Michael Rosen: The Secret Life of Five-Year-Olds is unethical and absurd

The Channel 4 documentary treats children as fodder for experiments, says children's author, writer and broadcaster Michael Rosen

(Back Row) Cressida, Luke H, Kye, Freddie, Elsa, Ella..(Middle Row) Iris, Baileigh Rae and Xander..(Front Row) Luke B, Nathaniel and Jasmin (C4, TL)

I watched the first episode of this series of The Secret Life of Four-and Five-Year-Olds on Channel 4 in early November and since seeing it have become increasingly disturbed.

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The programme claimed from its title that it was revealing the “secret life” of children. 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. This has to be wrong.

I teach students studying Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, and when they conduct research with children they have to fill in a rigorous ethics form as laid down in Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research (2011) published by the British Educational Research Association.

These require researchers to “desist immediately” from actions which distress participants; not use sweets as incentives to children; not design experiments that “advantage one group of participants over others”.

The contests in this programme are presented to the children as fixed according to the rules set by the adults. Remember – the claim being made here is that these contests showed the “secret life” of these children. In fact, it showed the children responding purely in order to show that one or more children would be distressed by losing.

What is a TV programme doing telling children that if you come first in a race, you win chocolates? Or worse, if you come second, 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, they set up an experiment that 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 tall 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.

What was all this for? All it did was assert the right of adults to limit the choices of children, and set up situations in which it could be predicted that children would be distressed.

This was done for our entertainment, showing us what precisely? That grown-up researchers know how to make four-year-olds cry?

There are programmes that can be made about the “secret life” of young children. You can set up situations in which children 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.

I think 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 give us new educational insights. In fact, the value of the dinosaur experiment was precisely the opposite: it was educational rubbish from several perspectives at the same time.

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The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds is on 8pm this Tuesday 28th November on C4. Michael Rosen is a writer, poet and broadcaster, and Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London