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The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 year olds - did you watch?


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The recent screening of the Channel 4 programme 'The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 year olds' has sparked considerable debate in the media over the last few days. The title of the programme suggests a 'fly on the wall' approach where the camera merely shows what the children got up to when out of the adults' gaze. However, it seems that the programme staged some situations which caused anxiety to children and allowed the 'reserarchers' to provide commentary on what they were seeing. That situations were 'staged' means that the 'fly on the wall' approach is not wholly accurate.

Michael Rosen has addressed this in his blog:

"Thursday, 9 November 2017

Unethical TV programme: Channel 4 'Secret Life of 4,5 and 6 year olds

I watched episode 1 of this series of the 'Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year Olds' on Channel 4 and since seeing it have become increasingly disturbed.

Some context: when our students (most of whom are teachers), doing the MA in Children's Literature at Goldsmiths, conduct research with a class of children they have to fill in a rigorous ethics form, which is intended to ensure that children are not in any way endangered or distressed by the research. The guidelines are in 'Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research' published by the British Educational Research Association.

The programme claimed from its title that it was revealing the 'secret life'. In fact, it was a series of experiments on the children, in which situations were set up, sometimes putting the children in conflict with each other and on one occasion creating a situation in which it was likely that some of the children would be scared.

Needless to say, the contests or competitions were presented to the children as fixed and rule-bound according to the rules set by the adults - a mixture of the people running the nursery and the academics who watched what happened on video, making comments. Remember - the claim being made here is that these contests showed the 'secret life' of these children. In fact, it showed the children responding to fixed rule contests devised by adults in order to show that one or more children would be distressed by losing. In fact, it emerged that the child in question was probably more distressed that he didn't win the prize than actually losing. Educationally speaking, what is a TV programme doing telling children that if you answer some questions right, you win chocolates? Or, worse, if you answer them wrong, you don't get chocolates! In the aftermath of the contest, the child in question cried and seemed to be uncomforted for a while. Then we watched while the experts discussed why and how the child was distressed without any commentary on the fact that the whole situation had been engineered - unethically - by the researchers. 

Later in the programme, they set up another experiment which caused the same child distress. They showed that the boy knew a lot about dinosaurs. They asked him if he was scared of dinosaurs. No he wasn't. Then a man dressed as a 'keeper' brought in on a leash, a 6-7 foot tyrannosaurus rex (with someone inside). The boy was clearly scared. This was presented to us as revealing that in some way or another the boy was dishonest about his real state of fear. This again was clearly unethical and at the same time absurd. The more we know about T-Rex the more scared we should be, especially if grown-ups surround us with nonsense of notions that dinosaurs co-existed or still co-exist with humans! So the little boy cowered and - again - was distressed.  

What was all this for? What did it prove? Who benefitted from this 'research'? All it did was assert the right of adults to limit the choices of children, set up situations in which it could be predicted that one or more children would be distressed. This was done for our entertainment, showing us...what precisely? That grown-up researchers are clever people who know how to make 4 year olds cry? 

Of course there are programmes that can be made about the 'secret life' of young children. All you have to do is set up situations in which young children can discuss things, make things, play with things, plan things. To be fair to the programme, we did see scenes where children played in the home corner a couple of times, but these seemed to be interludes between the real 'knowledge' of the programme in these adult-led experiments, with predictable outcomes of conflict and distress. 

What is particularly worrying is that two academics were involved in this, sitting as it were to one side, commenting on and laughing at what the children were doing. 

Excuse me while I say something extreme. On many occasions in the history of psychological testing over the last 120 years there have been experiments conducted on children and adults. Some of these have been unethical and at a distance, we can easily see how monstrous they've been, with terrible consequences for the participants. Sometimes we scratch our heads and wonder how could people calling themselves psychologists have done such things? I think the answer to that question lies precisely in the way this programme was set up and carried out: the children were treated as if they were fodder for experiments, with no volition, sanctity of the person, no sense of their potential, no sense that an experiment could open up new possibilities, new educational insights. In fact, the educational value of the dinosaur experiment was precisely the opposite: it was educational rubbish from several perspectives at the same time.

If anyone reading this runs an education or psychology course, could I please recommend using this 'documentary' as a perfect example of how not to run educational or psychological research?"

You can follow Michael Rosen's blog here: MichaelRosenblog

Did you watch? What did you think?

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  • FSFRebecca changed the title to The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 year olds - did you watch?

I saw one of them, it wa the one mentioned above, and decided that I was not happy with the way children were being used in set up situations some obviously set up to fail.. I see there are more programmes  but did not watch any of them.. 

I felt it really was nothing to do with secret life of these children, more a set of tasks / situations for them to be filmed in.. I wondered what was the benefit to these children..and what did they gain from it..  

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Hmm - I also have issues with this programme - I am not at all comfortable with these 'experiments' that are planned to result in children becoming distressed in the name of entertainment.........

A real 'fly on the wall' documentary would be far more interesting and entertaining

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I agree, I watched similar programme a few years ago also called "secret life" same channel and it was so obvious that it was all set up situations and totally unfair on the children - and frankly felt it was for the amusement of the adults rather than anything really serious being undertaken.   Decided I would not watch anything of a similar sort again.

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Interesting point of view and I am slightly ashamed to say not one I had considered! It is one of those series that I love and hate in equal measure. I love to watch the children playing and listen to what they say ...I often feel if I had microphones attached to the children I work with it would be such an advantage. I quite like listening to the psychologists and some of their musing on why children do things and i appreciate the staff's handling (under tricky circumstances) of the children (who they don't know) and the set up of a stimulating environment .But this is a heavily edited programme and therefore heads down certain lines of enquiry which i do not always agree with ...i don't agree with the rewards of sweets, or the making of an experiment that ensures one of the children will cry. I often wonder what the parents of these children, under those circumstances feel watching it and i do feel that sometimes interventions need to happen that do not, though of course these may have been edited out. I, for one. would not allow children to kiss each other and i would have challenged the overtly sexist and to my mind inappropriate views of one of the boys...who's family appeared to think this was cute:o this line of editing made me cringe and was neither challenged or criticized which might lead uneducated parents who watched to think that this was normal and appropriate.

This programme is popular and could be used to our advantage by improving the understanding of the important job we do but i do think it is at a point where we could be seen as bullies if parents think this is how we act at work! I would urge the makers of this to steer this in a more appropriate path to promote early years education and celebrate the children that we work with for their imagination and joy! 

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