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The Impact of Media - Yes, Somebody Should Think of the Children

By Elizabeth Handsley - 18th November 2011

Permission pending for republication of image above. Image not owned by this site. Please do not reproduce or copy without permission from Fox

This morning I had an article about media content classification published on a website.* The article discusses some proposed deregulatory changes to the Australian classification system and points out that these do not appear to serve the review’s guiding principle that "children should be protected from material that is likely to harm or disturb them."

The first comment out of the blocks was: "Somebody think of the children!"

This is not the first time I’ve heard this, and I doubt it will be the last. It is a reference to Helen Lovejoy, the minister’s wife on The Simpsons. Interestingly, although I have watched and enjoyed hundreds of episodes of The Simpsons, I have never actually heard Mrs Lovejoy say anything about thinking of the children – but apparently it is her catch-phrase.

One of these days I will look up some of the episodes I haven’t seen, and work out why an otherwise so intelligent show would want to ridicule people who think about children. But meanwhile, it appears to be my burden to be lumped with moralistic wowsers every time I open my mouth about children and the media.

So let me just rehearse a couple of alternative points about why thinking of children might not be so much a matter of wowserism as a matter of basic humanity, civilisation and enlightened self-interest.

Basic Humanity is Not 'Wowserism'

A lot of the rejectionist response to concerns about media use and children’s well-being appears to be based on the idea of families as discrete islands where children are the parents’ property. Nobody actually says this, but it’s the only way I can make sense of the statements people come out with. They make it sound like parents (a) have complete control over their children’s lives; and (b) are the only ones hurt if they don’t take proper care of their children. Putting it another way, the same statements would make sense if you were talking about people’s keys. You have a duty to take care of your keys, you can’t expect anybody else to do it for you. It’s not their problem – and if you lose your keys, well, that’s your problem.

I’m not going to spend any time on the idea that parents have complete control over their children’s media diets, other than to ask readers to imagine themselves, taking a son or daughter for a playdate at a school friend’s house, and asking to inspect the internet filters and the DVD cupboard. No, I didn’t think so. Wouldn’t want to be labelled a wowser, would you?

What really interests me is the idea that if you harm your child – or allow media experiences to do so – nobody else has an interest in this.

How Can Media Cause Harm to Children?

I’ll just start with the observation that nobody seriously doubts that media experiences can harm children. Some people don’t like the word harm, but even the most libertarian media apologists still use terms like ‘age-appropriate’ and ‘parental supervision’. The pro-R18+ gaming lobby waxes indignant over the horrific violence that has been available in games rated for 15 year olds. It’s implicit in this that something bad can happen if children access the wrong stuff. Bad things are harm.

Of course they don’t necessarily articulate what the harm might be, but I will name a few risks:
1.    harm to the child’s emotional and social development – for example reduced empathy
2.    desensitisation to violence, including seeing violence as an acceptable way of resolving disputes
3.    excessive fears and nightmares
4.    sleep problems, which in turn can lead to a range of difficulties from lower concentration in school to obesity
5.    obesity – either from overindulgence in compelling sedentary activities or from learning to associate non-core foods with fun and social acceptance (or both)
6.    self-esteem issues from excessive consumerism and materialism

The Censorship Debate

One of the commenters today, Peter of Melbourne, said: "If you decide to have children it is your responsibility as a parent to monitor their viewing habits. It is not up to the government or to society to impose censorship on the wider society."

First I’ll observe that Peter of Melbourne has left a big gap between those two sentences. In fact nearly all of the ‘censorship’ that goes on in this society is not done to support parents. It’s done because the material is deemed unsuitable even for adults. Peter might disagree with that kind of censorship, or with individual decisions, but he shouldn’t blame parents or children for it. The gap between "your responsibility to monitor their viewing habits" and "impos[ing] censorship on the wider society" is actually the bulk of the classification system – where material can still be seen by "the wider society", but where the system informs, supports and occasionally constrains parents’ choices for their children. I’ll take it, for present purposes, that Peter and others like him think that the state shouldn’t even be involved in that.

Second, there is the matter of ‘choice’. Fortunately, a lot more parents are parents by choice nowadays than used to be the case. But if Peter of Melbourne thinks that everyone who becomes a parent made a ‘decision’ to do so, he is dreaming.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, casting parenthood that way – privatising it as a matter of individual choice – overlooks the very important role of reproduction and children in our society. Put simply, we need children. Everybody needs children. There will be nobody to produce goods and services, and to look after us, when we’re old if people don’t have children now. So even if you aren’t convinced by children’s adorability, or their vulnerability, surely you should be convinced by that very simple fact to see that parenting isn’t only a private whim. Whatever their initial motives might be, parents are doing a service to society, and it isn’t a big jump from that to the realisation that society has an interest in how they do it and in making sure they do it well.

I’m not saying there should be no privacy to parenting, or leeways for choice by parents as to the values that they inculcate in their children. As with so many complex and important matters, it’s a question of balance, of where you draw the line. This line has to be drawn between Big Brother/Nanny state nightmares and abuse/neglect nightmares, and it’s not an easy thing to do.

All I am saying is that it makes eminent sense to draw that line somewhere that leaves the way open for society, through the government and otherwise, to take an interest in children’s media use. Sometimes that can take the form of dictating to parents what they should not show children; other times it might be a matter of supporting parents by providing information and strategies, or even by ensuring certain material just isn’t available.

We All Have an Interest in Raising Children Well

Why do I think it makes sense? Because we are going to be living in a world that’s run by these people, when we are old and ourselves vulnerable. Do we want to have people in charge who are lacking in empathy; who see violence as an appropriate way of resolving disputes, and so on?

And spare a thought for the parents who conscientiously regulate their own children’s media use, and then have to send those children to school to share a classroom and a playground with other children who … are lacking in empathy, see violence as an appropriate way of resolving disputes, and so on. If nobody else has an interest in how parents parent, other parents do. And they vote, too.

But I really hope one doesn’t have to resort to self-interest arguments to make people like Peter of Melbourne see the most important thing here: children are human beings, not just an extension of their parents. If parents do their job badly, yes, okay, they might get hurt in some way. But the kids aren’t like a set of keys – if you don’t take care of them properly they will feel it.Parents are as diverse as the society in which we live; some are Nobel Prize winners; some are serial killers. Most are somewhere in between, but not all are willing or able to take proper care of their children. Society has to provide some kind of safety net for the children of such people because children can’t protect themselves.

There is a recent report of a Family Court judge ordering a parent in a custody dispute not to show the children R18+ films. Anecdotally, this kind of thing is on the rise in family law. I hope that this is an indication that society is coming to a realisation that good parenting of media use cannot be taken for granted – but that it can, and should, be imposed in some situations.

The other side of that coin must be a recognition that parents need and deserve support in this aspect of their task. Just as we don’t expect every parent to go out and discover a vaccine for polio, we shouldn’t expect every parent single-handedly to work out how to manage children’s media use to optimise development and maximise well-being. But woops, now I’m thinking of the parents.

*Editor's note: now also republished with permission, here on this site.

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