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Children and the media

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Summary

Background

• Advances in communication and the media have turned the world into a global village - even children and young people in the poorest and remotest areas are being given opportunities to find out more about the world around them and explore the information superhighway, unmediated by adults.

• As well as educating and entertaining, mass media promotes value systems, sees children and young people as 'markets' and causes friction between children and their parents. Adults are concerned about the negative effects of media on children - the amount of time they spend on new forms of media, the cost and safety.

• While some adults argue for greater control of the media, children have demonstrated, through a wealth of projects throughout the world, that if respected, consulted and engaged in the process, they can help professionals produce better media, as well as producing amazing projects themselves.

• Children and young people also have a vital contribution to make to the debate about their participation in the media - as consumers and contributors to the production process. Young people's voices are increasingly being solicited through alternative media, community publications and national broadcasts. One Bangladeshi programme, Mukto Khobor, encompasses such a broad range of children in the production team that is has ensured universal appeal and become a ratings winner.

• The mass media is developing strategies to capture young audiences - particularly through animation, which can travel continents and create revenue through video, toys and other related products. Although children own a minute proportion of the world's wealth they represent an enormous potential market for a variety of products and services.

A question of access

• The enormous disparity in access to the media throughout the world - with most access concentrated in the northern hemisphere, and particularly the Nordic countries and North America - demonstrates that the concept of a truly global information village is yet to be realised.

• Even in parts of the world where more media is available, access is limited by other factors - economic circumstances and parental control, for example.

• Since much of the mass media is common across national boundaries, it could be argued that there is now a universal youth culture of instantly recognizable cartoon characters, music styles and fashion. However this has also opened the door to the dissolution of cultural identities and has meant that those who dominate the global market place also define the terms of this youth culture.

Decoding the messages

• Mass communication has spawned vast media empires, which dominate the global economy and shape the political, cultural and economic development of nation states. Adults and children alike may find it difficult to differentiate between fiction and reality in these circumstances - because of vested business interests and agendas, and the blurring of lines between journalism and advertising.

• The interpretation of the media has therefore become a vital life skill - teaching adults and children alike how to recognize the influence of the media and engage with it. Media education in schools, media awareness projects and opportunities for media production all contribute to this process. Collaborative projects between children and media professionals - where children get involved in the production process and 'learn by doing' - are particularly valuable.

Media for education

• Mass media provides the most open system of public education - allowing the transmission of life-saving advice, for example about HIV and AIDS, as well as life skills. It reaches into households and into the public domain, for example through Internet cafes and town halls. It has also revolutionized classrooms, and in turn has developed the need to teach new skills to enable children and young people to use the media. It is also enabling networks to be built between teachers and students in the resource-rich North and the resource-poor South, meaning that children all over the world can benefit.

Television and the young

• While TV has yet to penetrate vast populations of children and young people, children's TV is big business and a growth industry, with the world's four biggest TV channels all based in North America, and all broadcasting throughout the world.

• Much TV output for children and young people is now linked to the retailing of toys, books and other products. American producers therefore have a huge, captive audience, while local production of children's programmes has begun to shrink and rely on imports.

• The arrival of digital TV has allowed European channels to reach out to international markets sharing the same languages.

• Those engaged in the production of children's programmes should always examine how the best interests of their viewers can be addressed in the commissioning, making and marketing of the programme - seeking opinions of children, particularly in non-domestic countries where the programmes will reach.

Children in media production

• A major impediment to involving children and young people in media production is that it means bringing them into a potentially hazardous workplace. What should be a rewarding experience could be both bewildering and risky.

• Planning ahead is the key to safe participation of children in any workplace, and pointers are given in the full version of Children and the media on drawing up guidelines. Often such matters are dealt with on an ad hoc basis, but by sharing examples of best practice - for example, those featured in the MAGICmedia section of this site - industry standards can be established.

Children as story sources

• Children are rarely part of the news agenda until something delightful or terrible happens to them. News is regarded as something primarily for and about adults, even though children have revealing insights to offer older people.

• Where children are catered for in the media, they tend to be ghettoized and patronized. Appointing journalists to specialize in gathering stories and opinions from children about significant 'newsworthy' events is one way that media organizations can begin to adjust the balance. Developing networks of young reporters is another. Where children's agencies and media producers do invest time, energy and training in the next generation of reporters, they can achieve amazing results - gaining scoops, influencing attitudes and even governments.

Interviewing children

• Understanding how young people see the world around them and transmitting that vision to the public is one of the most challenging tasks facing journalists, yet they are rarely trained to deal with children.

• When making judgements about how to proceed, the best interests of the child should be an overriding consideration. Journalists should aim to minimize harm to the child, both in the circumstances of the interview and with regard to the likely consequences of what is published. Some basic questions journalists should ask themselves when they are interviewing children, along with suggestions of further reading and weblinks, can be found in the full version of Children and the media on this site.

Shocking images

• Some of the most powerful images of tragedy, conflict and hope presented by the media have featured children. In the words of one commentator, they make us ponder how we would have coped in a similar situation, and make us remember a time when "we expected better of people like us."

• Perhaps the most compelling aspect of images like these is that the children are identified, they are real people with names and histories. Yet identifying children even without giving their name can be fatal - those who abuse children want no witnesses to their cruelty, particularly when there may be war crimes trials.

