Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Televisual Child Abuse

A new genre of television is threatening to elbow out the lifestyle and property programmes: children and teenagers with behavioural problems.
Blame The Parents.....The House of Tiny Tearaways.....Brat Camp.....Bad Behaviour.....Families Behaving Badly.....and so on.
I've glimpsed some of these and not seen others at all but I've seen enough to convince me that, even with full parental consent, they are an indefensible invasion of children's privacy and a form of child abuse.
The producers will claim thay are educational and show parents how to deal with difficult children. They are actually the worst kind of voyeuristic entertainment and exploit the most vulnerable who are too young to give informed consent. For all television is entertainment, even 'serious' programmes like Newsnight or Horizon.

Let's put this in context with the following observations:
It's a principle of our criminal justice system that children under 16 remain anonymous in most cases.
Many European countries, though not Britain, do not allow children to appear in television commercials.
Tony Blair fiercely protects his children's privacy (except at election time of course), slapping an injunction on a former nanny and refusing to say if Leo had an innoculation.
At the height of the paedophilia hysteria, many schools banned parents from bringing cameras to school plays and sports events.
Yet now we have children with behavioural problems being filmed 24 hours a day and broadcast to millions of viewers on primetime television.

A sickening variation is a new BBC programme where well-behaved children have to recruit a new partner for their single parent. Equally exploitative in its own way, all you need to know is that animated stardust is periodically sprinkled across the screen.

Bad Behaviour, which started on Channel 4 last night, uses the common formula of an expert who advises parents on coping strategies. Last night's programme was undeniably intriguing, if only because it lacked the 'class angle' of inviting us to spy on the strange lives of the underclass. The family was a mother, stepfather and six riotous boys. They were a middle-class and reasonably affluent family and both parents were committed Christians. The mother's second husband was revealed to her in a dream which she said was a vision from God. If true, this suggests that the Almighty has far too much time on his hands.
The most shocking thing in the programme was not the behaviour of the children but the mother's remark that, without the intervention of the 'expert', at least two of her sons would have had to be found alternative accommodation, by which I assume she meant a foster family or children's home. I don't underestimate the nightmare of badly-behaved children but this was fighting and swearing, not criminal activity or drug addiction. That this devout woman could contemplate banishing two of her six sons to the uncertain fate of being brought up by strangers took my breath away.

The family sat down at a table to eat their dinner, preceded by a full Grace in which they thanked God, Jesus and the rest of the mob for their Turkey Twizzlers. Later on, the 11 year old boy told his mother to 'Fuck off, you bitch.' When she told him not to swear he said, in an hilarious piece of role reversal, 'Well, you've got to learn. You shouldn't speak when other people are speaking.' He was in close-up at the time and, trouper that he was, he wasn't going to disappoint.
An older boy refused to go to school and barricaded himself in his room. When his mother had left the house, one of the production team knocked on the door and he instantly opened it with a broad grin on his face and showed the viewers how he built the barricade.

It's probably not too far-fetched to say that children brought up with television have a good understanding of how the medium works and of what makes 'good television'.
And you don't have to be a psychologist or self-styled expert to know that children addicted to bad behaviour want to be the centre of attention in the family. Having a camera crew film every tantrum for weeks on end must be like all their Christmases coming at once. (Few of these shows use hidden filming and sometimes the children give sly grins into the camera like those yobs in the street who wave to the CCTV cameras.)
So one has the ludicrous situation where the 'expert' is telling the parents to remain politely indifferent and not to react, while a cameraman, sound man and director are running round the house to capture every punch and expletive. It wouldn't surprise me if they do the odd re-take. I know how many re-takes I've had to do just doing a plain TV interview because the sound level was wrong or the lighting wasn't right.

One of the mysteries of the age is why people are so ready to reveal the most intimate secrets of their lives to television cameras. If they are adults, fair enough. But for young children to have their family home invaded and their behaviour displayed to relatives, school friends and millions of unknown people is a form of child abuse that society should not tolerate.
Some people will scream 'nanny State' but the Government should have the guts to get its Children's Minister to sit down with OFCOM, the TV regulator, and put a stop to anyone under 16 having their private family lives turned into prime time entertainment.


At 8:15 PM, Anonymous Alan said...

What will be interesting is in ten years or so's time. These children are too young to have given an informed consent to have details of their private lives broadcast. We live in an increasingly litigious society. Are some of these children going to turn round, as adults, and sue their parents and the TV companies, particularly if some of them want to move into some form of public life and find doors barred to them as a result of the adverse publicity that these programmes could be used to generate.

At 6:40 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Some of these children would have a very strong case under the Human Rights Act which protects both privacy and family life. I hope some of them do sue their parents -who presumably get some financial reward from the TV companies for turning their kids into a freak show. It might be the best way of putting a stop to all this.

At 8:13 AM, Anonymous Peter said...

I agree it's shocking. Demonstrating, as if demonstration were needed, that television has no morals whatever. Lovely post. Again.

At 12:20 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Glad you agree. Most people seem quite undisturbed by it. Compare with the uproar over the Jerry Springer Musical.
The immorality of the kids' parents is at least as worrying as the immorality of television. If the parents are getting paid for this then they're pimping their own children. Or is that putting it too strongly?

At 6:44 PM, Anonymous Rebecca said...

I had been wondering why I objected so strongly to these programmes. Was it because it was a shock to learn just how stupid folk can be as parents? Or was it the young, hip specialists who were chosen because they had the right faces? These children will be conscious young people soon. Let those children be armed with cameras when their parents are vulnerable old people. 'Blame the Parents Revisited', 'Incontinent Insomniacs - Avenging Your Parents'...

At 5:11 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Yes, I'm as disturbed by the incredible arrogance of the 'experts' as by the stupidity of the parents and using cash rewards and penalties to change behaviour seems very superficial and morally repugnant.
Like your idea of the children's revenge.

At 9:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Like you, I am very uneasy about these child rearing "reality" shows and for precisely the same reasons. However, there is a glimmer of hope within them and it is this:

Every single programme shows that parents have to establish limits to acceptable behaviour, enforce those limits with sanctions or punishments and to expect respect. ie traditional child rearing methods are shown to work.

The hope is that these programmes reflect a change in the national zeitgeist

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Setting some limits to behaviour is surely blindingly obvious and neither traditional nor modern, although some of the methods used by these 'experts' are anything but traditional.
I doubt that the programmes will have the slightest influence because those who most need help won't watch them.
There are hundreds of programmes on teenage binge drinking (they're the backbone of the Bravo Channel) but, if anything, they've made it worse because televising it almost makes it culturally acceptable.
Television only plays a small part in changing anything when the middle classes latch on to something and mount a campaign as with Jamie's School Dinners or Cathy Come Home.

At 1:51 PM, Blogger Blithering Bunny said...

I have similar qualms, but when it comes to the more serious shows like House of Tiny Tearaways I have to disagree. The good that this show does greatly outweighs any harms.

Anyway, I'd rather not give the state more power over families.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Never mind the State. I'd rather keep the market - in the form of unprincipled, exploitative TV companies - out of families.

At 8:31 PM, Blogger Jills said...

I witnessed Bad Behaviour tonight and was so angry and upset on behalf of the children. How can it be fair to show a 4 year old being called a fucking retard by his mother? The child has not agreed to be paraded being verbally abused and handled roughly to entertain strangers.
I have contacted the NSPCC and OFCOM because I feel this abuse of children should not be allowed to happen.

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

Jills, I saw a bit of that too. It also included some nudity which surprised me because I thought that was now off-limits. After all, viewing such images, even non-sexual ones, on the internet is illegal.
I'm glad you've complained about it. I'd been wondering whether to do so myself and you may have shamed me into doing so. The feedback I've had, although small in numbers, suggests there may be widespread unease about this. There was a discussion about it on Radio 4's The Message last week but it never really got to grips with the main issues.
I'd like to see a real debate about it because these programmes are at odds with all our other policies about the protection of children.

