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

Unbelievably, people I normally respect and admire admit to watching Big Brother. Through choked-back sniggers, they tell me of the shenanigans in the house. They casually name-drop house-mates' nicknames as if talking about old school friends. They analyse the emotional chemistry that apparently crackles through the house. They even like Davina McColl.

Have I died and gone to hell?

I listen in blank-faced disbelief, reach for another glass of wine, and wonder how friends of mine - friends of mine, dammit! - can be so easily duped.

This debate isn't about whether Big Brother is any good. We know lots of people like it and that the programme - fuelled by a summer tabloid frenzy - worms itself insidiously into people's lives. The question is: should our children be watching it? Isn't it the televisual equivalent of feeding chicken waste to chickens - and then being surprised at the way they develop?

We BB refuseniks feel the show resembles the Victorian freak show so memorably depicted in the film The Elephant Man. Remember Michael Elphick sauntering through the labyrinths of London, pointing out the wretches who will entertain paying punters: the Incredible Wind Man, the Bearded Lady and, most enticingly, the Elephant Man.

This year, 14 contestants - one of whom won a place in the house by finding a golden ticket in a Kit Kat - entered the BB house. They included four models, two gay men (Shahbaz boasted he was a "wacky Paki puff" which shows a knowing way with both assonance and alliteration), socialites (whatever that means), a stockbroker and a singer with Tourette's Syndrome.

All life is here, but not as we know it. This isn't a representative world, rather, it's a cynically assembled one in which you throw together a wacky mix of people keen to grab their 15 minutes of fame for viewers'

voyeuristic pleasure.

Thus Nikki, 24, flaunts her false breasts and dreams of marrying a footballer. Bonnie "wants to be more famous than Madonna". Channel 4 producers say the programme will be "more twisted than ever" and - ho ho ho - have installed glass walls and mirrors so contestants feel exposed and insecure. Oh, and there aren't enough beds for them all.

It's like the sink groups we used to create by mixing all the kids who couldn't cope with exams - except we didn't deliberately provoke them to misbehave, ply them with alcohol, and pen them in a garden that even Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen has described as "the seventh circle of hell" (and he should know), and then offer pound;50,000 if they can endure it.

What you get isn't far removed from the values of any town centre on a Saturday night captured on CCTV. The housemates smoke, drink, swear, laugh, and pontificate intensely about favourite types of chocolate or the person they would most like to sleep with.

And in a move that seems cynically calculated to increase young viewers, within 60 seconds of the 9pm watershed our pupils can watch all this, just as the Kit Kat marketing campaign nudges the show deeper into their consciousness. The show further blurs the boundaries of what's for adults and what's for children, serving up the values of a 2am nightclub as if they were the moral norm.

So what do our pupils learn from all this? They see the parading of lowest common denominator values, a celebration of our lowest farting, swearing, lusting and bullying instincts. It teaches them that nothing matters more than being famous and popular.

It's lazy, depressing television that does nothing to challenge us, develop us, or inspire us to better ourselves. And if such aims seem old-fashioned, then we shouldn't be teachers.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI school, Suffolk

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