Children and the media

The world is flooded by the media. Children nowadays have many choices: many local, national and even international radio programmes; several local television channels (or more with satellite TV), hundreds of video films, many different newspapers, magazines, and even computer games and world-wide information and entertainment on the internet.

Media use among 12-15 year olds in South Africa

Listened to the radio yesterday:

  • All young people: 57%
  • Black young people: 58%

Listened to the radio within last 7 days:

  • All young people: 85%

Watched TV yesterday:

  • All young people: 53%
  • Black young people: 46%

Watched TV in the last 7 days:

  • All young people: 67%

Read any magazine yesterday:

  • All young people: 32%
  • Black young people: 25%

Read any newspaper yesterday:

  • All young people: 14%
  • Black young people: 9%

Saw a film in a cinema in past 12 weeks:

  • All young people: 12%
  • Black young people: 6%

These high proportions of children affected by the media, in 1997, will have increased with the electrification projects that have been implemented since then.

We need to accept that the media, especially television, is a powerful force in children's lives. In South Africa 62% of households have access to television (and this is up to 87% in "white', "coloured" and "indian" households). Many children spend several hours a day watching TV and the visual images have a very powerful impact on them.


There are deep concerns all over the world about the too easy access of young people, especially very young children, to programmes showing needless violence, sex and pornography. This is contrary to the Rights of the Child as set out in the UN Convention, which states in Article 3 that in all actions concerning children the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

Other principles - which should be recognised by the media - are that the opinions of children themselves should be heard. That not only their survival but also their development should be ensured. There should also be no discrimination between children; each child should be able to enjoy his/her rights, which might include special needs for that child.

The relevant articles are as follows:

  1. 1.Each child must have access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of his or her social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health, and
  2. 2.The child must receive care and protection as is necessary for his or her well-being
  3. 3.Mass media must be encouraged to disseminate information and material of social and cultural benefit to the child
  4. 4.These rights need to be balanced with children's right to freedom of expression. This right includes the freedom to see, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds (subject to the protection of public health and morals, and respect of the rights or reputations of others)

Children as media consumers

Children who watch television are not only entertained but assume, consciously or unconsciously, that they are learning more about the world they live in, who they are in that world and how they should behave. If they take their role models from "The Bold and the Beautiful" they may think that family relationships are all about violence and sex. If they take Power Rangers as an ideal, they may assume that violence solves problems.

Take note that fantasy characters such as the Ninja Turtles are less likely to be taken on as role models, although children will still play out the violent scenarios over and over again.

World-wide there are not enough local, relevant programmes that affirm the identity of children and help them to learn social and moral values, and the life skills they need to know.


  • Is the continuous menu of violence and sex, especially on TV and in video games, harmful to children? Should certain programmes be banned or boycotted or only shown late at night?

Talking Point: Children love 'cool' stylish characters - one boy said "Vincent (in the movie Pulp Fiction) was cool because he's not scared. He can go around shooting people without being worried". The same admiration has been expressed for the 'bad guys' in YIZO-YIZO.

Talking Point: Television brings murder, violence and sex right into our homes. By the time a child reaches the age of 15 in the USA, he or she has usually witnessed 1800 violent killings!

Talking Point: "The cheapest trick in entertainment is to play on fear". Our children deserve better than a non-stop diet of heightened emotions, fear and anxiety action, violence and noise!

  • How can we campaign to make sure that TV, radio,      newspapers and magazines contribute more positively to the educational      needs of children, reaching out to children, to stimulate them, inform      them and meet their enormous capacity for creativity and empathy?

Talking Point: There are so many cartoons on television that it is not funny! They are most crude, repeating over and over a simple plot and similar "good" and "bad" stereotyped characters.

Talking Point: Cartoons world-wide are big business - cheap to buy in bulk from the USA, Japan or Europe compared with producing local material.

Advertising during children's programmes

Talking Point: children's television is more and more looked upon as a market, paid for and dominated by advertisers, who want to sell toys and children's products.

Talking Point: adverts for adult goods and especially adult films have inappropriate and even harmful content - violence and sex.

