Thursday, 26 June 2008
Environment, Communications and the Arts Committee; Report
I present the report of the Environment, Communications and the Arts Committee, Sexualisation of children in the contemporary media, together with the Hansard record of proceedings and documents presented to the committee.
Ordered that the report be printed.
by leave—I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
This inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on the Environment, Communications and the Arts, which resulted in this report, has received much attention from the media and the public. More than 160 submissions were received from community groups, academics and everyday Australians who have taken an interest in the issue of the sexualisation of children in the contemporary media. I note at the outset that this is a comprehensive report about a complex issue, and I urge people interested in the committee’s deliberations to consider the report in its entirety, including its recommendations, and not just accept pre-emptive media speculation about what may or may not be in this report. I acknowledge that this inquiry came about on the motion of Senator Lyn Allison, who today is retiring from the Senate. Her longstanding interest in and commitment to childhood development and rights and protections is to be applauded. I thank her in particular for her work on this inquiry.
Sexualised images and actions are increasingly widely portrayed and discussed in the media and used ever more explicitly as a marketing device. There is, it seems, no doubt that the adage ‘sex sells’ is indeed true, and we and our children are exposed daily to adverts, songs, magazines, programs and products that have sexual themes. The committee accepted that these developments may have a negative influence on child development, although the actual extent and effect of that influence is not well researched, particularly in Australia. Many things influence a child’s development—their family, their peers, economic circumstances, diet and education all have an impact. What children see and hear in the media is but one influence amongst many.
The committee approached this enquiry from the position that, in a free society, the rights of adults to see, hear and purchase what they wish is a value that should not be interfered with lightly. It is also a responsibility of society to protect its children from things that may harm them. As I said in the previous report of this committee into the broadcasting codes of practice, achieving the correct balance between freedom and protection is difficult, but it should be the objective. The committee also notes the key responsibility of parents to manage the material to which their children are exposed. Particularly in the case of younger children, these decisions are still primarily in the hands of parents or other adults.
The report also notes that there is an onus on broadcasters, publishers, advertisers, retailers and manufacturers to take account of community concerns on the issue that is the subject of this report. The committee noted that the Australian Association of National Advertisers has developed a code for advertising and marketing to children to specifically address this issue. Perhaps Senator Fielding might have paid attention to that before he wrote the supplementary comments to this report.
In our report the committee recognises the importance of supporting parents and children in dealing with the pressures that confront them in contemporary society and in responding to exposure to sex and sexual themes in the contemporary media. The report recommends an upgrading of sexual health and relationships programs for school children, greater parental involvement in the development and delivery of such programs and the need for a national approach to the subject.
The committee did not come down with findings about banning products or censoring media, but it does recommend tightening the operation of the regulations and codes of practice which seek to inform parents as to the content of television programs or publications and to protect children from material which they would find disturbing or that is inappropriate to their stage of development.
The committee recommends that the current rules in relation to children’s television should be amended to enable children’s material to be shown at more suitable times and that broadcasters should consider establishing dedicated children’s television channels. In our earlier report on broadcasting the committee also recommended tightening up G, PG and M classifications and the consumer advice that accompanies them.
Broadcasting and advertising are the subject of self-regulatory or co-regulatory regimes which classify material and deal with complaints having regard to community standards. The many submissions that the committee received, particularly about the content of advertising but also with regard to magazines marketed to young girls and teenage girls, suggest that the regulators need to try harder in assessing and reflecting contemporary community standards. The committee recommends, as it did in its earlier report on broadcasting, that the regulators, especially the Australian Communications and the Media Authority and the Advertising Standards Board, put more effort into this important area. There is a recommendation that the ASB apply the advertising standards for billboards and outdoor advertising to take account of community concerns about the inability of parents to restrict exposure of such material to children.
The complaints processes available to the public are a major focus of community concern, with people feeling confused, frustrated and ultimately baffled by how to make a complaint. The committee has made recommendations to make these processes simpler, more accessible and more responsive.
The committee is also keenly aware of the limitations and practical difficulties of research into the subject of this report. It is not easy to interview children about matters to do with sex and sexual themes. However, those difficulties notwithstanding, the report recommends that the Commonwealth should commission a major long-term study on the impact of inappropriate sexualisation on child development.
I would like to thank all the people and organisations who made submissions to this enquiry and who appeared at our public hearings. My thanks to other committee members for their cooperation during the inquiry and to the secretariat for their assistance. As I said earlier, I would particularly like to thank Senator Lyn Allison for initiating this inquiry and for her participation in the inquiry.
