Sunday 20 January 2019

Dear David Coleman: How can I shield my kids from media sex scandals?

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David Coleman

David Coleman

Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.

Q. As a mum with kids aged 10 and 12, I am having great difficulty at the moment with open discussion of sex scandals in radio and TV media. How can I give my children a good knowledge of current affairs but yet protect them from conversations their ears are not yet ready to hear? Terms such as rape, sexual assault etc are so commonplace on the radio (my preferred media) that presenters don't feel the need any more to pre-warn parents of adult content. Are our children not entitled to protection by media before the watershed any more?

David replies: Yours is an interesting question. Whose responsibility is it to protect children from material that may not be suitable for them at their age? If we leave it up to the media to decide what is suitable and not suitable for broadcast, are we not then asking it to censor content?

That said, RTÉ still upholds the 9pm watershed on TV. It also has clear guidelines about protecting children from harm in either their participation in programming or their receipt of it. I presume other broadcasters are the same.

In RTÉ's Programme Content Standards Guide, from 2013, it explicitly states that for all broadcast material, RTÉ should "provide content information when children are particularly likely to be in our audience or when content has the potential to exceed audience expectations. Information about challenging or unexpected content can include on-air and online announcements…"

This would fit with your expectation that presenters would pre-warn parents of adult content that may follow. The key to understanding their responsibility seems to lie in interpreting the concept of "audience expectations" of what is being or about to be broadcast.

For example, if you are listening to a lunchtime news show, and sex scandals are the biggest news item of the day, it is realistic to expect that they will be discussed. I doubt that any presenter is going to give a warning, in advance, that sexual behaviour will be on the agenda for discussion.

If you happen to have a child off sick from school, who might be listening to the lunchtime news with you, then it probably becomes your responsibility to decide if the content of the news bulletin will be appropriate for them.

I am not sure that it is possible, in our current culture of 24 hour news cycles and easy access to the internet, for us to keep our children unaware of the more sordid details of people's behaviour.

I think the challenge for us, as parents, is to contextualise what our children are seeing or hearing, rather than trying to prevent them from hearing it. Using newspapers to keep them abreast of current affairs might be one way where we can, in fact, decide what to let them read or not.

But, when it comes to the radio or TV, we may just have to use the content that gets broadcast as an opportunity for greater discussion with our children. We are aiming to find out, from them, what they understand about what they have seen or heard, and what they feel about that.

With this information, we can then clarify and explain the actual meanings (in case they have misunderstood or misinterpreted something) and we can also place the information within our family value system. So, we can put our spin on what they have heard, emphasising the important elements of it from our perspective.

Awareness of how they feel about what they have heard and seen allows us to help them process, or make emotional sense of, the information. For some children, for example, hearing about harm coming to others may be really distressing. For others it might be mildly upsetting. Our goal is to understand what the information means to them so that we can help them to work through whatever those feelings are.

At least if you and they are listening to, or watching, the same broadcast, you will know where to target your discussion and exploration of the issues with them. If your family is engaged in current affairs, then it will hopefully be common practice for you to do this kind of check-in with your children. For others who don't discuss the news, perhaps it might be time to start.

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