Monday 8 February 2016

Upholding the TV watershed

At the end of last year ITV began a new series, Jekyll and Hyde, which was broadcast at 6.30pm on Saturday evenings and aimed at a whole family audience.

The series creator warned that his programme would be ‘scary’ but few who tuned in expected to such gratuitously violent material so early in the evening.  One character was bludgeoned to death within the first minute and it was followed by further violent deaths including someone being set on fire and another being shot in the stomach.  Ironically, anyone wishing to access the programme on ITV’s catch-up service had to confirm that they were over 18 in order to access the show.

Following transmission Ofcom received more than 500 complaints, including one from Mediawatch-UK.  We said that ITV’s transmission of Jekyll And Hyde a full two-and-a-half hours before the watershed was deeply irresponsible.

The show’s writer says TV had to become more extreme to keep up with the proliferation of graphic content online.  Responding to questions before transmission he said: “Some of the parents might get a little upset and some of the smaller kids, but, you know, f*** them.”

Following an investigation Ofcom ruled that ITV broke UK broadcasting rules for airing “violent and frightening” material early in the evening when children were watching.

The regulator “found this programme broke our rules requiring children to be protected from unsuitable material by appropriate scheduling…the cumulative effect of viol

ent and frightening scenes made this programme – the first in the series – unsuitable for children when scheduled to start at 6.30pm on a Sunday, and without a clear warning before it started.”

ITV, which had argued that the violence was “limited and fantastical” and had refused to move the show to a later slot said that it had “taken this decision on board for future programming.”

Ofcom’s decision is most welcome.  Broadcasters appear to be increasingly tempted to break boundaries in a bid to grab the attention of an increasingly fragmented audience and so strong regulation is vital.  Although we have taken issue with many of Ofcom’s decisions in the past, on this occasion the regulator did what it describes as one of its ‘most important duties’; protecting children from harmful material on television.

Monday 18 January 2016

Online pressures affecting children's wellbeing

Childline, the confidential counselling service run by the NSPCC, recently released data on the issues which most concerned children contacting its advice line.

In stark contrast to the issues which most concerned children when the charity was founded 24 years ago, in 2016 modern pressures such as cyberbullying and social media affecting children’s confidence and self-esteem were at the top of the list.

Childline warned that Britain’s children are now “deeply unhappy” and have to deal with fears and worries that did not exist 30 years ago.  Many children today are deeply unhappy due to “the pressure to keep up with friends and have the perfect life online ... adding to the sadness that many young people feel on a daily basis”.

And it’s not just children who are made miserable by their online addictions.  Action For Children has found that a staggering one in four parents struggle to control their children’s screen use. 

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) advises that children should have TV-free days, or have two-hour limits on the time spent in front of screens. Quite apart from the aim of tackling obesity, it’s a good way of rediscovering the real world that exists beyond the lit pixels.

The internet isn’t going away so the challenge for parents is to teach children to self-moderate their screen time and to become useful members of the digital world.  As parents we also need to confront our own tendency to gaze at smartphone or tablet screens for that elusive email or message: is it really fair to take away our children’s screens while we kept snatching furtive glances at our own?

We are delighted that Mediawatch is able to play a part in informing and empowering parents through both our work raising awareness in the media and talking to parents at school events.  If you would more information on protecting children online please visit our campaign website Safeonline for further information.

Monday 14 December 2015

House of Lords commits to online safety

There is good news this week!  On Friday Baroness Howe’s Online Safety Bill passed its Committee Stage in the House of Lords.  Although this is the fifth Online Safety Bill which Baroness Howe has brought before the House it is the first time it has passed through its Committee Stage, which involves a detailed line by line examination.  The next milestone will be the Report Stage which is a further opportunity for peers to examine and propose amendments to the Bill.

Referencing Lady Howe’s dogged efforts over the last five years to bring an Online Safety Bill onto the statute books Lord Framlingham asked “how many young children have had their lives really altered for the worse in those five years simply because we in both Houses of Parliament have not managed to give them the protection they deserve?”  His sentiments were echoed by Lord Stevenson who wished the Bill well and hoped this would finally be the occasion on which progress would be made.

