unfortunately it is not possible to reproduce a game on paper, so a story must take its place. The Turtles series was at the time of writing (February 1991) the big hit among boys, not only when toys were to be bought, but also in the games. The following story, which is given here in brief extracts, is to some extent a story in itself, but is probably inspired by the Turtles games the eight-year-old has played with other children. The story was told to an adult while the Gulf War was at its peak. It starts like this:

The teenage hero mutant turtles - and Saddam Hussein Background.
Iraq invades Kuwait. The USA tries to help Kuwait. So in Denmark they find out all about it. So there's a new cartoon film that's come as a real film too, and it's about some giant turtles who're up against someone called Shredder and back in Denmark, then, they call Saddam Hussein, who's invaded Kuwait, they call him Shredder, and now the story begins.

Part One
The USA knows the Turtles, so they ask whether they can't get Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. So they say, fine, they'll do that. So then they fly in their balloon to Kuwait, and when they got down there they found the US troops that they were going to help to save Kuwait.

The story continues to tear along with battle after battle, but with attempts at negotiations too, like this:

They go back to the USA to ask President George Bush whether they can't try to hold negotiations with Saddam Hussein. "Yes," he said. But when he tried Iraq just made a lot of conditions. So after a year of trying to negotiate with Saddam Hussein the Turtles decided that they had to attack.

TV has provided both the raw material and the model for this story. It is an example of what children do with the media material. The crucial thing in this context is that the media have an influence - of course they do, just like everything else that reaches the ears and eyes of an eight-year-old. Nor is it a major issue that he mixes reality and fiction, for he does - but not unconsciously. All fiction mixes in reality; otherwise it would not work. The crucial thing is that something that preoccupies the storyteller comes to expression. The storyteller gets the war into a scheme of things he understands: the struggle between good and evil and the triumph of the good, as in the fairytales. If he is able to grasp the Gulf War this way it is because he has a certain competence to express himself in the medium that storytelling is. In other contexts the medium is the game.

A girl of the same age is apparently not as interested in the issue of Saddam Hussein and the Turtle figures. In this case it is more the Eurovision Song Contest that captures her imagination. It is one of the big events of the year when you're that age - and a girl. It provides material for hours of playing (performing) in the subsequent period. The girls fall for the glittering world of the TV and they dream for years of being stars. They like to perform for others when the occasion arises. On the whole, performing and playing circus or pop singer is extremely popular at the age of seven or eight, now as in the past. The folklorist Erik Kaas Nielsen writes of a similar phenomenon in the fifties, when the radio was the source of inspiration.

The little girls are impressed by the glitter of the media, but later they often become critical about the phenomena. This is not manifested in intellectual concepts, but concretely, as for example in the following text, where a Danish Eurovision winner from 1990 gets the treatment:

Mel.: Hello, hello

Lonnie's got a pony
and she earns a lot of money
by singing lots of songs
that are far too long.
Lonnie stands and freezes
and she coughs and she sneezes
Oh what a pity for poor little Lonnie
So one fine day someone rings her up,
But it's only her boyfriend who says they're breaking up.
He says hello, hello
you knew I was at home
but now I never want to hear your voice any more.
Hallo, hello
Now little Lonnie's crying by her pony
about losing her Ronnie.

The parody and imitation are typical of the older children's use of the raw material from the media. This song was made for a "TV broadcast" that two twelve-year-old girls produced on their own initiative and with their own resources on a quite ordinary camcorder. The whole show was a mixture of parodies of various programme types.
As well as the Eurovision songs, the TV commercials too are often given this kind of treatment - for example the BR toy chain commercial (GK is a toyshop that competes with BR):

Tell you what the best things are
Toys you get from BR
Tell you what you mustn't do
Buy your toys from GK
The point of these examples is that material from the media merges into the existing children's culture with its tradition of games, stories, parodies etc. In the cultural network the children have a forum in which they can do something with the constant flow of new media influences. The experiences of the media are transformed, or whatever one wants to call it (and the media are actually not anything special, only a part of the surrounding adult culture - in line with the many other agents like school, teachers and parents). The background for the transformations is the storehouse of competences and traditions inherent in play culture, like storytelling, playing, rhyming, parodying etc. These competences don't arise out of thin air, but are "inherited" from generation to generation of children.
For the educationalists's approach to the media, this means in my view that, in the first place, the educationalists must be aware of other things than the establishment of formal instruction in the subject. For work must be done to ensure that children are still able to express themselves in a play culture outside adult control. In the second place it is possible to involve some of the elements developed in play culture in the teaching. This will certainly happen by itself as long as the children are not regarded as "empty vessels" who will only learn to use the media through instruction. Children are in many ways competent media consumers, not simply "victims".

Carsten Jessen
Associate professor, Ph.d.
The Danish University of Education
Department of Educational Anthropology
Emdrupvej 101
DK-2400 Copenhagen
Tlf: 3969 6633
Fax: 3969 0081