Rethinking and Refraining Media Effects in the Context of Children's Rights: A New Paradigm

Article excerpt

Do children have rights? If so, what are they? And how are these rights to be interpreted and protected in a world dramatically changed by the media children consume and communicate with? The answers to the questions about children's rights are neither as straightforward as they seem, nor as much of a consensus as many believe they should be. When we consider the effects of media on children, the questions become more complex and the answers more contentious.

While most societies have come a long way from treating children as chattels or saying that they should be seen and not heard, progress that in 1989 was codified in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (United Nations, 1989), there remain substantial disagreements on the nature of those rights. Every nation on earth has ratified the UNCRC--every nation except Somalia, a war-torn country without an effective government, and, perhaps surprisingly, the United States of America, widely regarded as one of the world's most child-friendly societies. To complicate this apparent contradiction further, freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of the U.S. Constitution, a right that most Americans hold dear and that was adopted in concept by the rest of the world in the United Nations' 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (General Assembly of the United Nations 1948). In relation to media, our right to freedom of speech has often been used as the ultimate veto of any attempts to improve the media to which children and all of us are exposed. According to the judicial system of the United States, media producers' right to freedom of expression overrides any concerns for the effects of those media products on children.

In approaching the issue of television, video games, cell phones, and the Internet from the perspective of children's rights, we must consider briefly what the rights of children may be, while acknowledging that everyone does not agree. In simplest terms, the diversity of opinions regarding children's rights lies on a continuum between "free will" and "best interests" of the child. The "free will" proponents argue that each child is an individual with as many rights as an adult, while those who seek the "best interests" of the child assert that a child is not developmentally capable of making decisions in his/her own best interests, thus an adult (or an institution functioning as an adult) must act on behalf of the child. There is validity to both perspectives and, with significant variation, most parents, teachers, and societies fall somewhere on this continuum, moving the child's rights increasingly toward "free will" as the child's development allows her/him to make increasingly more responsible decisions. For both individual children and for whole developmental stages of children, errors can be made in either direction. On one hand, children given free will at breakfast time will choose chocolate cake over fruit, so adults make choices until children can understand and act on their best interests. Most societies gradually add rights such as the ability to drive or buy tobacco and alcohol in an effort to delay potentially unsafe or unhealthy activities until young people have developed executive cognitive function and accrued life experience. On the other hand, children whose decisions are always made by overly paternalistic or controlling adults are rendered voiceless in society, vulnerable to exploitation, and unpracticed in the skills of making decisions and taking responsibility. Although there is significant variation in its implementation around the world, with rights conferred or denied depending on age, gender, race, culture, or social status, key provisions of the UNCRC provide a useful structure for examining media exposure in relation to a widely accepted ideal of the rights of children.

The long-running debate about media and their effects on children has historically taken a values-based approach to the best interests of the child--what children should and should not be allowed to see, hear, or do. …