• There are other issues to be considered too. Photojournalists have complained about their pictures being used out of context. Camera crews setting up pictures of bereft children in refugee camps may be unaware that the children's trauma could, in fact, be the result of sudden confrontation with foreign journalists. NGOs (non- governmental organizations) that are quick to complain about the media's abuse of children's rights may themselves exploit pathetic images of children to raise funds.

A taste for music

• The explosion of music as a cultural focal point for young people - through audio and videotapes, CDs, live events and especially now through the Internet, radio and television - has reinforced the gap between the generations. Adults who worry about sexist and violent imagery and lyrics in the variety of musical genres are seen as simply out of touch.

• By the early 1990s the US-founded music television channel MTV had access to over 20 million households in Central and Latin America, 1.8 million in Asia and 36 million in Europe. It now has 16 national or regional branches around the world, each delivering a wide variety of programming to increasingly varied young audiences.

• While critics find the rampant consumerism of music channels problematic - proffering the unobtainable to many who are in no position to afford the goods on display - those who are able to switch on to MTV are united through a website that gives opportunities for debate for young people regardless of where they live. The spread of the MTV and games culture may be bewildering to parents, but if young people are given opportunities to contribute rather than just consume, they could have a defining influence on the construction of the global village that communication technology is making possible.

HIV, AIDS and the media

• The particular vulnerability of young people to HIV and AIDS makes it one of the most important health issues for the media to tackle. Media programmes can offer an ideal vehicle for bypassing social taboos which may hinder frank discussion of sexual practices. The HEART media campaign in Zambia, for example, is believed to be responsible for the recent reduction in the HIV rate among the country's young people.

• However, insensitive programming can reinforce stereotypes and provoke fear. It is vital that the efforts of media professionals are as comprehensive as possible. Questions that media professionals need to ask themselves can be found in the full version of Children and the Media on this site.

Child protection on the Internet

• At the turn of the new millennium well over 17 million of the world's children were making use of the Internet. Yet young people can be exposed to hate messages, sexually explicit material, graphic violence and predators who roam chat rooms. They are also vulnerable to exploitative marketing.

• Measures are being taken to tackle this. In 1998 the controversial US Children's Online Privacy Protection Act placed various obligations on websites with content for children, including the adoption of a privacy policy. The European Community's Internet Action Plan is aimed at combating illegal and harmful content on global networks. Internet service providers have introduced filter systems, and increasing numbers of individuals and organizations are developing activities designed to protect young people.

• To exclude children from the Internet because crimes are being committed online would be to deprive them of an extraordinary source of information and self-improvement. Child protection experts argue that the responsibility lies with parents and carers to protect their children. The challenge for parents, schools, public authorities, community groups, Internet service providers, media industries and regulatory bodies is to ensure that children are properly advised about the benefits and perils of cyberspace and are equipped with the skills to safeguard themselves.

Some suggested precautions, as well as examples of good practice and suggestions of further reading and weblinks, are given in the full version of Children and the media.

Declaring for children

• There is a substantial body of formal declarations and resolutions referring to the relationship between the media and children (see the MAGICgovernment section of this website). None have the force of law, but at the heart of all of them is an acknowledgement that children deserve good quality media, and that they have a contribution to make to the media products directed at them.

• Given the near universal ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the global influence of the most significant media owners, the least daunting of the challenges is convincing key players of the value of a 'top-down' commitment to children in relationship to the media. But there is also scope for pressure to come from children themselves, from their advocates and from within the media professions.

• While there are a variety of standards set by state and national media, what is also needed is a global compact between the media industries and children with a recognition of children's rights at its heart. By networking across borders and disciplines, and by seeking to place children on the agenda for all gatherings at all levels of the media, those sympathetic to promoting the rights of children within the media could have a significant impact upon industry thinking.

Media regulation

• Systems of media regulation vary from country to country, and operate with varying degrees of success (see MAGICmedia for examples). Most include special mention of children's vulnerability, but few take a stand on children's participation in media, and there has also been concerted pressure from within media industries for deregulation and increased opportunities for 'the market' to decide on what is acceptable or not.

• If children are to benefit from the opportunities afforded by the expansion of mass media markets, there needs to be both a recognition of their rights and a willingness to incorporate them in the media agenda. Ideally this should come from commitment and conviction within the media, rather than compulsion from outside.

• Since there are no international regulatory frameworks to which all media give credence, seeking an acknowledgement by the media industries that they have a role to play in assisting States Parties to comply with their obligations under the terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child may require organized lobbying and future monitoring.

Prizes

• Prizes for child-friendly media can stimulate innovation and the pursuit of excellence, provide a focus for children and young people, and help to spotlight best practice and share it with others. Within the media, industries awards are also an important feature of marketing, generating public interest and sales.

• Including certain criteria in awards - for example, the need to engage young people at each stage of the production process - or consulting children in the planning and adjudication of award schemes, can ensure that participation of children and young people is paramount.

• Partnerships with media producers can bring opportunities to share best practice across borders and develop award schemes that can operate at a national, regional and international level. Examples of good practice, and suggestions for further web research, are given on the full version of Children and the media.

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