Earlier this year, UNICEF released a report into child welfare, ranking 29 developed countries. Britain fared poorly, coming last for access to higher education, 27th for teenage pregnancy and 24th for youth unemployment. The report also says that current policy directions, such as slashing funding for youth services, will make this worse and increase child poverty.
It isn’t the first time that Britain has had a wake-up call from UNICEF. In 2007 a slightly different survey found that Britain had the unhappiest children in the industrialised world (see their scorecard at the bottom of this post). The Children’s Society were challenged by this and set out to find out why, and they reported back in their landmark book A Good Childhood, by Richard Layard and Judy Dunn.
The book mentions family breakdown, a competitive ethic in education, and a lack of public trust that keeps children indoors. Behind many of those was the overarching conclusion that Britain has an aggressively individualistic society. We are actively encouraged to put ourselves first, and children grow up thinking that “to be happy you have to be wealthy and beautiful.” Television and advertising is the main culprit in communicating this message, constantly presenting role models with lifestyles far above those of the children themselves.
These consumerist messages serve business and corporations very well, as children quickly learn to prefer branded products and to pester their parents for high status goods. But it doesn’t serve our children. There is a weight of research showing that people with more materialist values are less happy. A study by the Consumer Council found that children who expressed more materialist values had lower self esteem and were more likely to argue with their parents.
One of the possible solutions that is often talked about but rarely taken seriously is a ban on television advertising to children. Advertising to children is markedly different to ads aimed at adults. Adults are able to judge what they see and hear and make an educated decision. Younger children take messages much more at face value. They do not know that they are being marketed to. All advertising to those who do not know they are being advertised to is exploitative, and exploiting the vulnerability of children is particularly noxious. So can we ban advertising to children?
The advertising industry will declare it unworkable and futile of course, but other countries have done it. Sweden and Norway both have bans on showing adverts during children’s programmes. Belgium doesn’t have adverts in children’s programmes less than 30 minutes long, and none at all in the Flemish speaking part. Others have partial bans. Greece has a watershed on toy adverts, so parents might see them but children wouldn’t. Australia doesn’t have adverts in programmes for pre-schoolers.
Britain, Germany and a number of others have settled for guidelines to avoid misleading children in adverts. For example, things have to be shown at scale so that children don’t think they’re bigger than they really are. There are things you can’t show, like children eating unhealthily.
The issue is back in the news at the moment because a new campaign has just launched called Leave Our Kids Alone. “We believe that if companies make products for children they should aim to persuade parents, not children of four, six or eight” they say. “Our children need space to discover themselves, to learn about the world, to realise that not everything adults say can be taken at face value, to handle money, to learn the true worth of things. We believe children should be free to grow up without today’s intense commercial pressures, to become young citizens and not just little consumers.”
I don’t think the campaign is likely to gain much traction with this current government, especially with a blunt demand for an “immediate ban”. But if you have children, you don’t need to wait for the government to act to protect them from adverts. Talk about advertising and marketing and help give them perspective, and you can model a healthy skepticism of advertiser’s claims if you’re watching TV with them. If you’re not sure what to say, look up the parents’ resources on MediaSmart. They have teachers’ resources too if you want to get your school doing some media literacy.
The other thing you could consider is joining the 1% of people who watch TV but don’t watch it live. There’s no shortage of children’s programmes on iPlayer or streaming on a Lovefilm subscription or similar. You can pick up DVDs on ebay and you’ll know exactly what your children are watching. You’ll be much more in control, you won’t get any adverts at all, and you won’t have to pay a TV license either.