Dodgy polling underpins child sexualisation review

Regulators need to decide and impose standards of decency, not rely on polling alone.

There's a lot of common sense in Reg Bailey's review of childhood commercialisation and sexualisation. Who wouldn't want to "let children be children"? But for a major government sponsored policy review there is a distinct lack of evidence and an even more worrying reliance on simplistic polling data.

The rapid response of retailers is a big win for the review. The naming and shaming approach is already working and we can expect the shelves to be cleared of products like padded bras for eight year-olds, the 'future WAG' t-shirt for 3 year-olds, and the 'junior vajazzle' for 11 year-olds. But for the children whose parent bought them this junk, we can only hope for a clear out of the wardrobes and a new approach to parenting.

Parents need help to make the right choices for their children and support to introduce children to appropriate content at an appropriate age. Unfortunately, the capacity to regulate in a fragmented media age means that regulators are struggling to keep up with content. No doubt that is why the review places so much faith in streamlining parent's ability to complain. Ultimately, it is the children of the parents who do not complain that need most protecting.

Too much has been made of the importance of the 9pm watershed, as if on-demand television had never happened. When you look at the polling data in the report's appendix, you find that just 41 per cent of parents said that they had seen programmes or adverts on TV before 9pm that they felt were unsuitable or inappropriate for children to see. If the issue of strengthening the TV watershed had been put to a referendum, the no campaign would be proclaiming a resounding victory, with 58 per cent of parents saying they had seen nothing unsuitable or inappropriate for children.

The watershed is a favourite bug bear for the middle market press. The Daily Mail website allows you to watch, on-demand, anytime, The X Factorperformance that outraged so many and generated so many complaints. Actually, only 3,000 complained (0.02 per cent) - 15 million watched. The reason the watershed is an issue for some parents is because watching TV as a family forces them to engage in potentially awkward discussion of the content with their children; something they don't need to do if their children are watching age inappropriate music videos via the MTV website on their internet enabled mobile phones (you can watch all the inappropriate top 40, on-demand, before 9pm, by just entering a made up a date of birth). It's the same reason that soap opera storylines, like those featuring a lesbian kiss, as Brookside did two decades ago, prompt complaints. The living room TV forces parents to discuss sexuality with their children and might even help young people to come out to their folks.

There are huge issues of both 'taste' and 'class' underpinning this public policy debate. The polling published in the Bailey Review shows that 40 per cent of parents said they had "seen things in public places that they felt were unsuitable or inappropriate for children to see because of their sexual content (e.g. shop window displays, advertising hoardings)". Ignore for a moment that 60 per cent had not seen anything unsuitable or inappropriate and consider the social class breakdown. Half of well-to-do parents - in social classes AB - had seen things in public they felt were unsuitable, while around a third of poorer parents in social classes C2, D and E said they had.

Perhaps billboards in Essex should have lower decency standards than those in Chelsea? Obviously that is nonsense. Perhaps children themselves could be the judge? The Bailey Review certainly asked them: a sample of 520 children and young people aged 7-16 found that just 79 of them (yes, that's a statistically insignificant 15 per cent) had seen "things in public places, such as shop window displays or poster adverts" that they thought were "not suitable because they were too grown up for young people of your age to see". Or put another way, 85 per cent of 7-16 year olds can't see what all the fuss is about. These are issues that can't be decided by polling alone, regulators need to decide and impose standards of decency not just for billboards but across the board.

The Review says that a recent report shows "there is no clear evidence of a causal link between [print media] images and harm to young people" but that "both parents and young people who contributed to the Review see such magazine coverage as contributing to issues such as low self-esteem and self-image". But look and you will find that there is no evidence in the published polling, nor in the write up of the focus groupsconducted for the Review. Some in this debate want a ban on busty lads mags, while others want a ban on super skinny fashion models. In the absence of evidence of harm, regulators need to make decisions about taste, while policy makers have to deal with the consequences of what is left unregulated.

There is however, important evidence in the Review on two crucial issues that affect children. The first is a long running issue affecting young Brits: underage and binge drinking. The focus groups highlight concern over "alcohol advertising that is felt to really be targeting teenagers by using very young adults and glamorising alcohol". And yet, there are no recommendations to address the fact that British teenagers drink more, and younger, than the rest of the world. This might have been outside Bailey's remit but it is an issue the Government need to face up to.

The other overlooked issue is more contemporary and highlights just how misguided the obsession with the 9pm TV watershed is. The Review polling shows that a third of 7-10 year olds are using social networking sites and that almost 70 per cent of 11-13 year olds are social networking, mainly on Facebook. What's the problem? Well Facebook has a minimum age limit of 13, for very good reasons, but it is clearly being widely ignored. Tens of thousands of children are social networking, against the rules, without adult supervision.

While the banning of paying children to be 'brand ambassadors' is an important step, it is the spread of inappropriate content via social networking, especially on internet enabled mobile phones, is the future of this debate. But the Bailey Review simply recommends that it should be "easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material from the internet". Not so much a recommendation as an admission of defeat.

The only way to deal with inappropriate content is to talk about it. You can "let children be children" but you can't stop them from growing up eventually and every generation grows up in a world different to their parents.

Richard Darlington was Special Adviser at DfE 2004-2005 and is now Head of News at IPPR.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR