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COVER STORY: Since the day television came to the country in 1999, parents and teachers have voiced their concerns over its impact on viewers, especially young people.  Since then, the media landscape in the country has widened by much with the coming of smart phones and the Internet, among others.  But television, by far, has been found to have strong links to children’s learning and cognitive skills.

The boob tube in Bhutan has corrupted our kids

Contemporary TV programmes have a pernicious effect on our children, lament parents and teachers

COVER STORY: Since the day television came to the country in 1999, parents and teachers have voiced their concerns over its impact on viewers, especially young people.  Since then, the media landscape in the country has widened by much with the coming of smart phones and the Internet, among others.  But television, by far, has been found to have strong links to children’s learning and cognitive skills.

Today, Bhutanese children are growing up watching programmes that are vastly education deficient.  That is the prevailing view in the country that introduced television only recently.  Besides BBS, the two private cable operators – Norling and EMTV – show only dance recordings from school concerts.  Some say that effects of media must be considered in light of content; what children watch is more important than how much they watch.

television
Children watching EMTV in Changzamtog

A family sits watching television in a dingy room in Changzamtog.  As father flips through the channels, there is a loud and angry cry from the corner.  Pema, his 4-year-old daughter demands that she must see the dance.  The father tells her to be quiet.  He needs to watch some news.  Pema gets louder and begins throwing things.  Mother comes out from the kitchen and gives her husband a mouthful. 

Next, on the screen are a group of boys in ghos from Lungtenzampa middle secondary schooling dancing to a hip-hop medley. Pema is happy and scurries away triumphantly with the remote.

This is a typical scene in Bhutanese houses today.  Children are growing up watching programme that parents and teachers say are not appropriate for them.

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Courtesy BICMA

Electronic media, television in particular, has greater impact on children, and media exposure influences cognitive development and academic achievement, researchers have found.  Research has shown that well designed, educational and age-appropriate television can be beneficial to children of preschool age.  Early exposure to age-appropriate educational programmes is associated with cognitive and academic advancement.  Exposure to pure entertainment and violent content, on the other hand, is associated with poorer cognitive development and lower academic achievement.

This is where, researchers say, producers and parents can take steps to maximise the positive effects of media and minimise the negative effects.  Children’s television viewing can inform guidelines for producers of children’s media to enhance learning, and parents can select well-designed, age-appropriate programmes to view with their children and maximise the positive effects of educational media.

According to Bhutan Information and Media Impact Study (BIMIS) 2013, the majority of Bhutanese households today own a TV set  with 79% of rural households and 68% of urban households possessing TV sets at their homes.

After the legalisation of TV and emergence of cable industry, a need was felt for an effective regulatory body to ensure growth and proper monitoring.  It was felt that, if unregulated, cable TV could create adverse effects on young people’s attitudes and behaviour.  And the Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority came into existence.  But parents and observers say there is still a severe shortage of relevant contents for children.

“These days nothing that Bhutanese television shows is educational. Youth have access to more violent contents. Our cultural and traditional values are increasingly being overshadowed by external and often irrelevant programmes.  That’s probably why Thadamtshi and Lejumdre mean nothing to our young people today,” said Shera Lhundup, a parent.

Countries that are serious about quality educational television programming for significant positive effects on young viewers’ cognitive and social development have a Children’s Television Act to ensure that commercial broadcast television stations provide programming specifically designed to serve the educational needs of children.

“We shouldn’t make endless dancing a staple for our children. I think we should try to cultivate a taste for a more wholesome media content among our children. Researchers show people’s taste for media contents is only as good as what the media offer,” said Needrup Zangpo, a parent.

Dr Edward L. Palmer, the founder of Sesame Workshop in New York, said around the time when television had just been legalised in Bhutan that it is no idle forecast to say that TV would be the preeminent tool in learning for development during at least the first half of the 21st century.  However, as Palmer lamented then, TV remains drastically underutilised as a teaching tool in countries that have the highest prevalence of urgent and otherwise unmet education needs. 

Said Sonam K Gyamtsho, a UNESCO volunteer: “Investing in the sharing of knowledge and learning through television can be an effective means of promoting culture and tradition, especially to young people in Bhutan. However, today, if you sit in front of television and watch local channels, you’d be either bogged down by some unconvincing advertisements, a movie trailer or be simply watching the agility of young people whose dances do not depict Bhutanese ethos.”

“As parents, as teachers and as elders, what do we expect our children to learn from these channels that only show the glamorous world?  Most of the channels subscribed by the Bhutanese cable operators are geared towards promoting glamour-laden programmes.   Educative programmes do not find space in these channels.  Educational programmes that are entertaining must be shown  so that our children learn to imbibe correct values and disciplines in life.”

Sonam Palden, a teacher in Paro, said that it was difficult to monitor what children watch on TV. “And what’s available to them today are mostly foreign and irrelevant. For instance, I find nothing Bhutanese about school children dancing to a Korean song.”

By Jigme Wangchuk

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