The power of remote control

25th July 1997 at 01:00
The revelation that television could actually be good for you suggests there may, after all, be something new under the sun. Researchers who have been tracking 200 youngsters on the remote British island of St Helena in the south Atlantic have discovered their behaviour actually improved after television was introduced to the island.

Teachers, who fret about the end of the bookish society as we know it or worry about the effects of the loutish Simpsons, may find this news remarkable. The adults on St Helena, who presumably know their offspring, certainly did. Are there messages here for Scotland's remote communities? Should islanders in places like Stornoway, discomfited from the recent negative publicity on the behaviour of its youngpeople, take comfort from the fact that help of the unlikeliest kind may be at hand?

The answer, as always with any analysis of the effects of couch-potato society, is that television may not be so much provocative as incidental to or reflective of behaviour. As Professor John Eldridge, Glasgow University's media guru, put it, you can learn from television, whether it be how to paint a fence or put up wallpaper, but you can also learn how to machete someone to pieces.

What matters, in other words, is whether and how you put your knowledge into practice. It is of great significance that the children of St Helena are credited with being the best behaved in the world: only 3.4 per cent of 9 to 12-year-olds on the island, it seems, have behavioural problems compared with 14 per cent of their contemporaries in London. Their behaviour is, therefore, scarcely likely to be bettered and the most credit television could claim is that it did not make things worse. Perhaps the only real lesson from the research is that a small civilised place of 5,500 people is capable of assimilating the power of television.

It is rather too early to start drawing conclusions. The St Helena study dates from 1991 when researchers began to monitor three-year-olds who had never seen television; the presence of the box on the island is itself not three years old. Watch that space.

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