Won’t somebody think of the children – instead of just blaming the broadcasters?

Previously posted on TV Today

Every morning when I get into work, I find an inbox crawling with press releases, most of which are of little to no interest either to me directly or even to The Stage as a whole. This morning, I did see one which deserved additional reading, as it covered children’s television, an area that TV Today readers will know is dear to our hearts.

The release claims that 70% of parents of children under 7 have said that their children have had regular nightmares because of children’s programmes.

Needless to say, both the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph have pumped out the story onto their respective websites, pausing only to rewrite every other sentence into their house style. Seriously – the Daily Mail version of the story is, sentence for sentence, exactly the same structure as the release (except for omitting a crucial couple of paragraphs at the end – but more of that anon).

But questions of lazy churnalism aside, the line being pushed by the press release does at least deserve some closer analysis.

Except, I’m not sure it really does stand up to such scrutiny.

The debate about whether television affects young people’s behaviour is an age old one – older, indeed, than television itself. For TV, substitute cinema, theatre or (depending on how far back you want to go) poetry and the discussion existed.

It doesn’t help that so many different research studies often draw different conclusions (examples of such studies, and a basic look at possible reasons for the discrepancies, can be found here).

But one thing that must surely be acknowledged is that, even if children’s programmes were as horrific as this poll of parents suggests, any possible long-term consequence can surely be mitigated by the parents themselves.

I don’t actually believe that children’s programmes are any less scary than they were when I was of that age. I would personally find live action dramas like Into the Labyrinth or Children of the Stones far scarier than any cartoon, violent or otherwise. And I’m not sure I accept that, even at an early age, children are unaware that programmes like Ben 10 and Power Rangers are complete fantasy. But the ability to separate fantasy from reality is something that parents can and should encourage in their children.

The release also targets Saturday evening shows Doctor Who, Primeval and Robin Hood as too scary, suggesting they should be shown post-watershed. Here’s a thought – how about watching them as a family, so that youngsters can enjoy them safely? That is, after all, the type of audience they were commissioned for – and not by children’s departments, but by the grown-ups’ equivalents.

The Mail version of the story continues in a similar vein, but ends with a quote a spokeswoman for the website that did the survey:

“We think that back in the 1950s there was a lot more guidance from broadcasters about the suitability of children’s programmes – they had Watch With Mother banners, and For The Children branded programmes.”

And today we have CBBC, CITV, CBeebies, Nickelodeon, Nick Jr. – the list goes on. Whether it’s through dedicated children’s channels on digital networks, or heavily branded strands on the terrestrial channels, it’s never been easier to find programmes specifically commissioned for watching by children.

Indeed, recently the BBC has gone further, and introduced iPlayer for CBBC and iPlayer for CBeebies, which not only include easier layout for young fingers to navigate, but has dedicated links to information for grown-ups.

The whole reasoning behind the press release is fallacious. Is there a link between TV programming and either children’s behaviour or the incidence of nightmares? There may be, there may not be. A guick Google uncovered the aforementioned examination of the possibility of links, looking at various research models. Different research comes up with different conclusions, along with raising more questions. Do naturally aggressive people seek out aggressive programming? What role do peer groups play in establishing children’s understanding of what they watch? And so on.

One thing must be sure, though: when it comes to breaking any possible link between, say, children watching programming they find frightening and having nightmares, parents have an opportunity to provide reassurance and context.

Which brings me to the one section that the Mail doesn’t include in their version of the article: the closing paragraphs of the press release.

[The website spokeswoman says:] “However, parents are left to regulate what their child watches, how much they watch and when.

“This means they would at least need to consult a TV guide to find out which programmes are classed as C band – suitable for all children, and P band – suitable for pre-school children.”

But the poll reveals parents don’t have time to monitor what their children are watching minute by minute, and 70 per cent readily admit they leave their children watching television whilst they make the dinner or get things ready in another room.

How about that – parents being asked to take responsibility for their children’s upbringing, including their TV viewing habits. Er, excuse me, isn’t that your job rather than the broadcasters’?

If you paid a human being to mind your child, you would take the time and effort to ensure that you were leaving your charges in appropriate care. Unfortunately, it seems that when it comes to the box in the corner, not only do some parents want to see it as a free babysitter, they also want to free themselves of any responsibility in ensuring their offspring are left in good hands.