Friday, July 20, 2007

Mobile TV as a baby-sitter?

One of the major benefits I’ve started to appreciate about TV on a cellphone is that it can keep Baby occupied while we travel longish distances across town, or when she has to wait for long periods for something outside our home. ( I'm involved in a trial run by South African pay-TV broadcaster Multichoice and mobile network operator MTN. And for the record, I don't get paid to write/blog about it. Multichoice expects me to give them my input directly.)

So far, I’ve left Baby with a friend of mine in the car for an hour (to attend a work-related event) and she was quite happy watch TV and play some music for the duration.

Also, when we were shopping at the mall and had to stand in long queues to pay, I handed her the handset and the TV kept her fully occupied.

She’s not good at waiting yet, and there have been instances when I took back things at the shop (including items of clothing for her) because she was getting antsy and couldn’t queue to pay anymore. So it’s a relief to find a way for her to get through the waiting without my having to browbeat her.

Obviously, all the rules that govern TV-watching by minors apply. Also keep in mind the screen is small. So the stint shouldn’t be long, and the handset is not a replacement baby-sitter.

So what do you think? Would you embrace mobile TV as a tool to keep your child occupied to avoid the screaming sessions we usually observe at the mall when the child has had enough, the parent tries browbeating and other parents just look grateful it’s not their own offspring creating a scene?

Or do you think there a danger that in the next couple of years, South African malls will be packed with kids with eyes glued to TV handsets rather than looking at and interacting with their environment?


While still on the matter of the telephone, this week Lyndall Shope-Mafole, the director general of the Department of Communications told a very interesting story at the Sangonet conference about the nature of a telephone. As with such tales, it happened to the relation (grandmother) of a friend.

The old lady, who lived in the rural areas was visiting her family in the city. She was sitting in the livingroom when her grandchild and informed her she had a phone call.“Well then, bring the phone then,” the grandmother said.

The child explained that she could not bring the phone to her grandmother, as it was attached to a cord that was stuck to a wall. Granny had to stand up and walk to the phone, the child said.

The grandmother was quite put out that answering a phone call in town took so much effort. “I thought you people in the cities were more advanced than that!” she said.

I’m telling this story to emphasize that the proliferation of TV-enabled handsets is a very strong possibility in SA, even though we are in a third world country.

For many South Africans, the only experience they've had with a telephone is a cellphone, not a fixed line phone ( To date, there are about 5 million fixed line phones)By contrast, there is a reported 89% penetration of SIM cards in the country. (about 40 million SIM cards in circulation)

Now you can argue that the reported penetration numbers are too high because some people buy cheap SIM cards and use them for their value before discarding them.

Then there are the multiple subscribers. For example, between us, Baby and I have 3 cellphones and 5 SIM cards (including data card for my laptop and SIM card from Baby's old phone).

Those issues not withstanding, the SA cellphone market is getting saturated and the operators are looking to provide additional services to increase their profits.

As parents, we need to engage with issues related to cellphone-related content and set boundaries. If we don't, the technology that is supposed to be a strong tool to change Africa for the better will be a weapon used to further weaken us, and those who are fearful of new things will have room to foster a negative attitude.

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