Sadly the Government continued to oppose the Bill although the Minister acknowledged that many of its elements were “well thought-out and well intentioned”.  She promised that they would “be taken on board in the resulting legislative approach that we take in the New Year.”  Such legislation is necessary because new measures governing net neutrality passed in Brussels earlier this year mean that the current voluntary approach of ISPs to filtering will no longer be permissible.

The Minister said that the Government’s remained “absolutely committed to the protection of children online” and she confirmed that a consultation, in line with the Conservative’s manifesto commitment, on how best to implement age verification checks for those wishing to access pornographic websites will take “shortly after the new year”.

The Minister finished by reiterating her promise that “there can be no higher priority than keeping children safe online”.

These positive developments come just a month after the House of Lords debated the impact of pornography on society.  Baroness Howe has been determined and bold in her efforts to protect children online and we wish her well as her Bill moves into its Report Stage.

Friday 23 October 2015

Technology needs a health warning

This week saw the publication of a new report from The Office of National Statistics looking at children’s use of social media.  Researchers gathered data on screen use and mental wellbeing from over 20,000 children, parents and teachers.  They found a clear association between longer time on social websites and distress, anxiety and depression.  Their conclusion: heavy use of social media is as bad for children as bullying or a troubled home.

These findings echo those of the Institute for Social and Economic Research which published its research earlier this summer.  It also follows the publication of a report from the Strategic Society Centre (SSC) thinktank which called for manufacturers and online social networking sites to consider how young people are affected by their businesses – and potentially redesign their products and services accordingly.

The SSC report provocatively compared today’s technology firms with tobacco companies of the past which would not acknowledge the public health consequences of their business.  It also offered recommendations to help to improve the wellbeing of adolescents and compel technology companies to acknowledge their responsibilities.

Possible solutions include issuing national guidelines on the recommended daily amount of screen time for young people, compulsory school programmes on how social networking and mobile technologies can affect well-being and installing ‘virtual’ usage meters as default settings on social networking sites for all users under 18, so that they are made aware of how long they are spending online.

Children are so trustworthy of modern technologies that they often neglect the fact that it can cause them harm – both directly and indirectly.

According to researcher Dr Cara Booker, “Many of the most effective solutions to our major public health issues have come about when researchers, government and private industry work together. Examples include car safety, including more effective seatbelts, removal of lead from paint, discontinuation of asbestos use and milk pasteurisation. In many of these cases, however, solutions were only sought when the consequences were great and well-established.”

“The evidence regarding use of social media and wellbeing is growing and it is imperative that researchers, government and private industries work together to address the real public health consequences of poor wellbeing in adolescence becoming worse wellbeing in adulthood. This issue is not one that parents alone can tackle; it is one that requires government and private industry to raise awareness of the potential issues with prolonged use of social media for children and adolescents.”

Friday 16 October 2015

What is television teaching our children?

For some time the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has been calling for a ban on advertisements for junk food before the watershed or order to tackle rising levels of childhood obesity.

The Chairman of the British Medical Association’s science board, Professor Sheila Hollins, has also criticised the relentless depictions of unhealthy food during children’s programming pointing out “the unconscious way in which promotion can influence children and young people’s choices.”

Despite initial scepticism from the government there seems to be increasing support for the idea.  The Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, recently told the Conservative Party Conference that he would welcome CBeebies telling his “sugar crazy three-year-old daughter” that “chips are bad”.

Earlier this week the Scottish Health Secretary, Shona Robison, added her support agreeing that there is a “very strong argument” for banning pre-9pm junk food averts.

That these concerns are being taken seriously is good news; it is also an admission that television and advertising have an effect on behaviour and attitudes – particularly those of children. 

When he was Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt declined to heed our concerns about the worrying change in the material being broadcast pre-watershed and Ofcom’s failure to regulate adequately.  Indeed it was during his tenure as Culture Secretary that Ofcom’s decision not to find in breach material it described as “being at the very margin of acceptability” effectively re-defined family viewing.