At 3:11 PM, Blogger Blithering Bunny said...

> Never mind the State. I'd rather keep the market - in the form of unprincipled, exploitative TV companies - out of families.

But you can't say "Never mind the state" if you're taking this position, because to "keep the market out of families", is simply to demand that state infringes on the freedom of parents. Maybe it should, but you can't have it both ways -- you can't keep both the state and the market out of families.

At 3:50 PM, Blogger Willie Lupin said...

I'm not trying to have it both ways. I'm quite happy that the State should intervene in families, as it already does, in order to prevent the emotional, physical or sexual abuse of children.
In the case of these programmes, I'm suggesting that the State, through the TV regulator, should curtail the right of the market to infinge the privacy of young children. That also represents a small restriction on the freedom of parents to put their children's private family life and behaviour on television. I believe that sits comfortably with other public policies on the protection of children.

At 1:42 AM, Blogger BabyBear1952 said...

I recently read yet another comment that Mary Kay Letourneau was continuing to "exploit" Vili Fualaau by marrying him.

It seems to me that Vili is an adult now, and nobody twisted his arm to marry the woman he's been in love with for years.

She has been in prison for many years, so it's not as if she had him somewhere out in the wilderness breaking his spirit and turning him into a slave or something.

I tuned into Brat Camp tonight, and I believe that the hearts of the people running the camp are in the right place.

Came into here to see if anyone was feeling like I was, so I'm not watching it now.

So, I don't know all that's going on.

I agree that the kids are troublesome and something has to be done instead of the status quo, but I wonder if putting kids out in the wilderness and having them get prepared for the day over and over until they get it done in a timed period is the way to go.

And I have a really BAD feeling about a preview of the show I saw earlier where part of the program was to have these kids climbing up the side of a mountain that was slick and almost straight up and down.

And making them get into freezing-cold water!?!

Earlier this year, I read a very good book by a man named Robert Whitaker called Mad In America, which is about how the mentally-ill have been treated at different times in history.

What is happening to these kids sounds a lot like some of the methods of treating the mentally-ill that the author (and yours truly) STRONGLY disapprove of.

What I would like to see is a high-quality reality TV show that shows other types of programs for helping kids such as these.

One that comes to mind is something I saw a few years ago where a man took about six boys at a time and had them to help him out on his fishing boat.

There were no artificial challenges (e.g. eating gruel, climbing up a beyond-steep mountain, having to put out day's supplies "just so" in a limited amount of time with no allowances for even a second over)--just the real-life kind of activities that go along with working on a fishing boat.

I would assume that there are other similar programs here and there to help kids out.

Why aren't they featured more?

If a program about, for instance, the man with a fishing boat became a reality TV show, would it be a hit? Or would it be a loser in the ratings?

So, is it about helping kids? Or is it about ratings?

And--here's an even more disturbing question!--why WOULDN'T such a show be a ratings hit?

Some kids who might become candidates for a sensational boot-camp/brat-camp show are those with drug problems who crave their next "fix."

With drugs, it seems to take stronger and stronger fixes over time in order to have any effect.

But, to me, it seems as if that plug-in drug (a.k.a.) has gotten to the place for some people where it needs to provide stronger and stronger fixes, and, if some already-damaged kids become even more damaged because of it, that's just a cold, hard fact of life!!!

I have a blog here, too (more than one, in fact--though Baby Bear's Cozy Cave is my main one), so come on over and let's talk more about this sometime.

AJ :o)

At 1:46 AM, Blogger BabyBear1952 said...

In my last comment, I left out a word. Should read:

(a.k.a. TV)

and not just


At 4:15 PM, Blogger mia said...

I really like your conversation on drug rehab. I have a drug rehab secrets blog if you wanna come on over and check my stuff out.


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