Friday 25 November 2011

Are parents in control?

Mediawatch-UK recently submitted evidence to the Parliamentary Enquiry into Online Child Protection, which is seeking to determine what British Internet Service Providers have done to protect children online and what could best be done to protect them from harmful online material.

As part of our submission we included the results of a survey we conducted amongst our members.  We asked our members whether or not their ISP had ever contacted them with details of the parental controls available as part of their package.

  • 80% said their ISPs had never contacted them about parental controls.
  • 20% reported that their ISPs had informed them about parental controls. 
  • Of those who had been told about parental controls 61% were with TalkTalk.  Approximately 60% of TalkTalk subscribers had been alerted to their provider’s new HomeSafe service. 
  • Of members who subscribed to other services only 11% had been told about the parental controls available. 
Of particular concern were a number of BT customers who were under the impression that installing parental controls will cost them a further subscription.

Our sobering statistics show that the majority of internet users are not alerted by to the existence of controls by their ISPs.  It is therefore imperative that ISPs actively communicate to their users the parental tools which are available.

The six largest ISPs in the country control in excess of 90% of the market.  With revenues of more than £3 billion annually these companies must share the responsibility for protecting children online.

There is a suggestion that it is entirely the responsibility of parents to safeguard their children from harmful imagery.  Many parents feel they are able to protect their children by monitoring their browsing histories but new functions such as Google Chrome’s Incognito mean this is no longer the case.  Other parents say that they are not confident in their ability to install a filter. 

It is for this reason that we are supporting the proposal of Claire Perry MP for an ‘opt-in’ system to block adult sites at source unless specifically requested.

Friday 16 September 2011

Internet firms must block porn

This week the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, announced that he will be including a measure in the new Communications Act to ensure that it is easier to block adult and age-restricted material from the internet.  Mr Hunt said he wants to see ‘services that are safe for my children’ and he proposes all consumers are offered an active choice about parental controls either at the point of purchase or when they activate an account.

A recent Ofcom survey found the number of parents using filtering software had dropped from about 50 per cent to 40 per cent so this move comes not a moment too soon.  

Research has also shown that not all parents are aware of the controls currently available and that they should be better signposted.  We understand the Government has not ruled out also coming up with a way of getting existing users to make the same active choice.

Although this is most welcome news, these controls will only be effective if they are applied to every device used for accessing the internet including tablets, gaming consoles and mobile phones. 

That is why we will continue our campaign to get Internet Service Providers to block adult material at source.  This would be the best way to stop children accessing potentially harmful material and would not stop adults who wish to see it from opting-in to access it.

Friday 8 July 2011

Phone hacking and morality

This week has been dominated by the news of ‘phone hacking on an industrial scale by the News of the World.  Each day this week has brought another revelation of the scope of this and the number of people who have been targeted. 

We learnt yesterday that the News of The World will be closed.  The paper’s position was increasingly untenable; because of concerted campaigns waged using social media it was haemorrhaging advertisers and many readers were planning a boycott.

The paper’s parent company, News Corps is proposing to take over BSkyB which would give it, with its strong newspaper portfolio, a dominant position in the UK media.  Until the beginning of this week it looked like the Culture Secretary was likely to accept this deal but somewhere in the region of 200,000 people have contacted him to protest, pushing any further decision back until September.

Public support has also pushed politicians to start speaking out.  This is something of a watershed moment as politicians have long been loath to attack the Murdoch empire which is seen to have the power to make or break governments.  At an emergency debate in Parliament phrases such as ‘we've fallen for threats’, ‘we've colluded for too long’ and ‘we were not courageous enough’ were used. 

These public outpourings illustrate the considerable power that we as individuals hold if we work together.  If we don’t speak out our silence condones the status quo which is why individuals making their views known is so important.

However, perhaps we should not be so surprised by this week’s revelations.  We have long held that the media we consume affects our behaviour.   Perhaps the absence of morality in sourcing stories is the logical outcome of abdicating moral responsibility for that which is put out.

Friday 27 May 2011

Violent video games and aggressive behaviour

This week the makers of the Call of Duty series of violent video games announced advance details of the next title in the series.  Modern Warfare 3 is not due to go on sale until November but the advance trailer features scenes of destruction on the London tube and the Houses of Parliament.

We were called by several news outlets who wanted our view of the game.   We walk a fine line when commenting on games like this because scenes are often inserted which are likely to attract protest thus creating a media buzz and selling more copies.  Because we’ve not yet been able to play the game or see anymore than the contents of the trailer we weren’t prepared to comment beyond saying that ,coming so close on the back of the 7/7 inquests which showed the devastating effects of an attack on the tube, including this in the game would appear to be cynical and in poor taste.

We did however make clear our concerns that, despite age ratings on games, young children continue to gain access to violent games designed for adults and we urged parents to be aware that games are rated because of their content rather than their perceived difficulty, popular games rated 18 are not suitable for children to play.

This is particularly relevant in the light of a new study from the University of Missouri has found violent video game players become less responsive to violence which predicts an increase in aggression.

During the study, 70 young adult participants were randomly assigned to play either a nonviolent or a violent video game for 25 minutes. Participants then competed against an opponent in a task that allowed them to give their opponent a controllable blast of loud noise. The level of noise blast the participants set for their opponent was the measure of aggression.

The researchers found that participants who played one of several popular violent games, such as Call of Duty, were more aggressive than participants who played a nonviolent game.

In addition, for participants that had not played many violent video games before completing the study, playing a violent game in the lab caused a reduced brain response to photos of violence - an indicator of desensitization.  Participants who had already spent a lot of time playing violent video games before the study showed small brain response to the violent photos, regardless of which type of game they played in the lab.

Bruce Bartholow, the associate professor of psychology who conducted the study, said that future research should focus on ways to moderate the effects of media violence.  He cited surveys that indicate that the average American school child spends more than 40 hours a week playing video games - more than any other activity besides sleeping.  He warned that as children spend so much time with video games, they could become accustomed to violent behaviour as their brains are forming.

"More than any other media, these video games encourage active participation in violence," he said. "From a psychological perspective, video games are excellent teaching tools because they reward players for engaging in certain types of behaviour. Unfortunately, in many popular video games, the behaviour is violence."

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Is the watershed working?

Last week the details of a survey of parents undertaken as part of Reg Bailey’s government-commissioned review into the sexualisation of children were published.  They revealed that almost nine out of 10 UK parents felt their children were being forced to grow up too quickly; nearly half were unhappy with pre-watershed TV.

Mr Bailey said “Parents are disappointed that some of the existing regulation and self-regulation is starting to let them down.   They feel that traditionally trusted controls like the television 'watershed' have become less rigorous and the lines have become more blurred.”

It’s a problem that has been becoming increasingly obvious as broadcasters’ continually push the boundaries of the watershed.

Last December The X Factor featured highly sexualised performances from global music stars Rihanna and Christiana Aguilera.  The programme was watched by almost 20 million people, nearly a quarter of whom are believed to children.  Ofcom subsequently received 2,868 complaints and today they published the results of their investigation into the broadcast.

The regulator deemed the dance routines to be ‘at the limit’ of acceptability for a pre-watershed broadcast but found that they did not breach the Broadcasting Code.

Ofcom considered Christina Aguilera's performance was justified as she was singing a song from her film Burlesque.   It said the performance taken as a whole was sexualised due to the nature of the dancers' revealing costumes but as it reflected the theme of the film - which she was promoting - it was editorially justified.

Is it any wonder that parents feel let down?

Ofcom has committed to “shortly…issuing new guidance about the acceptability of material in pre-watershed programmes that attract large family viewing audiences”.  The makers of the programme and all the major broadcasters who transmit shows like The X Factor are to be called to attend a meeting at Ofcom to discuss the issue.

Ofcom has found that this broadcast was ‘at the limits’ of acceptability; they must ensure that such incidents do not happen again.

Friday 25 March 2011

iPlaytime on line?

The way we are watching television is changing and many of us are now choosing to watch online; this is particularly popular with the under twenty-fives.   In this brave new world neither the watershed nor Ofcom’s broadcasting code apply.

This week the new regulator for on demand television, The Authority for Television On-Demand (ATVOD), cleared Channel 4's video on-demand service for offering a controversial episode of Frankie Boyle's Tramadol Nights.

The episode featured a range of derogatory ‘jokes’ about celebrities such as Jade Goody, Heather Mills, Michael Jackson, Katie Price and Susan Boyle.  Ofcom received around 50 complaints about the programme, including one from Katie Price, who accused Boyle of being a "bully" over comments made about her disabled son Harvey.

Statutory rules for VOD content are significantly less strict than those for TV broadcasts, and do not currently prohibit programming that is deemed offensive. In cases where content "might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of persons under the age of eighteen", providers must make efforts to prevent young people from accessing the material.

ATVOD ruled that Tramadol Nights would not seriously impair the development of under-18s and so decided not to take any further action.  ATVOD chair, Ruth Evans, said "Many viewers may regard the material as highly offensive, including to people with disabilities, and unsuitable for under-18s, but providing such content to under 18s is not a breach of the rules set by parliament if it does not fall foul of the 'might seriously impair' test."

Last year we asked for another piece of Channel 4 VOD content to be removed.  This featured violent footage – including a man having a nail hammered into the skin between his thumb and finger and then extracted – but we were told this content would not seriously impair a child either.

We have previously highlighted the fact that children are easily able to access post-watershed content online at any time of day unless their parents have set up parental controls (and Ofcom’s research shows us that most parents haven’t).  This means that little more is required to view post-watershed content than a tick in a box to confirm the user if over 18.