Earlier this month Mr Hunt told his party’s conference that “we don’t like a nanny state except when it comes to children… children are allowed nannies and I think we’re able to be a little bit more draconian”.

It is time that the interests of our children were put before those of commercial providers – whether they be selling food or entertainment.  Our children deserve better.

Monday 14 September 2015

Pop Stars as Sex Workers

Earlier this week singer Chrissie Hynde hit the headlines when she criticised
scantily-clad stars and branded them ‘sex workers’ for selling music by ‘bumping and grinding’ in their underwear.  She said their performances were doing ‘a great deal of damage’.

It is now completely mainstream for the videos of chart topping artists to include nudity, highly sexualised dancing, violence and references to prostitution.  This summer the video for Rihanna’s latest release, Better Have My Money, was much criticised for its fetishisation and glamorisation of weapons, torture and murder.  What is particularly disturbing about this is that the fan base of all these performers is so young.  Watching them, one could be forgiven for thinking that these videos have been produced to appeal to an adult male audience but, in reality, they are far more likely to be viewed by school children.

This pornification of our culture, created just to sell us a product, is having damaging and far-reaching consequences.  Young boys watching these videos will come believe that women are merely sex objects for their entertainment and young girls will learn that their value lies in their sex appeal and how they look.

Parents who responded to the government’s Bailey Review in 2011 cited music videos as a major concern.  The report subsequently recommended that age restrictions should be applied to music videos to prevent children buying sexually explicit videos and guide broadcasters over when to show them.  In its manifesto the Conservative party promised to “stop children's exposure to harmful sexualised content online, by requiring age verification for access to all sites containing pornographic material and age-rating for all music videos.”

This summer a new scheme to classify music videos came into operation.  Music videos on YouTube and Vevo will now be rated by the BBFC to protect children from seeing inappropriate content.  Some of the biggest recording labels - Sony, Universal and Warner - have agreed to submit the videos they produce to the BBFC before uploading them to the sites but the American offices of these labels have not agreed to the system, meaning any artist who is signed with them won't have their videos subjected to ratings.

In practice this means that some of the most troubling music videos - even the ones that first sparked this move towards a classification system - won’t actually be affected by it.  This may be a step in the right direction but much more still needs to be done to make this truly effective.

Earlier in the year, we wrote to all the new MPs in the 2015 intake outlining our concerns and asking for their support.  We have received several supportive responses and will be meeting with some of the new MPs over the coming weeks to discuss ways in which we can work together in the future.

Monday 7 September 2015

Social media steps up

On 24th August over a billion people used Facebook; this means that on that single day 1 in 7 people on Earth used that social network.

This week the Internet Advertising Bureau published new research showing that social media use has now overtaken entertainment as the UK’s favourite online activity, accounting for almost a fifth of the two hours and 51 minutes a day people in the UK on average spend on the web.

Social media use now accounts for almost 17% of all time spent online whilst the amount of time spent watching TV shows or YouTube videos and listening to music, has almost halved.

The shift appears to be in part driven by people spending more time on mobile devices, rather than desktops.  As a result we are increasingly seeing marketing, education and customer service functions using the medium.

How should we respond to this?  On the one hand social media use has been linked to depression and addiction but it also a positive function as a valuable source of support, community and entertainment. The impact of social media on users depends not on the technology itself but in how it is employed and experienced.

This week it emerged that a 14 year old boy who used a social media app to send a naked photograph of himself to a girl of the same age at school has had the crime of making and distributing indecent images recorded against him by police.  Although the boy was not arrested or charged his name will be stored on a police database for 10 years.

With social media use on the rise, and changing constantly, it is our responsibility to stay informed about the potential benefits and costs of this new digital age and then make deliberate decisions about the type and quantity of technology we use – and, importantly, to which we allow our children to be exposed.  Rest assured that Mediawatch-UK is committed to protecting and campaigning for family values in all media, old, new and social and we value your continued support in this important work.