How can parents be persuaded to protect children from harmful media and encourage viewing of positive programmes?

Talking Point: it is the primary duty of parents to protect and educate their children.

Talking Point: many parents accept what is offered on television and use it as a modern 'baby-sitter' and do not consider that some content can harm their children.

Talking Point: most of the harmful effects of TV programmes can be reduced if adults "mediate" what is being watched - if they watch with children and young people and discuss and criticise programmes with them.

How can children be educated to protect themselves from harmful persuasion by the media?

Talking Point: children can be taught to look critically at the media, so as to understand its power to influence minds and hearts, and to be independent thinkers. This media-education is now part of our school curriculum, but all adults need to be concerned.

1. Equity - Non-discrimination in images of childhood:

  • How can we lobby for programmes,      advertisements, articles, and broadcasts that do not show any bias in the      way children are shown, and encourage confidence and a sense of identity      in children.

Talking Point: Age - children and young people are seldom portrayed as real human people, or in stereotypes, for example as weak, helpless, innocent OR as demons (the lost generation, the perpetrators of crime)

Talking Point: Gender - girls are often shown in subordinate, weak, gentle "feminine" roles. From an early age they are being taught that appearance is most important for them - they must be slim and pretty like Barbie. On the other hand boys are often shown as dominant, uncaring and violent.

Talking Point: Race - Most "black" entertainment sitcoms are African-American programmes that reinforce stereotypes! Do we want them to adopt what is basically a ghetto culture that is not home-grown?

Talking Point: Culture: how can we encourage programmes that strengthen children's cultural identity without stereotyping that culture? Should the state provide subsidies for local children's programmes?

Talking Point: Class: biasness is obviously an issue in many sectors in SA[eb]. We note that usually the images and adverts in the media encourage children to be obsessed with outward appearances and wealth.

2. Participation:

  • How can we ensure that the media help with the      child's right to participation so that
  1. 1.Children and young people express their ideas and opinions, not only to other children, but to adults?
  2. 2.They have an opportunity talk about their own lives: their families, friends and communities?
  3. 3.They hear about the experiences of other children and young people - like their games, songs, problems?
  4. 4.They are able to use the media to build a better world?

How can we make sure that children participate in every aspect of the media, from start to finish. Children should not only be presenters, but should devise programmes, be reporters and interviewers, work with camera's and other technology

  1. 1.SA Advertising Research Foundation, 1997
  2. 2.Children and Media Violence (UNESCO International Clearinghouse on Children and Violence, Yearbook 1998), page 234
  3. 3.Article 17 UN CRC
  4. 4.Article 13 UN CRC

Childrens own views from Children and Media (UNESCO International Clearinghouse on Children and Violence on the Screen) page 270.


The media, especially newspapers, radio and television, are powerful tools in raising awareness or as partners in an advocacy campaign to promote children's rights. Children make for interesting and appealing stories, and the media is usually sympathetic to their needs.

When the media are involved, we naturally try to make sure that children themselves participate and have a voice, as is their right. But we need to be aware that the media tends to sensationalise any story, and this might conflict with the child's right to privacy and respect. Publicity may also endanger the child's right to safety, protection and development – the child may become a target for violence, for example, if the community feels that he or she has shown them in a bad light.

There is a particular danger when child survivors of violence or ill-treatment or neglect are photographed or interviewed by the press, radio or television, as there is then a permanent record that may haunt the child for the rest of his or her life.

Good publicity can affirm children in their identity as worthwhile human beings and give them their right to have a say in decisions that affect them. But if a child is given celebrity status this can be difficult to adjust to in every day life!

De-briefing is always needed after an exciting event. Children should also not be picked up and then dropped as if they were toys – opportunities for them to be seen and heard should be ongoing even if these events are not always on the public stage.