I thank the chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts for her thanks and, in return, thank her by saying that it was a very good inquiry to be on and that she and the rest of the committee conducted themselves in a fine manner on a difficult but important inquiry into the sexualisation of children in the media. It was initiated by parents who approached me and, no doubt, others about this issue. They said: ‘We are concerned about our children. We think they are being prematurely drawn into a sexualisation which is inappropriate for their age, and we feel that we cannot counter a very broad and pervasive sexualisation which is happening in advertising and in the media.’ So I am pleased that the Senate saw fit to agree to the environment committee taking up this inquiry.
The inquiry was difficult because no-one on the committee—and I expect it would be the same in this place—wanted to bring down the heavy hand of censorship on advertisers or on the media. That would be both difficult and unpopular. Yet we did recognise that there was a problem in terms of what was not understood to be the community standard. We have some processes in place, but there seemed to be doubt as to how we measure what is acceptable and what is not. If it is the case that parents are buying unacceptable material for their children, how do you deal with that? This was quite a challenge to us and, in the middle of the inquiry, we had the Bill Henson photographic exhibition, questions about underage models being dressed up as adults and the public debate that surrounded those issues. I think that made this inquiry very timely and very useful.
Parental responsibility is a difficult area. We can say that it is up to the parents to determine whether to expose their children to material, but parents may not know that some of this material can be damaging to their children. We heard from psychologists who said that, although they do not have research studies that they can point to, there is evidence of children coming into the care of psychologists at an earlier and earlier age with symptoms of anxiety and eating disorders and the like, which they attribute, at least in part, to the sexualisation process that is going on. While the committee recommended that a longitudinal study of children be undertaken to find out exactly what harm is being done, I think we need to recognise that that research is extremely difficult to do. You cannot deliberately expose children to material which may be harmful to them just to understand whether it was harmful. So there are some ethical constraints as well.
I am pleased that the debate and our inquiry did generate some rethinking. The Australian Standards Board put out a protocol about the sexualisation of children—in fact, they did that before we had our hearing. As is so often the case, the public debate and the Senate inquiry process play a role in involving these organisations, which do not wish the heavy hand of the law to come down on them and which prefer to have protocols that are optional and to have their own systems in place. I think that was a signal that this was likely.
I strongly support the idea that we should have a children’s television station. I think the ABC is the best one to do that. I would like to see the government find some money to fund it. If the commercial stations can put on children’s TV and not have advertising then that would be terrific too.
Returning to parents and their responsibility, it is not always possible for parents to shield their children from magazines that are very readily available in shops and in other retail establishments. There are also huge billboards, which many people find offensive and difficult to deal with when their children see them. At the end of the day, I think it is parents who need assistance here—hence, the recommendation that there should be some sort of classification, for instance, on magazines so that parents would be warned whether or not a magazine was suitable for children and whether parental guidance was required.
Many of the other recommendations are very sound too. It is wise for the Senate—not ‘us’ as in me but the Senate—to come back and see whether the recommendations have had an effect, whether this inquiry has made a difference and whether the new code of practice for children has made a difference. I strongly support the recommendation, and I acknowledge Senator Kemp for making this contribution.
The committee discovered that the complaints process in place for the Australian Advertising Standards Board was inadequate: complaints had to be in writing in order to be counted and to be heard and listened to. That is not acceptable in this day and age. People ought to be able to make a phone call, send an email or send a note that might not be on the right form, because parents often do not have the time to be writing letters and may not have the facilities to do that. The various ways of making a complaint should be legitimate rather than there being red tape or constraints on what does or does not qualify.
We thought it was very important that outdoor advertisements should be vetted, because you cannot choose whether or not you see them. This is where community standards are important, and they need to be identified. Vetting of outdoor advertising is a very good move. It is what happens with television ads. It is nothing new in the advertising industry and so this recommendation should not pose a significant problem.
I thank those people who contributed to the inquiry through submissions and by appearing at our two hearings. Their contributions were most interesting and very useful to us in our deliberations. I again thank the Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts for its efforts on this issue, and I hope that the committee’s recommendations are adopted.
I am pleased to speak on the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts inquiry into the sexualisation of children in the media. In doing so, I am mindful that it is one of several inquiries that I have participated in recently. As Senator McEwen mentioned, one related to the effectiveness of the broadcasting codes of practice and another related to an inquiry conducted by the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs into the Alcohol Toll Reduction Bill 2007.
Each of these inquiries related to issues of culture, issues in our society and very much to issues of individual responsibility. These are great challenges for government and for this parliament to consider in trying to balance individual responsibility, choice and freedom in society with concerns about the direction that our culture may be taking and how we may influence it. The Alcohol Toll Reduction Bill looked at restrictions on alcohol advertising and was very focused on the potential impact of such advertising on young people and their drinking habits, and it is commensurate with the current national debate on binge drinking. The broadcasting codes of practice inquiry looked in particular at the use of language on television, the type of language that young people and children may hear and how that can influence them, and the effectiveness of the broadcasting codes.
