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Has Australia been good to its kids?

By Barbara Biggins - posted Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Traditionally Santa rewards good kids, and ignores the bad. If Australia were to be rated on how it treats its kids, would it be rewarded or ignored? 

Of course we can claim that we don't have child slave labour, we don't send children up chimneys or down mines. Most children have access to food, shelter, safe drinking water, and clothes. They can attend school, have their health checked, play sport, and have access to a wide range of entertainment and many consumer goods.  

But are they happy?  A number of surveys indicate that Australian children are not doing well in the happiness stakes.  Mission Australia's recent National Survey of young Australians showed that body image was the third highest worry of young women (11-24yrs) and an increasing issue.  Social commentator Richard Eckersley, speaking at the second Australian Conference on Children and the Media in March this year said  "The orthodox view is that young people have never been healthier; mortality rates continue to fall, and most report that they are healthy, happy and satisfied with their lives. This perspective tends to run counter to claims of media harm.   However, a wider analysis of data on young people's health suggests it is declining, especially through increased rates of mental illness and obesity. The media are implicated in these trends in multiple and complex ways” 


Where is this unhappiness coming from? Why are children so concerned about their self image?   In almost all the media to which children are exposed (and for hours each day), children are bombarded with both overt and covert commercial messages for things they "need" to buy. Do they understand the sources of these messages, and can they cope? And what is the impact on children's health and wellbeing, and developing sense of self, and their understanding of where happiness really lies? 

Stephen Kline, Professor of Communication at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, has recently published Globesity, food marketing and family lifestyles,  in which he critically examines the debate about whether the modern child is a savvy consumer or a vulnerable child, using the ethical frames of ‘informed choice and consent’ in consumer decision-making. He concludes that as ‘consumers in the making’ young children are not fully cognizant of persuasive intent and all children are susceptible to persuasion, therefore, children warrant being treated as special cases, for their vulnerability to be acknowledged, and for them to be protected from the risks communicated by marketing.  He argues that children’s special status as vulnerable consumers in the risk society has made them "canaries in the coal mine of twenty-first century lifestyle politics".  (Kline, 2010)

Some marketers  claim that we need to expose children to advertising in order to 'toughen them up".  Canadian researcher, Jennifer Hill says that "the depictions of the child consumer have been fashioned in a way that makes marketing and advertising towards children appear as a benign, even liberating undertaking...marketers have touted the belief that children are better equipped to resist the power of advertising than their counterparts of several decades ago ... the free market teaches children to be savvy ,discerning consumers."   (Hill, Jennifer  2011)

As Hill concludes, " to resist and reject the undesirable aspects of consumer culture is challenging, particularly after parents and children have been socialised and steeped in the culture from childhood....  Many of us fail to detect the degree of effect that consumerism imparts. "

There's growing worldwide concern about these issues. A forthcoming UK conference is calling it a new category of child abuse. (Is Corporate and Commercial Exploitation of Children and Young People a Form of Significant Harm?  A recent UNICEF study across 3 European countries found that materialism isn’t just detrimental to children’s wellbeing: materialism appears to be problematic for UK adults as well as children “. It suggests that in the UK parents and children seemed locked into a compulsive consumption cycle.” (Ipsos-MORI 2011). Also in the UK the recent Bailey report on advertising concluded that children are under a great deal of pressure to consume.  (UK. Department of Education 2011)

Next March, the Australian Council on Children and the Media will be examining the question "The Corporate takeover of childhood: who's paying the price?". Issues being debated will include school sponsorship, the impacts of food and alcohol advertising, the  marketing of violent entertainment to children, the stories advertising tells our kids, and whether existing protections are effective?


Successive Australian Governments have taken little action to curb the corporate takeover of childhood. We’ve had Senate reviews of the sexualisation of children in and by the media, but few recommendations implemented and even fewer reviews of outcomes.  The Federal Government has so far declined to step in on food advertising to children, leaving it to industry to decide what’s fair.  A report by the Australian Communications and Media Authority this month found that it’s unclear whether industry initiatives of 18 months ago have resulted in a real reduction in the level of children’s exposure to food and beverage advertising on free-to-air television, and that there are continuing community concerns around such advertising to children. The ACMA expresses the hope that  the recently created Australian National Preventive Health Agency (‘ANPHA’) will play a key role in monitoring food advertising in the future.

And there concerns beyond the welfare of children. In the words of Sharon Beder, author of This little kiddy went to market

...the consequence of the corporate capture of childhood is not only being felt by children who are becoming more materialistic, overweight, stressed, depressed and self destructive. Advertising and marketing aims to make these future citizens dissatisfied with what they have and to want to consume more. Yet the health of the planet requires that we consume less.

So, is Australia being good to its kids by continuing to allow advertisers and marketers fairly free access to them, and turning a blind eye to the consequences?  That’s a question that shouldn’t be ignored.

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About the Author

Barbara Biggins OAM, is the Hon CEO of Australian Council on Children and the Media. The ACCM is a not-for-profit national community organisation whose mission is to support families, industry and decision makers in building and maintaining a media environment that fosters the health, safety and wellbeing of Australian children. Its patrons are Baroness Susan Greenfield and Steve Biddulph. Barbara also served as the Convenor of the federal Classification Review Board 1994-2001.

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