Suggested steps in getting responsible media coverage:

  1. 1.Cultivate relationships with trusted reporters and brief them on children's rights and needs so that they become partners in awareness-raising.
  2. 2.Provide reporters with guidelines (or training) on what children need and want from the media and the role of the media in building a child-friendly society.
  3. 3.Give plenty of notice of "human interest" events that are coming up.
  4. 4.Provide background information on the event or issue (perhaps a fact-sheet), that includes the child rights context.
  5. 5.Brief children and their guardians about the event and possible media coverage, and get permission for children to be interviewed and photographed, promising that an adult will be present at all times.
  6. 6.If children will be drawing or writing for the event, obtain permission from them and their guardians for use to be made of this material, explaining how it will be used and for what purpose.
  7. 7.If an article is being written about children who have been interviewed, ask that the children themselves be allowed to see and vet the draft copy before it is printed.
  8. 8.Make sure that children do see the final printed article, or hear themselves on radio or watch the TV shot that they were involved with, and have a chance to comment on it.
  9. 9.It is important to de-brief children and to make sure that the children are comfortable and happy about the media coverage. If they are not, find opportunities to help them to discuss and work through any unhappy experiences. Celebrating successes and planning to do it better next time is always a good way to de-brief.

Give children a voice in criticising, or praising, the media if they wish.


When checking the media to see how child-friendly they are, and if they act in the best interests of the child, we can use the following guidelines for discussion, particularly with children themselves.

Do they help raise awareness on children's needs and rights?

  • Do they report on the deeds and omissions of others, and act as the      eyes, ears and voices of civil society - a society that includes children?     
  • Do they produce news stories that help people to understand the      world of children? That imparts ideas about the rights of children give      good coverage to a wide range of children's issues? Especially vital      issues such as the effects of state policy, and in particular economic      policy, on children's lives?
  • Do they explain the background to experiences they write about, so      that the story illustrates a truth about children?
  • Do they know the laws and conventions that exist to protect      children, and investigate any breach of these rights?

Are they careful to protect children's right to privacy and dignity?

  • Do they not name or identify in any way child perpetrators of      crimes? Do they not name or identify child victims of abuse as this may      put them at risk and give them a poor image?
  • Do they not make any reports or show any photographs that may      humiliate children now or in the future?
  • Do they not invade the privacy of a child or his or her family in      order "to get a good story" as this causes anxiety and distress?     

Do they project a positive and realistic image of children?

  • Do they provide images of children to show a variety of human      beings deserving of respect, who happen to be young?
  • Do they provide realistic images that children can identify with,      of children from a variety of communities?
  • Do they provide images that encourage respect and pride in      self-identity, in all children and young people - without bias in favour      of the younger "pretty" girls or the expensively-dressed child nor      discrimination by race, gender, culture or ability?
  • Are they careful not to stereotype children into the usual      sensational categories of "Innocent little angels", "helpless, passive      victims" or "lost-generation young devils"?

They produce programmes or reports that prove how capable young people can be and provide positive role models that the children and young people can not only emulate but also identify with - role models from their own life-situations.

Interviewing children


Everyone involved needs to be clear about the possible implications for children. Children and adults responsible for them need to know and accept not just what they are taking part in, but why, what will be done with the interview, how people may react to it, and what other long term consequences there may be. For example, a recorded interview is permanent. It may come back to haunt children when they are adults. Have you considered carefully what messages you are sending out to adults about this child and all children?



  • Have you allowed time to get to know the child or young person, to      build a relationship of trust so that the child feels safe?
  • Has the sort of story (and so the sort of questions to be asked)      been discussed with the child, and explained clearly and honestly?
  • Have you allowed for the free and honest response of the child and      not based your approach on a fixed view of how you or the producer expects      the child to respond?
  • Has justice been done to what the children actually said - will      they recognise themselves in the reported interview? Be careful not to      edit their words from an adult perspective.
  • Have the consequences and the possible risk to the children of      publishing their identity been assessed and discussed with the      interviewees and their guardians?
  • Have the appropriate consents been obtained - from the children and      the responsible adults - for the interview, for the publication of names,      and for the taking of photographs. Permission should also be asked for the      use of children's writing or drawings.
  • Has the truth of any allegations made by children been checked?
  • Have the children been referred to agencies for counselling or      other help if this is necessary? Have they and their guardians been told      where to go for help?

Have they been told whether they will see or read the finished product, and where and when?

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