Is Big Brother bad for kids?

28th July 2006 at 01:00
In the first of a series of debates, a critic and fan of C4's most notorious show slug it out

Ever since it first graced our screens in 2000, I have dedicated a small percentage of my summer to the Brother that is Big. I am unashamedly a fan, which is not to say I am a fan of reality TV per se, just this juggernaut of a show - the original and best of reality TV shows.

I particularly liked the early years and, dare I say it, the boring year - when the viewing pleasure was more about watching a bunch of odd-bodies naively muddling through the day (a sort of human zoo) - than the fame-hungry bitch-fest it has subsequently become.

That said, when it all kicks off in the BB house (as it often has this year) there is a compulsion to view. As I discovered one morning when I tentatively asked "Did anyone watch Big Brother last night", this compulsion unites me with my staff and pupils.

The morning after a row, temper-tantrum or kiss, we excitedly share our opinions, assassinate characters, and discuss predictions for the next few days. We are a pop-psychology tour de force, but our conversations can stretch to more thorough analysis.

In this emotionally illiterate social climate, our BB analysis becomes a valuable way to encourage young people to talk about feelings and to recognise the cause and effect of their actions. What do we think of the in-house bullying? Is Aisleyne sincere or scheming? Is it right for the Brother himself to be so cruel?

Pupils who are otherwise hard to communicate with will probably have something to say about Spiral's latest outburst, or Imogen's flirtations with Mikey. Big Brother connects people, because it is based on something we can all relate to: human behaviour.

The social struggles and petty gripes that so often get in the way of learning are all reflected in the programme: the pecking order, the arguments over boys, the falling out, the making up. We see their two-faced betrayals, arrogant sneers and unhinged tempers. But we also see the camaraderie and peacemaking. One of the most valuable messages this year is that things change: anger passes, and people forgive.

From the drama we can also reflect on our own experiences. Are we better than these people?

This is Big Brother as therapy: a vehicle for examining behaviour and learning from it - and I haven't even mentioned Pete yet. Hasn't he been a fantastic ambassador for inclusion, proving that a condition such as Tourette's can be lived with?

But perhaps more importantly, Pete, the bookies' favourite, shows us Tourette's is not the sum total of his existence. He, more than any other housemate, has shone as a charming, considerate, well-balanced individual.

It is refreshing to see that among the loud personalities and fast glamour, genuine goodness still wins through.

I am not going to pretend I can convince anyone of the intellectual properties of Big Brother's game. Most contestants are absurd, desperate or painfully shallow, and it is clear that the creators favour sensationalism over substance.

The point is, while the content of the show may be puerile, the debate it can inspire is not.

Lastly, I wish to point out that I stick strictly to the daily terrestrial show. One of my teaching assistants prefers the "pure" unedited version on E4. We compare notes, and often find we are watching very different visions of the same events. As a one-time media studies teacher, I believe it is important to teach young people about the power (for good and evil) the media holds - and how a few careful snips in the cutting room can distort and conceal. Big Brother is a perfect and accessible example of this, providing ample lesson material on how to be wise to the real "big brothers" of this world.

Louisa Leaman is a special needs teacher and behaviour specialist. Her latest book, The Naked Teacher, is published by Continuum

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