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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.