The inquiry into the sexualisation of children in the media looked at the very broad issue of how children are sexualised, how they are portrayed, how this influences them as they grow up and at what age they may become sexualised and whether or not that is too early. These are all incredibly complex issues, and the last one has been the most complex of all for us to tackle. The committee found it a challenge to initially define what is meant by ‘child sexualisation’. The report that has been handed down does attempt to do that, borrowing from an overseas task force which looked at this issue, but the community debate about it is wide ranging. The report touches on advertising, on what is shown in the media, on the types of toys that exist and the marketing that surrounds them, and on art—as we saw when the Bill Henson controversy erupted during the course of this inquiry. This issue really is all-encompassing in the modern media environment. With such a complex issue, there were limits to what we could achieve in a relatively short period of time; nonetheless, I think the report does go some way to try to tackle these serious issues.
In particular and most importantly, the report makes a statement to the community at large that this parliament and this Senate take this issue seriously. For that, I recognise Senator Allison in particular. I know that Senator Ronaldson also played a role in helping to establish this inquiry but I note that Senator Allison has driven this for some period of time and I praise her for helping to put it on the national agenda, because making that statement is probably the most important thing we can do. When it comes to changing culture, no amount of regulation and no amount of recommendations by a Senate inquiry will necessarily hit home with the community in achieving that cultural change. Cultural change has to be adopted by the community at large. It requires the whole gamut of people out there—mums, dads, grandparents, advertisers, television executives, others in the media and those who manufacture, market and produce toys—to be mindful of this issue of early childhood sexualisation when they are developing products or making decisions in their day-to-day lives, in their businesses and in their homes.
The committee have attempted, with this report and the other reports, to strike the right balance. It is not in my nature to support tighter restrictions on what people see, hear or think—I believe that, in a free society, people should be able to make free decisions and free choices—nor do I think it is right or, indeed, possible for us in this place or for other groups to define and set community standards, because community standards are an ever-evolving thing. They are changing constantly and it differs from household to household and from person to person as to what people believe is acceptable for them, for their children and for their family circumstances. As such, in this report, as in the other reports, we have very strongly backed self-regulation—self-regulatory approaches and co-regulatory approaches that put the responsibility back on industry, advertisers, marketers and others who make the decisions about what is seen, what is heard, what is marketed and what is sold in society. Some of those systems are not living up to all that they should and these groups need to toughen up their act, get it together and ensure that they better reflect what appears to be, and genuinely is, an increased level of community concern.
As Senator Allison mentioned, I am also mindful of Senator Kemp’s contribution to this report. We have put the broadcasting and advertising industries on notice that this Senate should reconsider this very important issue in 18 months to two years and look at how the recommendations of the report have been adopted and also the proactive approach that should be taken by those who have a collective responsibility in society for such an important issue. This is, in a sense, a warning to industry—a yellow card, to use soccer parlance—that the Senate takes this issue seriously, that the industries need to lift their game and be mindful of this issue and not push the boundaries too far, whether it is in the types of girly magazines that are published, the types of toys that are sold and marketed or the types of images that are shown on television. Industry needs to take responsibility and be ever vigilant and ever mindful and know that this Senate should, if it adopts the report’s recommendations, come back and look at this issue again in time.
Importantly, we have also flagged a review that should be undertaken into the new code of practice in television and advertising relating to children. Senator McEwen mentioned that in her comments. It is a new code that was developed just prior to this inquiry, and its effectiveness and operation need to be considered within 18 months to ensure that it is achieving what those who established it claimed it was set out to achieve—that is, providing a greater level of protection and responsibility.
The importance of alternatives is highlighted strongly in this report, and I back Senator Allison’s strong push for there to be a children’s television channel funded by the ABC. The coalition took that policy to the last election. Senator Conroy has said in estimates hearings that this is part of the triennial funding negotiations for the ABC from next year. I urge the government to adopt this. I think there is very strong community support for this. There are benefits that stem beyond children in having a dedicated children’s channel. There are benefits in Senator Conroy’s own communications portfolio in terms of the uptake of digital technology, which we have seen in the UK. But, most importantly, the ABC providing a dedicated children’s channel is something that could change the lives of parents in the way they protect their children from what they see and hear on television, in the media and in advertising. It would address many of the issues that were covered in both the broadcasting codes of practice inquiry and this inquiry into the sexualisation of media. I note that Senator Bernardi initiated the broadcasting codes of practice inquiry and a dedicated children’s channel. The opportunities that digital TV presents not just for the ABC but also for other free-to-air broadcasters to expand their coverage for children would give parents much more comfort in knowing that there would always be something appropriate for them to consider. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.