The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

Self Regulation For The Digital Age

How should the CMF respond to Michael Rosen’s call for self-regulation?

By Colin Ward, Deputy Director, The Children's Media Foundation

Colin Ward is a children's media writer and producer. He started working in children’s TV for Yorkshire Television and won a BAFTA for 'The Scoop' before joining Granada Kids to produce the BAFTA nominated gameshow 'Jungle Run'. He then moved to the BBC where he won a second BAFTA for the gameshow 'Raven', going on to work as an Executive Producer with CBBC Scotland on a range of entertainment and drama.

Colin has a PPE degree from Oxford University and has a particular interest in how the research community can support the argument for quality children's media. He is also involved in voluntary work with a local children's charity that provides services for vulnerable young people, focusing on issues around emotional well-being.

At the heart of Michael Rosen’s opening keynote at the Children’s Media Conference was an impassioned plea to the industry to take responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of children. His stories about working in children’s digital media were all too familiar, as he tried to navigate an unregulated free-for-all platform that held hidden dangers for children. His message was clear – if you work in children’s media and your only concern is to give the audience what they want, you are failing. Because children’s media professionals have a moral obligation to consider the welfare of children in the broadest sense.

Michael asked the industry to come together to look at ways to create safe spaces for children online. He was proposing self-regulation – a commitment by the industry to follow an agreed set of standards, backed up by some sort of independent stamp of approval, that would help to deliver a positive and safe media experience for children.

So is he right? Well you could argue that children’s media platforms and producers instinctively know what they need to do to deliver that child-friendly media space, it’s just proving a little tricky to achieve that consistently. And TV content is already regulated by Ofcom, which provides a set of guidelines anyone can access. But those guidelines relate to a small proportion of children’s media content and cover traditional media consumption habits, not the 21st century children’s audience with its platform/device agnosticism.

And can we honestly say that we all instinctively know what we should be doing to protect children and enhance their lives? Before the digital revolution the community of children’s media producers, writers and directors was relatively small and there was a sense of shared values. There was plenty of movement, but many professionals stayed in children’s production for their entire career, providing continuity in terms of sharing best practice. Today, the children’s media production community is much bigger and includes a wider range of companies, from games producers to book publishers.  It’s also more diverse and there is more movement in and out of that community, which is to be welcomed. But does that mean we have lost some of our capacity for sharing best practice?

If there is a problem to solve, what role could the CMF play in that process? Well to some extent we are already involved. John Kent, the CMF Executive Board member with responsibility for Digital, is organising a round table discussion with industry leaders later this year to consider how self-regulation might work in practice. We believe the CMF should be engaged in every debate that impacts on children’s media. That’s why the CMF sponsors and produces the ‘Question Time’ session at the Children’s Media Conference, so that issues like this can be explored, and it is also why we supply speakers for sessions on internet safety for children.

The CMF needs to be actively involved in any discussion around industry regulation because that issue is core to our mission statement. The CMF is dedicated to “ensuring UK kids have access to the best possible media, on all platforms, at all ages”. This is an excellent ambition, but how do we measure success? How do we know if we are doing a good job? How do we know if media platforms and producers are actually moving towards this ideal? One way to assess how well we are doing as an organisation is to track the progress of platforms and content providers against an agreed set of standards. In terms of best practice, what do we think might help to ensure the ‘best possible’ media experience for children? Currently, we campaign to persuade the industry and government to improve children’s access to the best possible media, on all platforms, at all ages, but we have no benchmark to assess what is currently on offer and identify where the current provision falls short. The CMF needs to be part of a discussion to develop those standards.

Of course, the stumbling block is that no one wants to be seen as setting themselves up as an arbiter of taste, or worse, a censor. The CMF should never make a judgement about specific media content by suggesting what might be a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ website, or a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ TV programme. But that doesn’t mean we can’t offer a series of questions to assess, in general terms, the extent to which a platform or content producer has established a working environment capable of creating that positive media experience. For example, does the platform have an effective mechanism for protecting children from seeing inappropriate content?  Does it have specific guidance and training for its producers on what constitutes inappropriate content? Are there penalties for producers who ignore those guidelines? And with respect to the content, does the platform offer content across a range of genres, and if not, is there a good reason why not? Does some of the content on the platform reflect the lives and experiences of UK children, i.e. does it pass the sort of cultural test the BFI uses for UK film funding?

Those questions would test if a platform or producer had adopted best practice and could be given some sort of seal of approval, possible a British Standard Kitemark. That symbol would indicate to children and parents when a media company is in a position to offer a positive and safe media experience. Crucially, it would make no judgement as to the quality of the media content.

It’s not clear how effective a Kitemark would be on its own. Many parents already know children are at risk of accessing inappropriate content when they surf YouTube, and yet they are reluctant to block it from their children’s devices because it also gives them access to an astonishing range of excellent, free media content. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore Michael Rosen’s challenge. The CMF should respond and kick-start a meaningful discussion around self-regulation, best practice, and what might constitute giving children access to the best possible media, on all platforms, at all ages.

CMF Updates Industry Policy

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The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)