Have you ever wondered how we cannot seem to turn away when there are children performing on television? And interestingly, the more weird these shows or challenging the tasks, the more difficult it is for viewers to switch channels. On television channels across the nation, the entertainment genre—which includes daily soaps, besides talent and reality shows—is using children to draw viewers.

This trend of using children in television shows has raised a number of issues relating to their rights, labour laws, the ethics of using children to boost ratings, the psychological impact on children participating in such shows, and the morality of making them an object of voyeurism.

There have been few voices of viewers or interest groups raising these issues or voicing their concern. There were a few complaints received by the ministry of information and broadcasting and the newly set up National Commission for Protection of Child Rights that triggered some discussion, but did not result in any concrete suggestions or impact on the television channels. There was even some talk about developing guidelines on how children should be projected, their participation and drawing up rules for their “employment" in television. But these apprehensions never really got any attention or ever became a national concern.

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

The programme in question was a talent show named Aata Juniors (Play) being telecast by the Zee Telugu channel that featured young children dancing in a provocative manner with adult partners. Alleging the commercial exploitation of children in TV reality shows by local channels, some city-based voluntary organizations had approached APSHRC in April seeking a ban. The parents of the children who took part in them contended that there was no violation of their rights.

APSHRC chairman Subhashan Reddy, who heard both sides and examined CDs submitted by them, ruled that the show violated children’s rights.

APSHRC observed that the programme grossly abused the constitutional rights of children under Article 39 (vocation unsuited to age, protection of children against exploitation), Article 45 (no child below 14 years shall be engaged in hazardous employment) and Article 46 (protection from social injustice and exploitation).

Every child has a right to participate in cultural activities that may include songs, dance and any other artistic pursuit recognized to be healthy. But reality shows such as the one in question don’t fall within the limits of dignity, decency and discipline and are, therefore, liable to be prohibited, Reddy said in his order.

APSHRC has also called for a public hearing on 3 July to debate and fix specific norms for entertainment programmes. Meanwhile, the channel has got a stay from the courts on the ban and continues to air the controversial show.

The exploitation that lies at the heart of the issue is key to understanding it. To exploit is to take advantage of, use, promote or advance personal interest over that of others. So, is the participation of children in such television shows exploitative?

The answer is an obvious yes.

Children in such talent shows and soaps primarily serve the interest of all parties involved in the production of such shows, except themselves. Children are not parties to contracts. A child in a television show is certainly not properly advised and does not understand the implications of the programme on his or her life. They are simply pawns in the hands of their parents/guardians and the producers of the show. Besides using the children to make money, the ensuing instant fame, glamour and luxury are a strong motivation for many parents. The prospect of living in the limelight clouds their sense of reason to the extent that all they focus on is money and fame, over and above the long-term interest of the children.

There is an urgent need to review laws and examine the systemic lapses that may have encouraged such exploitation, violating the rights and innocence of these children.

In fact, way back in 1998, at the start of the broadcast revolution in the country, a CMS round table on children and television suggested that India should have a national policy on this. Legislation on broadcasting should specify certain guidelines to manage programming involving children. Also, obligations on the part of television channels towards promoting healthy and proactive programming, keeping in view the interests and development of the future citizens of the country, needed to be clarified, it suggested.

Why do we forget that even children are real people who more often than not don’t really have a say on being filmed. They have no power to turn off the camera and limited capacity to grasp the size and nature of the audience, leaving them virtually unprotected under existing child labour laws. These kids have no business being on TV and we’ve got no business watching them.

PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies

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