It is bizarre that broadcasters are, quite rightly, unable to broadcast certain material ‘on air’ until after the watershed but are quite free to broadcast the same material over the internet at any time without there being adequate protection mechanisms in place.

We submit that post-watershed material should only be available to viewers who have been subject to a more rigorous age-verification check than the current tick box system on offer.  We would like to see a PIN number which could be provided by the viewer’s internet service provider, telephone company or the TV licensing body each of which need to paid for, in the vast majority of cases, by an adult.  We believe that there are feasible steps that can and should be taken by broadcasters to control access to post-watershed material by children.

Friday 11 March 2011

Lads' Mags Banished to the Top Shelf

Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, the Co-op group and BP petrol stations have all agreed to put magazines with sexually explicit front cover images behind plain covers or banish them to the top shelf.

Frustratingly WHSmith will not be following suit.  The group’s current policy “requires men’s lifestyle magazine titles be displayed at minimum height of 1.2 metres, equivalent to the average adult chest/shoulder height” but fails to recognise that chest height for an adult is often eye-level for a primary school child.

This is great news but the display of sexually explicit covers is still an issue; A recent Mumsnet survey found that 82% of parents had seen covers displayed where children could see them, often on the lower shelves of newsprint. 

The survey found that individual newsagents, rather than the big chains, were the biggest offenders.  It’s clear that consumer pressure is having an effect so if you’ve seen a display that consider inappropriate please make your views known.  We have worked closely with the Front Page Campaign on this issue and we have come up with an easy way for you to complain if you have seen a newspaper or a magazine with a sexually explicit cover which has been inappropriately displayed.
  • If you’re not sure how to go about complaining
  • If you’re worried about speaking out.
  • If you’ve tried to complain but the response has been unsatisfactory
By filling in an online complaints form here we can raise your concern with the retailer on your behalf and we can also keep a record of how widespread this problem actually is. 

The sexually graphic material on the covers of newspapers and magazines displayed at the eye level of children is just one contributing factor to the premature sexualisation of children which we are seeing in our society. 

The Government has asked Reg Bailey to look into the sexualisation of childhood and he is seeking the views of parents, grandparents and other carers and also those who work with children in a professional capacity.  If you would like to feed your views into the consultation and you’ve not done so already you can do this here.  You have until Friday 18th March to make your views known.

Friday 4 March 2011

Porn Again

If you didn’t catch the programme by the former Home Secretary, Jackie Smith, about pornography on Thursday you can listen to it here. You’ll need a strong stomach as the programme includes some explicit material.  However it makes fascinating listening and Jackie Smith does make some very interesting points – not that we agree with all of them.

Friday 11 February 2011

Education or titillation? Part 2

Numerous people wrote to Ofcom and Channel 4 expressing their concern about The Joy of Teen Sex.  This week their concerns were echoed those of health professionals and youth workers including Dr Stuart Flanagan, who features on Radio 1's Sunday Surgery, and agony aunt Dr Petra Boynton,

They said the programme’s producers had not acted responsibly and they expressed a number of concerns about the programme’s content including the use of incorrect information and unreliable statistics and inadequate attention to respect, romance and affection.

They wrote: “We are concerned the Commissioners and Channel Four have not shown due diligence over this series. It seems to be fitting a pattern of programme development where viewing figures are prioritised over empowerment but where programmes are still marketed as ‘educational’.”

It has also emerged that the programme's resident "sex coach" is actually a sex-toy saleswoman and the presenter, who was initially billed as a social worker, is now referred to as having a degree in social work: she isn't yet in receipt of her social work qualifications.

Friday 4 February 2011

We must protect children from online porn

On Monday 7th February the Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey will be meeting with Internet Service Providers to discuss blocking pornographic sites at source to protect children from viewing them.  Any adults wishing access such sites would have to specifically ‘opt in’.

Pornography has a profound and negative effect on children shaping attitudes and values that contribute to the objectification of women, increased sexual risk taking and the relaxation of boundaries of sexual violence.

We know that an increasing number of children in this county are being referred to addiction clinics with pornography related issues and yet at no point in history has it been easier or cheaper for children to access a ready supply of pornography. The bottom line is that we are raising a generation of children growing up with easy and unimpeded access to the entire panoply of human perversion and sexual deviation and we can only guess at the impact of such free access on the society of the future.

This ready access to pornography by children is not always sought out; research has found that children experience unwanted exposure to sexual material from activities including innocent word searching, clicking on a link in another site, misspelling a URL or via a pop up.

Although the managers of websites featuring adult content have a legal responsibility to indicate clearly on their front pages that their sites are unsuitable for children under 18, in practice this offers little protection and is likely to incite a curious child to investigate further.  The online gambling industry has introduced workable age-verification restrictions but no such protections exist to prevent children from accessing harmful pornography.

