July 30, 2009

The decline of kids' rough-house play, as shown through Nickelodeon

With the adoption of cable TV during the 1980s, channels could target themselves toward a narrower niche than before, and one obvious way to carve up the previously heterogeneous audiences was by age. Nickelodeon aimed itself at kids roughly aged 5 to 13, I'd say. By taking a brief look at how its programming has changed, we can track changes in what parents find acceptable for their kids to watch and imitate.

As with video games, the golden age of Nickelodeon lasted from about 1986 to 1994, and a large part of that was their game shows. Now, they don't even exist -- just have a look at their current vs. previous programming by genre. The physically oriented ones more or less stop in the mid-1990s. This could be part of the larger civilizing trend that began then, whereby violent crime and child abuse started plummeting -- no more wild and crazy kids.

It's not as if physical challenges between individuals or teams are a fad, like America's Funniest Home Videos was. Game shows like Double Dare were were wacky and different enough -- and short enough -- that kids could tune in for a half-hour and get into the competitive excitement. They were sports shows, just for kids. But today's helicopter parents are probably too worried about their kids trying to recreate what they see -- especially for a game like Finders Keepers where the kids go on a rampage tearing up a staged house looking for prizes.

It would be interesting to see how far this extends -- are little kids today deprived of the joy of building forts out of cardboard boxes and couch cushions? If you've been to a park recently and seen how close the parents stand next to their kids -- as opposed to being somewhere else altogether, or not even being at the park to supervise them at all -- then it doesn't sound so crazy.

Oh, go back and look at the differences in the "educational" genre of Nickelodeon's programming. In the '80s, the most popular show by far was Mr. Wizard's World -- I still vividly recall waking up each morning at 5am (I believe) to catch it. This was a general science and technology appreciation show -- show the kids how buoyancy makes some things float and other sink, what acids and bases are (using examples from around the house), and if memory serves, he even showed kids how to build some kind of toy rocket to launch in the backyard. Just try showing that on Nickelodeon today.

(Update: my memory rules, at least for cool things like setting up a rocket in your backyard -- there's a video clip of this demonstration on the DVD webpage. Check out the info pages for all of the volumes and note the several demonstrations dealing with fire, explosions, etc. Ah, it was another time.)

Now the educational programs are just a bunch of environmentalist propaganda. So much for science and education -- just try to brainwash the poor little bastards. There was a transition period during the early or mid-1990s when Beakman's World and Bill Nye the Science Guy were popular -- and Beakman's World was broadcast on Saturday morning, competing against cartoons!

Kids these days are doing basically as well as kids from previous days did as far as science and math achievement in school. So lacking these shows isn't harming them in that way. But being deprived of role models could affect how pumped they are to enter the math, science, and technology fields. I don't mean "role models" only in terms of people they look up to, but as someone who shows that a science or tech person can make it and get respect in popular culture. If kids think that the field or job is for losers, even the ones who could hack it will turn to something more glamorous, like working for Wall Street or the ACLU.


  1. Speaking of Nickelodeon, somehow Les Lye's recent death escaped my notice until today. You Can't Do That on Television was another Nickelodeon classic, even if they weren't the ones who created it.

    I learned that sound travels slower than light on Mr. Wizard's World at the tender age of six.

    I couldn't even tell you what kind of programming they have on Nickelodeon these days if you asked. I kind of get the feeling it's MTV Jr. but I could be wrong.

  2. They seem to handle this better in Europe. See for example the Norwegian outdoor preschool: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fp4Nny_rIiw
    Interestingly the political divide (as far as I can tell) is different there. In the US, I would associate overprotectiveness with SWPL sensibilities. In Europe, the Greens and lefties are much more on the side of roughhousing and outdoor play as a proper way to raise kids.

  3. Wissen macht Ah! is a cool science show available online in German. It is on TV in Germany. My son likes it and it covers fun, everyday topics and the underlying science.

    Also, Mythbusters is fun and is a springboard for science topic discussions with your kids. I think the kids learn more when they get discuss the ideas with parents and then look up related stuff online. Blog hopping, I found a fun link of swansontea. My son and his friends loved the quarter shrinking high speed video. Kids like online video stuff more than tv anyway.

    Roughhousing hasn't declined in this family. After two weeks with cousins, I am glad my boys only have each other to fight again.


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