Tackling Tricky Topics for 10+

Posted on: Thursday 04 July 2013 6:42pm by David Ault

This session looked at whether it is a broadcaster’s job to tackle subjects like sex, drugs, bullying and body image.

Very useful – a lot of topics could be covered in this seminar, and there is a fine line between what can be said and what pushes the boundaries too much.
Sai Pathmanathan, Science Education Consultant

We do content for Childline, tackling some very tricky topics for teenagers. We have to give children the language to express what they’re going through, and we could be braver.
Hannah Flynn, NSPCC

Top Ten Takeaways
1. Children need a language to parse events and feelings.
2. Children and young people are thinking about these matters, so it’s vital that programme-makers tackle the subjects.
3. The way adults see content is not how children see it, and what might be too icky for adults is brilliant for children’s development.
4. There is a very fine line to tread for broadcasters between being brave and being offensive.
5. The online medium is extremely useful for allowing teenagers to explore subjects privately.
6. Children will listen to their peers, and brave casting can help matters a huge amount.
7. It is important to show children as heroes, and not victims.
8. Good information about life, problems and so forth helps teenagers’ emotional and social development.
9. Children want to know, and it’s up to adults to tackle difficult subjects in useful and intelligent ways.
10. Children’s media is a vehicle to help children rehearse for life vicariously, to provide them with emotional resilience and self-confidence. If we want children to make good choices, we have to provide appropriate – and brave – narratives.

It was a wonderfully diverse group that sat on the stage; Nelufar Hedayat of CBBC’s Newsround chaired the seminar, with Pauline Macnamara of RTE, Kez Margrie of CBBC, Elin Raustol of Norway’s NRK Super and Jacqueline Harding of Tomorrow’s Child. As part of the seminar, the audience was treated to a series of clips from across the world that have broached subjects that others have avoided, in an effort to show what can be done to improve the output of children’s media.

The first topic covered the human body, with examples of (surgically applied) maggots eating dead flesh in a wound from Operation Ouch! and a young lad who had tripped in the playground and embedded a small stone in his skull. The former showed how visceral reactions can engage and help children learn about the human body and thus treat it better. The latter used animation to keep the child’s dignity, allowing him to walk out of hospital a hero, not a victim. It was intriguing to find out that the maggots had caused a large number of complaints, but had ultimately been the right choice for the broadcaster (CBBC).

The second topic bursting forth was puberty, and NRK’s ‘Ask Lara’ series showed how it was easier to broadcast such difficult – and personal – topics online, where little brothers wouldn’t be watching with you. There’s always a challenge with TV where anyone from 6-12 could be watching, and a judgement call must be made to ensure that no-one too young can see what they shouldn’t. NRK allowed comments online, and scheduled Q&A sessions with experts to let children ask questions in a way they could not before.

America’s ‘Shut Up’ cartoons pushed their way onto the screen to look at bullying, followed by RTE’s ‘Elev8’, a live daily magazine programme with – crucially – peer advice for young people. In the example, a viewer was being physically bullied, and the producers had prepped the young advisors to advise telling a teacher, showing how the right messages can be given through appropriate channels where possible.

In ‘Breaking Free’, we saw how perceptions of difference could be challenged, encouraging viewers to think about the people they don’t engage with through challenges. After that, the Norwegian massacre of two years ago was tackled head on – a daring topic for young people – and allowed viewers to absorb the language to enable them to talk about what happened, to understand the process of justice and come to terms with a very distressing experience.

Coming last was the topic of sex, and the question, “Should programme-makers tackle this?” The answer was a resounding ‘yes’, because children are thinking about it. The way RTE showed it was through a group of girls who had been cast because they didn’t view alcohol as necessary for a good night out, so allowed young people to be young, talking about what they talk about, but providing positive role models.

All the panellists eschewed topics such as suicide and eating disorders, mainly because they were seen as potentially contagious; the aim of tackling these tricky topics is to improve emotional resilience and self-confidence. If we want children to make good choices, we have to provide narratives that feed that need.

What came through was the programmes should be made about a variety of ‘difficult’ topics, but where the difficulty mainly came from the fact that adults would be making the choices. Children do not view content the same way as adults, and as programme makers it is up to us to look past the emotional baggage we have and provide brave, quality and positive programme to give a language to what can be a very difficult and challenging time of life.

Producer:Rebecca Hodgson
Executive Producer: Bill Hobbins, Lion TV
Sponsored by Channel 4.

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David Ault, Storyteller and Astrophysicist – The Mercenary Artist

About the author

David Ault

The Mercenary Artist, Storyteller and Astrophysicist

David is a voice actor and storyteller who has toured the country - and the internet - doing drama and creating all sorts of characters. He is also a scientist, regularly putting out astronomy podcasts, and travelled across North America blogging about the state of science communication on the continent… Read more