Tears And Trauma: Does TV Exploit Children?

06/06/2011 12:19 | Updated 22 May 2015
Tears and trauma: Does TV exploit children?Getty

Even before Britain's Got Talent returned to our screens this year, we were told a child could take the crown. But the widely publicised prediction was proved wrong when singer Ronan Parke finished second.

No wonder he cried.

His name had been on the front pages of virtually every national paper after fixing allegations surfaced on the internet. That must be a hell of a lot to take in when you're just 12 years old, however much you want fame.

Particularly vicious were claims about how 'effeminate' Ronan was and how much this had been encouraged. They may have been dismissed as 'total lies' by the show's svengali, Simon Cowell, but the whole sorry saga still leaves a nasty taste.

Yet Ronan, such a gorgeous and talented young boy – now tipped for a recording contract under Cowell's control - wasn't the only child to shed tears in the name of entertainment in ITV's prime time juggernaut this year.

James Hobley – the gifted 11-year-old dancer also sobbed, as did George, 13, one half of Follow the Right Path, after being told he wasn't clever enough by judge Amanda Holden. She thought it was a mistake to repeat his moving tribute to his late granddad in a semi-final.

"Those are happy tears, right?" asked Dec, and George nodded obligingly.

We were also told about another aspiring child star being reduced to tears by judge Michael McIntyre, before the show began.

The cuddly funnyman was dubbed the show's new Mr Nasty, following in Cowell's footsteps. You couldn't make it up.

David Knight, aged nine, is a wannabe comedian. Michael jokingly pressed his buzzer before David started his act – as revenge for David telling him he was a Harry Hill fan. Or so some pre-show publicity told us. In the event, those tears didn't make it to the final broadcast.

But McIntyre was said to be left crestfallen by David's distress, so after the youngster had finished delivering his jokes, he apologised and told him he was a star.

Of course Ronan, James, David and all the rest – think of all the dancing school poppets who were praised one minute and rejected the next - aren't the first children to be filmed crying by our best loved talent show and they won't be the last.

Perhaps the most disturbing incident in the programme's history came when 10-year-old Hollie Steel forgot her words to Edelweiss in a semi final. She broke down, sampled a cuddle from Amanda and begged to be given another chance. The resulting media coverage must have been another ordeal. Her mum was berated as the pushy parent from hell and Hollie was dubbed a spoiled brat.

And if that wasn't enough, in the final that year, breakdancer Aidan Davis was comforted by hosts Ant and Dec after Cowell was scathing about a routine he'd had 24 hours to prepare.

It's little wonder that young performers who've been told days earlier they are amazing in front of millions of viewers, buckle under the pressure. According to some, the show's format should be changed, perhaps a new watered down version exclusively for children could be more palatable.

I don't know about you, but watching children sob, beg or break down isn't my idea of entertainment. I've had enough and won't be watching next year.

It's not just star-struck kids aiming for fame who come in for a drubbing on prime time TV. Toddlers and pre-schoolers don't even know they are being filmed or understand what it means, when their tantrums are served up as entertainment in programmes ostensibly about child care.

Why would anyone allow a camera crew into their house to show their children's problems off to further line a TV exec's pocket? Who screens families volunteering for televised discipline, to decide if they're emotionally equipped for the limelight?

If your child was crying, spitting, biting, refusing to share, answering you back or crying some more, who would you call? Perhaps, if you're at the end of your tether you may call someone who's described as an expert.

But would you want to be the subject of a sensationalist and simplistic film pretty much portraying your children as demons, where that expert is also building a profile as a celebrity?

Older errant children too are demonised on the small screen.

They're carted away to boot camps or to see what life is like with stricter parents.

But first they have to us just how vile they can be. Why can't they be allowed to make their mistakes and seek their solutions in private?

The children featured can now also find themselves repeatedly insulted on YouTube too as viewers capture their distress.

Even children's TV doesn't spare their blushes. Not content with grown-up reality TV favourites, we're treated to junior copycat shows like Beat the Boss, Serious Explorers and even Cop School.

Alison, mum to a six-year-old son, says: "All the TV companies care about is ratings - once the cameras have moved on, that child will still be hurt or have damaged self esteem from being 'judged' not just by a panel of judges in a talent show but by millions of viewers who can now instantly post online what they think of your child's appearance, size, and talent. Who wants to see a child crying on TV for the benefit of entertainment?

"I dislike Supernanny for the same reason - I would argue the short term good it does is outweighed by the harm it does for the families portrayed. Do people really pick up parenting tips from these programmes or are we just rubbernecking?"

Tanya Byron, the respected psychologist behind the House of Tiny Tearaways quit making such programmes back in 2007. Faced with new titles appearing from other "experts" including I Smack and I'm Proud, she said she felt parents were left bewildered by conflicting advice in "car-crash television."

These shows are filled with children competing, getting frustrated and crying. At least they are on the way out – Supernanny came to an end in the US last month.

Plenty of viewers won't be shedding any tears over its demise.

Do you feel uncomfortable watching these sorts of programmes? Or do you think if they get on telly, they're fair game?

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