Address to the 5th World Summit on Media for Children
Johannesburg, South Africa, March 2007
Patricia Edgar President, World Summit on Media for Children Foundation
The first world summit on television for children was held 12 years ago in Melbourne Australia. Two months before that gathering I shared one of the greatest experiences of my life - the birth of my first grandchild Adrian. I now have four grandchildren and they are my vivid barometer of the dramatic technical and social changes of the past 12 years. I love these children as we all love our children and want to see a world where they have a future and they may develop to their best potential.
When I travel to or read about the developing world I am overcome by the immensity of the problems children face and a sense of guilt that my life and my children's lives have been so advantaged. Yet our lives, whatever the path are interlocked- there is no clearer demonstration of that fact than climate change. This is a debate which when first raised was ridiculed, then met with vehement opposition, now 90 per cent certainty, very soon self evident. I believe an analogous debate is that of children and media.
I decided to hold a World Summit in 1995 because, as one who had devoted my life to media reform for children, I was alarmed by the changes I could see coming, but I had no idea just how serious these changes would be.
Lessons from the West
When I began my work children's programming was a service to children.
-The 90's saw the arrival of global American children's channels - Disney, Nickelodeon, the Cartoon Network and Fox Kids - with their brands, their franchises and associated merchandising. These channels demonstrated the revenue raising potential of licensing with publishing, music, videos, games, along with any children's products that could carry a logo.
They were part of a complete change of view about the profits to be made from the children's market.
- Budgets for advertising to children in the US, the flagship of the Western world, have risen from $100 million to $300 billion during my grandson's short life.
-Over the same period obesity has become the single biggest threat to child health in the Western world with juvenile diabetes at record levels.
While many of your children are underfed, we are feeding ourselves to death. The overweight people on the planet- more than 1billion- now exceed the number of malnourished.
-Lifestyle magazines for 'Tweens - 8-12 year olds - a product of the last decade, sell fashion and sex and the desire to look and behave like adults. Such marketing is called Corporate pedaphelia in Australia.
- Television magazines, fashion and fast food companies combine with phenomenally successful marketing campaigns which tie together toys, clothing and junk food to sell a lifestyle to children.
-We promote a dysfunctional mismatch between biological maturation and social maturation which is leading to mental and physical health problems for young children.
In my grandson's lifetime we have moved from a broadcasting structure where children had no choice but to consume the media they were given, on radio, film or television - to one where children not only access the media of their choice but play a large role in creating it for them selves. The first World Summit was about television. Today the technology includes mobile phones, MP3 players etc
More and more children are going online to access whatever they want.
And nowhere is the partnership between food, fashion and media for kids more apparent and well integrated than when you go online. Creative forms of marketing draw attention to brands in a playful way. Advertising and entertainment are blurred. Sex is part of the deal.
Sophistry bedevils the debate. The food and beverage industries insist we should exercise more; the media industries insist it is not their problem they only offer entertainment. Government calls on parents to be the guardians of their children: they can turn off the sets, say no, refuse to buy, feed their children healthy food.
But business conspires against parents. Marketers are way ahead of the game as they bring the best minds to bear on ways to access and develop this lucrative child market. The advertising industry insists it is not responsible while it pushes the boundaries with skilled campaigns- using sex increasingly to sell to the young.
As we debate the pros and cons of regulation and parental responsibility, exercise, fast food, children's fashion and sexuality, and advertising's linking- role in all things, we are losing the battle for quality children's programs.
The television industry worldwide has forsaken its responsibility to children's development as marketing to them drives the agenda. So children watch programs of inconsequence which consume their time, when their sharp acquisitive brains should be stretched and stimulated. And I don't hear the Save Children's TV advocates raising their voices against advertising, consumerism, or the poor quality of their own programs.
Brands are ubiquitous and the fight to resist is overwhelming for parents. We have squandered television's capability to teach, inform and inspire; we are systematically destroying children's bodies along with their minds. The life affirming stories that could help them develop into socially integrated human beings have gone.
This agenda has been driven by 6% of the world's population who are attempting to impose their will, their values, their media power and technological power on the other 94% of the human kind.
We are at the second stage of my analogy. Some of us have survived the ridicule and now meet violent opposition.
The West must curb its excess, quickly. Sustainable development can't occur without drawing on the lessons learned.
All our children will have to deal with imbalance in the global world and the one resource they will have to do this is their brain power.
The developing world can make the argument that you are not going to repeat the mistakes of the West. But our global systems are so integrated and our survival is so clearly interlinked that we must work together.
We need to recognize firstly the economic model of infinite growth is unsustainable for all of us so to teach our children to consume from toddlers through the media is a nihilistic approach.
The problem for those of us with a concern for children, is that we are up against colossal market forces, promoting products that are seductive to the young which falsely promise a lifestyle which can never be delivered - but which for young people is compelling.
One response is I hear said is adults have stuffed things up, so let the young people decide. Young people are very smart and know much more than we often appreciate and in Africa you recognize this by the inclusion of young people in your programs. They are your population. But, without guidance, education, nutrition and support they stand no chance. We have to take responsibility and work to mine the energy, the vitality, the ambition of youth and temper it with the knowledge that comes from life experience.
We need policies for children to integrate their health, education and social development with media. Most child policy and programs fail to pay attention to the all pervasive influence of the media; most government advisers and early childhood experts don't even mention television, advertising and the Internet. Nor do they see the positive potential of good quality early childhood programs with drama, music and information, to enrich the lives of children and develop the brain power every child will need if they are to survive and thrive in the information age.
Media for children must have an educational goal, not goals to sell soft toys or designer clothes.
Media must be trustworthy and put the interests of the child as citizens of above the interests of profit.
Children must be treated as active participants in the production and consumption of media content.
The schools are major players in media programs for children who will always need guidance.
Effective children's media must just take risks, push the boundaries, explore new possibilities, raise new questions, challenge children to think and act effectively.
The issue for the world media summit movement is no longer simply one of media production for children, important as that continues to be.
Storytelling is the key to understand human behaviour, traditions, history, transmitting important cultural values and learning how to solve problems. Our task is broader, an ethical agenda to challenge the pursuit of consumerism and personal gratification over the collective good. Media offer wonderful opportunities to educate to inspire and bring us all together.
This international forum has spawned a number of meetings around the world and will continue to do so. The Summit movement is a catalyst to inspire reform of the media industries to act in the broader interests of children. The provision of children's programs must be an obligation on broadcasters and media distribution systems, and the exploitation of children as the market should cease. It is now self evident that if children spend their early years in a compromised environment they are at risk. For those who can only grasp the economic argument and ignore the moral issues they should understand: for every dollar invested there will be a gain. Educated, engaged children mean a future for this planet. fewer teenage pregnancies, higher school achievement, fewer dropouts and a better employment record.
We are perilously close to a tipping point from which there may be no return. Action now and investment in prevention will pay us back many times.
In a report released this year by UNICEF that measured child well-being 'The true measure of a nation's standing is how well it attends to its children - their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialisation, and their sense of being loved, valued and included it in the families and societies into which they are born' on a measure of six dimensions the Netherlands came out on top with Sweden second. That is an important basis on which to build for Summit 2010.