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The BBC Children’s Festival and the Commercialisation of Childhood

I spent a day at the BBC Children’s Festival last week. A great showcase for all they do and a reminder of how well the BBC understands children and young people, and just how innovative they are. There was a debate between Agnes Nairn (co-author of ‘Consumer Kids: how big business is grooming our kids for profit’ with Ed Mayo of Consumer Focus) and Robin Hilton of Dubit, Rae Burdon COO of the Advertising Association, and Neil Ross Russell, MD of BBC Children’s Worldwide. Agnes pointed out that there are serious anomalies in the way digital technology is communicating with children, with examples of inappropriate sexual messages, and advertising and marketing to children that appears to be unregulated.

In my ethnographic research that has been monitoring children’s use of social networking sites over the last 2 years, I’ve seen many examples of advertising for gambling sites, alcohol, and weight loss programmes (loose 20lb in 2 weeks was a recent example), all being viewed by girls and boys aged 10-14. The session was chaired by Tanya Byron, author of the Byron Review that made sound recommendations for protecting children in their digital world. The consensus was that of course no one would condone such explicit exploitation of children, but that currently regulation has not kept pace with technology, and as Byron pointed out, many adults are just not that familiar with what children are doing online, something she addresses fully in her review http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/byronreview/. Children should be at the heart of what is done to raise awareness of harm and exploitation in their digital world; they are after all the experts, and involving children in educating their peers to be aware of their safe digital use makes perfect sense.

There is another review currently being carried out that is looking specifically at the impact of the commercial world on children’s wellbeing. Chaired by Professor David Buckingham at the Institute of Education, it is in response to the government’s commitment in the Children’s Plan published in December 2008 which called for an assessment of how children’s engagement with the commercial work has changed, and the impact this has on them. Many of us involved in consumer research, academic research, advertising, marketing, and the media were consulted at a stakeholder meeting in January. Results are expected to be published in the summer.

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