Children learn more about health matters from television than they do from their teachers, parents or friends. They regard TV soaps such as Neighbours and Home and Away as important sources of information on, for example, the causes and treatment of cancer.
This is the conclusion of recent research funded by The Women's Nationwide Cancer Control Campaign. Begun by a team led by Professor Anne Oakley at the London Institute of Education, and continued by Dr Gillian Bendelow and Dr Simon Williams of Warwick University, the project investigated children's beliefs and ideas about health, and particularly about cancer.
Two age groups were studied, 9 and 10-year-olds and 15 to 16-year-olds. The influence of the soaps was apparent at both stages.
Sunburn, for example, was mentioned by more children as a cause of cancer than smoking, reflecting the fact that skin cancer is often mentioned on the sunny Aussie programmes. And, in a direct reference to the worries of blonde Meg, who faced cancer treatment in Home and Away, many children asserted that cancer could cause hair loss.
There was a time when cancer was hardly mentioned in adult company, let alone in the classroom. Even now, according to Dr Bendelow, "there's not much focus on cancer in health education. It tends to get swept up in the smoking issue - there's a fear of broaching the subject particularly among primary children. "
Her research showed, though, that children did want to know about cancer. "Over half the children in each age group knew somebody who had had cancer."
She acknowledged the need to keep a balance between giving knowledge and causing unnecessary worry but, she said children were capable of taking on board quite sophisticated ideas. Much of the evidence for this lay in the drawings which the younger pupils were asked to make of what they thought to be healthy and unhealthy.
These disclosed wide knowledge, and a clear understanding of the difference between factors that were within individual control and those which are not. "The spread of ideas, from diet and exercise to traffic pollution is remarkable for 10-year-olds," Dr Bendelow said. (One girl drew a collage of unhealthy things, including a gun, a bag of sweets, a cigarette, a portion of chips, a nuclear bomb, some pills, a bar of chocolate, a bottle of spirits . . . and a bespectacled face labelled "John Major".) Her research suggested that children knew about how to be healthy, but still lived unhealthy lives. In this respect, it may be that soaps , dealing as they do with feelings and emotions to which young people can relate, could be more effective than classroom admonition. What is perhaps needed, therefore, is a different approach to child health education, and Dr Bendelow is looking at the possibility of producing new teaching materials.
Dr Bendelow and Dr Williams are now developing the project with the aim of providing more detail - about the role of teenage magazines, for example, which seem to be important in the older age group, and also about differences between sexes, regions and ethnic groups.
* If Australian soaps make effective health education, then according to another academic, "more geographers should watch EastEnders". Dr Gill Valentine, of Sheffield University's geography department, suggests this in an editorial on gender issues in The Geographical Magazine. EastEnders, she says, is a "geographical drama" in which women play "the major role . . . in every scene and plot".
Clearly intended to catch the attention of the magazine's sixth-form readers, the comment helps to make Dr Valentine's serious point that, with its preponderance of male lecturers and a tendency to concentrate on industry and economics at the expense of home and community, "geography is a male-dominated subject".
Dr Valentine is a member of the Women in Geography study group which is concerned with gender issues in the subject.