Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Nesmahar Sayed seeks a way out of the crystal labyrinth

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Standing among family members: Loza (top), Cairo Governorate's selected Mother of 2006; and Mohamed, father of the year

"Why," two-year-old Shahd shrieked when her grandfather switched off the TV, turning it back on -- one of a handful of skills she has already acquired at this age.

Shahd's case is typical. Like many in her shoes, housewife Eman Qonsuwa, for one, is at a loss what to do about her own two sons' obsession with the screen: "the moment we enter the house, my younger child turns the TV on; he's keen on violence and films in which the hero is his age. My elder child, providing he has no homework to do, will behave in exactly the same way." But it isn't always a question of TV as such: her sons are just as keen on PlayStation and Gameboy, even mobile phone games; frequent visits to Internet cafés are to join play on-screen games, Qonsuwa explains. "I've password-protected the computer and I'm always hiding the PlayStation. But when they keep receiving games on CD as gifts, what can you do?"

Undesirable by virtue of hampering creative growth and placing the child emphatically at the receiving end, the Screen phenomenon -- and on this Nahla Mahmoud, another housewife, agrees with Qonsuwa -- is best countered with an intense sports programme, or else, as in Mahmoud's case, by encouraging activities like puzzles and mind games. Though her daughters are attached to TV serials, Mahmoud encourages them to spend their evenings at the club and never lets them watch more than two hours of TV a day: "my concern is that they are easily bored and I cannot afford to renew their toys every month. Otherwise they start play-acting, which is endless, endless." Yet she has managed to keep the screen at bay.

Aisha Abu Zeid, an engineer-turn-housewife, went further. By periodically hiding her children's toys, she creates a situation in which they miss the toys sufficiently to enjoy them as if they were new. The dilemma, she says, is that mothers depend on television to distract the children while they do the housework. Helpful alternatives -- a 100-piece Meccano she once bought, for example -- are too expensive (LE400 in this case) and require more involvement on the part of the parents. The screen, in this sense, emerges as an alternative to the kind of paternal affection that goes into a parent sharing in her child's free time.

So, at least, Soheir El-Masri -- well-known expert in the field of family affairs -- asserts. "Love and attention," El-Masri told Al-Ahram Weekly, "is the only way out of the TV vicious circle." In her book on the subject, El-Masri stresses the negative impact TV has on child growth, championing a return to old games like hopscotch, which develop brain and muscles equally, since the coordination they require exercises those parts of the brain responsible for mathematical ability. Statistical research results point to direct correlation between the number of hours a child spends before the TV screen from ages one to three and the incidence of attention deficit disorder by age seven. From age two to eight, the screen should be avoided as much as possible: "screens make children concentrate on pictures, which is a more primitive educational means. Working mothers should also condense the time they spend with their children in order to make up for the hours in which they are away."

For her part Nashwa Ahmed, an English teacher, quotes Roald Dahl, who recognised the dangers of the screen as early as 1971, when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out: "the most important thing we've learned/ So far as children are concerned/Is never, never, never, never let/Them near your television set/Or better still, just don't install/The idiotic thing at all [...] It rots the senses in the head!/It kills imagination dead!/It clogs and clutters up the mind!/It makes a child so dull and blind/He can no longer understand/A fantasy, a fairyland!/ His brain becomes as soft as cheese!/His powers of thinking rust and freeze!/He cannot think -- he only sees!" Yet seeing as the number of screens surrounding children is unlikely to go down, there are those -- like Mohamed Moawad, deputy head of the Childhood Institution -- who believe that educationalists must think positively about screens and how they can be used to benefit rather than harm children constantly exposed to them: "computers, for example, teach patience and communication. They can be used to such an end too."

Said Mahboub, a Giza toy shop manager, traces children's indelible attachment to the screen to the arrival on the Egyptian market of the ubiquitous video game: "with the PSP generation of PlayStation, the child isn't even tied down to where a television set is available. It can be played anywhere, hands free." The games even grow with the players -- up to the age of 30, in some cases. "There are strategy games," Mahboub says. Board games can only compete by being more competitive, more violent -- which defeats the parents' object of developing the better potential of their children. Thankfully, as Mohamed Abdallah, a toy salesman indicates, traditional toys are still widely sold -- especially to children aged five to 11. Children may be glued to the screen a lot of the time, but they still enjoy interactive, real-world games with their peers. As Moawad points out, "screens are not toys. They need never render toys extinct."

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