Where are the sparrows?

It is easy to run down television, but aren't we overdoing its impact on children?

Does it convey a dumbing down if children between three and four can recall names of brands and TV channels, but do not recognise a sparrow?

TOI reporting on the survey conducted by Podar Institute across a few schools in Mumbai started with this statement:

“Parents often pride themselves on their children’s skills but a recent survey might leave many embarrassed."

Many parents these days push their children on TV reality shows. One might question some of them, and even the intent to be in the public eye, but it is essentially to showcase the talent they think their kids possess.

Before such shows, children invariably were asked to perform before visitors - “Beta, recite that poem...show aunty that dance...tell uncle how you will save your sister with karate chops..." (How many children are asked to show skills in mathematics or history?) TV shows have given a wider platform to these same performances. While I do get pretty disgusted watching people so young make adult moves, tell off-colour jokes, is it not a fact that in real life this would be seen as 'older than her/his age'?

The survey sample was 2000 — 500 each from the 3/4 year and fe/male gender bracket. It also concentrated on a fairly uniform socio-economic background. The director of the institute observed:

“Children learn many things from watching television, especially commercials. Brands are not something parents or schools teach, but kids automatically absorb the information because it comes from a very colourful medium.”

I would extend the argument to iconic people and events as brands. The images of Gandhi are 'colourful' — his clothes, glasses, spinning wheel, and his quick gait. I recall a cousin dressing up as Tagore for a fancy dress competition and another as Indira Gandhi, much as one sees them on some reality shows. What, then, makes the latter bad? Some kids talk about events, and although I vehemently oppose children being used to make a point about religion or terrorism, one may surmise that they are not unaware of things around them.

The absorption is based on observation. If 85 per cent could name brands of chocolate, is it only due to the onslaught of televised images? There is no doubt that a story related to the product makes it easy to remember, but what child of an earlier generation would not tell you about the same, and even of other products? Perhaps, if a survey was conducted in those days, the results may not have been too different. I clearly recall Kiss Me toffees and Cadbury's.

90% could identity fast-food joints and names of powdered energy drinks. Is it because of the electronic media or more access? More families are eating out and the family dinner is about where to eat as much as what to eat. Energy drinks on TV work in tandem with how parents force them down kids. Again, Bournvita, Horlick's and Ovaltine have always been used to lure children to have milk.

The input has a lot to do with availability. Tigers are exotic, so everyone was aware about them. The reason probably only 20% could recognise sparrows is because they are not as visible as they used to be. This is borne out by the fact that crows scored better with 70%.

This same principal applies to fruits. Kiwis, bananas, pears, pineapples were known; only 12% could spot chikoos.

There is too much concern about the influence of consumerism. Children do not think about that. If they’d see butterflies, they’d still chase them. If we want to give the butterfly a brand name and they recall that, it does not denude the wonder they feel for it.

© Farzana Versey


  1. it is a great piece , I contend our kids are watching too much TV but this is a global phenomenon . What is your experience with your kids , how have you kept them away from Tv. I find kids wants to watch TV shows, ipl cricket and soaps. It is also true excessive watching of TV programs laced with violence and explicit materials hardly would make anyone smart.

  2. Hi FV,

    Of course, the kids wouldn't be watching TV if the parents weren't too busy to pay attention to them (Which is a lot of attention, as far as I can tell). We know "kids learn everything fast and can absorb all they see" and allowing them to watch TV unattended implies that they are going to learn a lot of stuff the parents may not like, and also not learn a lot of necessary facts and concepts. Programs geared towards children such as Barney try to change that, but the programs for Children made in India are just plain evil, and mostly conjured up by marketing executives that have the ethics of a psychopath....having met some of these types at some point...can't imagine why they would have changed in the past decade.


  3. Al:

    I was pushing the counter argument because this sort of 'caging' does not prevent kids from making improper choices as adults.

    I know there is an information overdose, much of it unnecessary. But then there isn't much access to sparrows. Besides, the education and later career system expects such 'knowledge'.

    I downloaded one of those quiz games and I am a 'loser'. I just don't know about some toon characters and other pathbreaking info that may not enlighten me. I am sticking to playing word games and Solitaire!



    Nothing in excess is good.

  4. FV:" I am sticking to playing word games and Solitaire!"

    I know what you mean :) There are literally hundreds of new cartoon characters kids watch, that if your favorite is Bugs Bunny (as it is for me) and you have extreme knowledge on looney tunes, you are considered an old fogie only fit for chucking false teeth and yelling at people to get off their verandah. Have been told as much by little kids I know (and made the mistake of trying to relate to them via cartoon characters :)). I stick to puzzles and scrabble myself...can't get myself to play computer games of any kind...feel like an ancient relic sometimes.


  5. FV:"I was pushing the counter argument because this sort of 'caging' does not prevent kids from making improper choices as adults. "

    FV, Well said. Absolutely true. My "motto" over the years has been "make your mistakes early and often, as the cost of the mistakes only increases as you grow older". Childhood influences are replaced by other "non TV" influences over time, and those influences can also be good or bad depending on one's luck. If you are really lucky, you figure early that trust in other people's judgement is often misplaced, and it is better to be a keen observer so you can learn from other people's mistakes.


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