From cyberbullying and online harassment to fake news and troubling content: when children become teenagers, they move from the gentle land of kids’ programming into a social-media landscape with pitfalls galore. Can the children’s programming industry help to prepare them?
That was the topic for a MIPJunior panel session this morning, with speakers including Alice Webb, director of BBC Children‘s and BBC North; Lesley Bailey, VP of channel marketing and brand management, kids, for Turner EMEA; and Carole Bienaimé Besse, board member of French media regulator Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel (CSA). The moderator was journalist and scriptwriter Rachel Murrell.
Webb kicked off with a video of young children talking about how they’d change the online world. “We talk about social media teenhood, but look at some of the ages of those children on the videos: they’re much younger than that. The issues we’re going to talk about are for younger children as well as those who are supposed to be on social media,” she said.
Webb pointed out that children don’t see a separation between the ‘real’ world and the digital world. “It is just the world to children. So we’re trying to help children make sense of the world around them in all aspects,” she said.
“We cover and tackle all sorts of issues that we believe relate to children growing up in a social, digital world. For example we have a lovely interactive drama called Dixi… it covers topics from peer pressure online to over-sharing to cyberbullying… It’s entering its fourth season, it’s hugely popular and it generates a huge amount of comments and interaction from our audience. And we put it online, because that’s often where our audience are when they’re thinking about this.”
Webb said that the BBC is also working on tools to support these programmes. “We work in partnership in the UK outside the BBC, which is incredibly important. We are one voice of many,” she added, citing partnerships with ISPs and Google in the UK. “How content, media is delivered to children is becoming as important as the media itself. What it sits next to, what advertising is wrapped around it. All these things: it’s not just about the content itself.”
The BBC is also bringing together all its children’s content in a single site called Own It using slogans like “be the boss of your online life” covering topics from selfies and Minecraft to internet-safety tips from vloggers. “We’re trying to help kids make the connection between the content that they see, and the activity and feelings and the way that they behave in the world as well,” added Webb.
How does the BBC talk to producers to brief them about how all this relates to their own projects? “We brief all our producers, as everyone does, on our core values, which we are explicit includes this. We actually ask our producers and our talent to be incredible role models for our audience. We place quite an onus on them to do that. And that involves literally sitting down with every single one of them to talk through how we want them to behave, the values we’re trying to promote.”
Bailey talked about Turner’s anti-bullying initiative, which it started to develop thee years ago. “We spoke to parents, we spoke to teachers, we spoke to kids, and we did this in the UK, and also in Poland and Italy as well,” she said. “We wanted to find out what could Cartoon Network do that would add value… What we found the key message was that came out of the research was being friendly: friendliness, and on what positive things kids could do.”
That led Turner towards an initiative that focuses on helping kids “be a buddy, not a bully” with content that presented a narrative from three viewpoints: the bully, the person being bullied, and a bystander. Turner has also worked with online influencers, from pop and sports stars “to even YouTubers: anyone who felt they had something to say about the topic”.
“We’re so delighted to be part of this campaign: it is very important to the network,” said Bailey, who was particularly proud of the campaign’s extension to Turkey.
How does Turner measure success? “We’re not just trying to hit a number. It’s what the audience tell us… they’ll let you know, which is marvellous,” said Bailey. “We’ve also got packs that go in to schools, and teachers will tell us how the message is going across.”
Bienaimé Besse gave a regulator’s perspective on all this: “More boring than creating content and editing a channel! But this is very important,” she said. “One of our first missions is to protect the young viewers and also the young people who appear on the screen. We noticed with the appearance of the multi-screen world and the appearance of social networks, we have to improve the way we regulate the entertainment.”
She said this is a “real partnership” with broadcasters. “They are really paying attention: they definitely know that the audience really takes care about that,” she said. “All the broadcasters, today they realise that it is very important to be a good partner with the audience.”
Bienaimé Besse talked about Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel’s system of age-ratings for TV shows, and outlined why it takes a firm stance on very young children’s media habits.
“For us, screens – television – are not appropriate for little kids under three years old. So we have a classification of television programmes,” she continued. “For kids under three years old, we noticed that under the age of three – some experts say under the age of four but we say three – must learn to experience the world. The real world. And to be able to control and to understand what you see, and to be able to say ‘okay, that’s the fake news, that’s no good, or that’s not appropriate’ viewers need to have experience from when they are a little kid. But before that, you have to experience the real world.”
So, the CSA’s recommendation is no TV, tablets or other screens for under-threes. “I know it appears maybe radical, but the experts in health are really agreed with that,” she added. “We are really working on education: giving tools to parents. You can’t only give tools to the kids, you have to give them to the parents, because it’s a family matter. We want to make it a family discussion. It’s not only for the parents or not only for the kids.”
Is there a regulatory tool that she would like to have? To to be able to ban it. “Definitely we would like to be more efficient with the internet providers to work in a more efficient communication and partnership, to cancel some websites or some content,” she said. “When you have young viewers who go in to stream the content, they often are exposed to inappropriate content. We should be able – we know the internet providers have the data, all the information on what you do and what exists: the platforms with inappropriate content. We definitely could be more efficient if we could create a strong partnership with them.”
The conversation came back to Alice Webb. “On the one hand I think it’s admirable, but on the other I think it’s probably unrealistic. It goes back to what I said: digital is everywhere, it’s in everything. At a time when watching television was appointment-to-view and you sat down, maybe you could take this approach. But those times are long gone,” she said. “It’s impossible to think we can control what goes online. Internet service providers, platforms, yes absolutely they have a role to play, but this is like a tide that you can never get ahead of: there’s always a new app, a new website, a new something else.”
Webb suggested that it’s more important to help children develop their critical thinking skills, so they know how to deal with inappropriate content that they encounter. “Digital is everywhere: there’s a screen in the supermarket! It’s just part of what we do,” she said.
Bienaimé Besse responded: “Of course we live in 2017 and we definitely understand that this is a digital world. But you need to understand the technology, and you need to understand when you have a phone or a tablet, the effect it produces on the kids, on the babies, because we’re talking about babies here. The scientists today around the world… there are studies now that explain that you can create virtual autism if some kids are over-exposed on screens. So what we try is to protect and to educate people about what is technology, and what can be the effects?”
Webb responded: “You can ban, you can prohibit these things. I think that’s a harder place to go… I think we all agree that this is an incredibly important area that we all need to spend more time thinking about,” she said. “If you’re a platform provider, an internet service provider, a big platform like a Google, Amazon or Facebook, you’ve got some responsibility. And of course policymakers and regulators. That triumvirate need to come together and talk about this more; how we shape this environment for children going forward.” The BBC is holding a three-day summit in December to do exactly this, added Webb.
One question: most social apps and networks, from Facebook and Instagram to Musical.ly, have an official policy that under-13s should not be joining their services. Yet with evidence mounting that plenty are, does that ‘they shouldn’t be on here’ policy act as a barrier to the services doing more around child safety?
“My experience is that they want to do things that give kids support and help in this area, but they absolutely stand firm on the age: ‘Nobody under 13 is on our platform’,” said Webb. “The stats would suggest that’s a very different position – in the UK, 75% of under-10-year-olds are on social media – and I think the way the world is becoming now, they are finding it increasingly hard to stand behind that line.”