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Monday, June 06, 2011 

Everyone else's problem.

If you thought New Labour were bad when it came to the seemingly endless policy reviews they ordered, many of them helmed by people of the moment, almost all briefly made famous by lifestyle television programmes, then the coalition has gone one better. Previous reviews on the state of childhood by Dr Tanya Byron and Dr Linda Papadopoulos have now given way to the Big One. For such an important and definitive report on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, a truly big beast was sought. As none could be found, Sarah Teather chose Reg Bailey, head of the Mothers' Union charity instead.

Yes, if you too are scratching your head at the apparent cognitive dissonance involved in a man being the chief executive of a charity calling itself Mothers' Union, then much soon becomes clear. For Mothers' Union is nothing if not forthcoming in its actual aims, as made clear on their website:

In 81 countries, our members share one heartfelt vision - to bring about a world where God's love is shown through loving, respectful and flourishing relationships. This is not a vague hope, but a goal we actively pursue through prayer, programmes, policy work and community relationships. By supporting marriage and family life, especially through times of adversity, we tackle the most urgent needs challenging relationships and communities.

Yes, they're a Christian charity. For those who think that perhaps God has very little to do with either loving relationships or indeed, childhood sexualisation, all such complaints should be taken up with Teather and friends, although one suspects that this might be a case where Iain Duncan Smith had some influence.

Bailey at least admits that he has no special qualifications for helming such a review, other than being a parent and grandparent himself, as well as the head of a charity (he notably doesn't state its religious ethos, and the word Christian doesn't appear once in the entire document) that supports families in 83 countries. In fairness to Bailey, his introduction to the review (PDF) which follows covers its bases well: he has harsh words for the "prurient approach that has sometimes characterised the wide media coverage of these issues" and he more than once emphasises the fundamental responsibility of parents themselves to control the environment in which their children grow up in. This is a review ordered by a Conservative-dominated government, after all.

The problem that the review barely touches, if puts its finger on at all, is that for all the calls that have been made for children to be children, adults need to try to come to terms with how they project their own worries about the world they're living in onto their offspring. The report informs us that 9 out of 10 parents surveyed agreed that children were under pressure to grow up too quickly, yet it doesn't seem that the finding prompted the researchers to do the obvious thing and ask children themselves whether they felt they were under pressure to do so. The answer might well have been illuminating. For while adults fret, mainly due to how quite a considerable number yearn after their own carefree years as a child, and wish they could return to it, children on the other hand either don't think in such terms, or instead wish that they were older and so have more freedoms. I cannot at any point during my childhood recall feeling that I was not being allowed to act my age, at least within reason, or that outside influences or pressures were bearing down on me; it's only now that I look back and contemplate how quickly time passes that I regret not making more of it while I had it. I suspect this is the emotion that especially drives parents, who after all are in effect seeing little facsimilies of themselves growing up before their very eyes, into wanting them to remain in that state for as long as is possible.

As the report then can't put it as brutally as advising parents to try as hard as they can not to fuck up their children with their own neuroses in the finest Philip Larkin fashion, while still advocating proper boundaries and limits on material from whatever sources they consume, it instead either beats around the bush or puts the onus on the retailers, broadcasters and media. To be sure, they have more than their fair share of responsibility, and it is difficult to argue with the conclusion that we are living in "an increasingly sexual and sexualised culture", yet it's hardly the case that there isn't any getting away from it. Rather than it being the children pressurising the adults into giving them what they want, it seems more to be about adults demanding things that either already exist or which they can't seemingly be bothered to put in place themselves. Take the very opening of the report, where Bailey sets out the "simple" views of a child:

“I don’t know why grown-ups find it so difficult, it’s really very simple. There should be another button on the remote control like the red button so that if you see something that isn’t right on television then you can press it to tell them you don’t like it. And if more than a thousand people press it then the programme is automatically cut off”.

So said the enthusiastic 10-year-old at a
research presentation from a group of children to the Review team. “It’s really very simple.”

It is indeed very simple, or at least it seems so to this simpleton. There doesn't need to be an additional button which takes the equivalent role of Caesar at the Coliseum, you already have either the "off" button or the change the channel button, neither of which it seems see much usage. Television executives, believe it or not, make decisions based on the ratings the programmes they commissioned receive. If you don't like what you're watching, switch it off or turn it over.

This it seems is simply no longer good enough. Instead, and mainly prompted by the X Factor final where two of the least sexy performances in living memory took place in front of millions, images which the Daily Mail made its hypocritical best out of, broadcasters must "involve parents on an ongoing basis in testing the standards by which family viewing on television is assessed", as if they weren't already enough compliance procedures in place. It's still difficult to understand why there was such synthetic outrage generated by the X Factor final, especially when old Top of the Pops routines by the likes of Pans People and friends could be almost as risqué nearly 40 years ago, but then all broadcasters had to face was Mary Whitehouse and her clique. Now we have Mumsnet, which doesn't just want to interfere with factual and entertainment programming, it also wants to decide what is and isn't permissible in a soap opera, for goodness sake.

Other recommendations just seem to be the kind of gestures which these reports have long settled for making in lieu of, in this case, doing something far more counter-productive and potentially inhibiting on adults making a free choice. Hence "modesty boards" are recommended for lads' mags in newsagents, which have been in freefall circulation wise for some time, despite the effect they may still have on teenage girls' perception of what boys expect, while the proposed introduction of age ratings for music videos seems to miss the point entirely. They can conceivably be too explicit for younger children, yet the older teens will have long since moved on from their wares. Bailey recommends that the "internet industry must act decisively to develop and introduce effective parental controls", but there's only so much that NetNanny type software can block; most kids will exchange material now over social-networking sites. Parental monitoring is always going to remain key, and putting the onus on others will continue to be a cop-out.

The contradictions then are manifold. Nine out of ten parents worry about children growing up too fast when asked, yet they don't really think about it, or consider concerns about sexualisation and commercialisation too much when they aren't confronted with it, as it should be. Bailey wonders why "so many parents seem to lack confidence in their ability to help their children navigate this commercial and sexualised world", but why should he be so surprised by that when not a single one of the recommendations he makes urges parents to take action themselves? Instead of empowering them to take control or even to help them overcome what are certainly in some cases irrational fears, it remains everyone else's problem.

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In a simplistic manner that's because we have rights but not responsibilities.

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