It is anomalous in the extreme that whilst, quite rightly, regulations exist to protect children from inappropriate television broadcasts, cinema films, advertising and newsagents’ displays no such protections exist online.  Even the mobile phone industry has produced a model restricting access to adult material subject to age verification.   

It is time to recognise that the internet is a mature medium and it is no longer appropriate that it should be seen as some kind of ‘wild west’ where anything goes.  The internet has reached the age of majority; it is time it grew up.

There is a suggestion that it is entirely the responsibility of parents to safeguard their children from harmful imagery and yet many parents say that they are not confident in their ability to install a filter.  As a society we owe a duty of care to children whose parents cannot or will not protect them.   

The six largest ISPs in the country control in excess of 90% of the market.  With revenues of more than £3 billion annually these companies must share the responsibility for protecting children online.  We support the proposal for an ‘opt-in’ system to block adult sites at source unless specifically requested.

We understand that it is unlikely that any system proposed could be 100% effective but we submit that filters must be as comprehensive as possible. Any level of protection is better than the current voluntary system on offer.

Friday 14 January 2011

Education or titillation?

At the end of the last week we watched an advance preview of a programme which will be broadcast on Channel 4 next Wednesday, The Joy of Teen Sex.

This programme will be broadcast post watershed at 10pm and, according to Channel 4 ‘it offers a frank exploration of the love and sex lives of today's teenagers - presenting solutions to the emotional and physical problems many of them experience.’

The programme’s muddled message begins with the presenter pointing out that sex under the age of 16 is illegal.  She says “the age of consent is there for a reason and I believe we should wait until we are at least 16 to lose our virginity but we can’t pretend that teenage sex isn’t happening” and then goes to explain that we should ‘embrace teenage sex’ and make it ‘enjoyable’.

Perhaps this is the aim but, having seen the programme, we consider it crosses the line into prurience, with graphic scenes that can only be described as pornographic and of very little educational value.  Our concern is  that this programme has more to do with titillation and ratings than offering advice of real value; it doesn’t have to be this way as the BBC’s ‘Dangerous Pleasures’ season, which is aimed at young people and has tackled subjects including drugs, alcohol and sex intelligently, has shown.

The programme includes explicit images of lesbian intercourse in a section in which a 17 year old is shown ‘some more tricks to pleasure girls’.  The presenter expresses her concern about the pressure applied to teenagers to have sex; however this is exactly what the programme is doing.

At a time when, as a society, we’re having a serious debate about the premature sexualisation of children, there is a real question about the role which programmes like this take in the creation of the hypersexualised society which our children inhabit.

The last word must belong to the editorial from the Sunday Express.  Writing about this programme the paper says:

A researcher for Mediawatch, who has seen the material, says: “It’s soft porn aimed at arousing the audience.” She is right. Sex education is a serious issue but is C4 interested in helping shy teenagers come to terms with sex or is it just after a cheap thrill to boost viewing figures?

The subject does not need graphic human illustration to make a serious point. By including them, the show will simply arouse those in search of a cheap thrill, the very opposite of the message that a programme like this should be making.’

Friday 7 January 2011

Soap Operas: Education or Entertainment?

The controversial EastEnders storyline in which a character is seen discovering her baby son dead in his crib and then swapping him for the newborn baby of another character has resulted in over 6,000 complaints to the BBC that the storyline is offensive and sensational.

To avoid accusations of sensationalism, EastEnders producers claim to have worked with the charity, the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths although the organisation’s website states: ‘Despite the continuing statement… by the BBC that "FSID were consulted on the storyline...", FSID had no involvement in the planning or adoption of the specific 'baby-swap' plotline.  The behaviour and actions of Ronnie Mitchell are in no way 'endorsed' by FSID as a typical, or even likely, reaction of a bereaved parent.’

Anne Diamond, who lost a son to cot death, said: ‘I was shocked to find cot death itself is no longer dramatic enough for today's screenwriter.  This… hasn't done one iota of good in educating a young audience about cot death.’  Website Mumsnet has also criticised the broadcast as ‘at best… ill-informed, and at worst ... a cynical ploy to make headlines by creating deliberate controversy’.

The BBC has sought to justify the episodes by pointing out that they broadcast an action line number for those affected by the programme.

Soap opera storylines are defended because they make people aware of issues, last year the Government was even reported to be working with soap opera producers on promoting health messages.  And yet for years broadcasters have been telling us that what they produce is entertainment and has no effect on those who consume it. 

They can’t have it both ways; are soap operas for entertainment or are they for education?

In the words of writer and broadcaster Bel Mooney ‘no one who writes scripts for mainstream TV can ever afford to forget that images have a greater power even than words, and that the combination can be deeply ­disturbing. They have to get it right.’