On Sunday, 17 July 2005, thousands of children – and some adults -- the world over were poring over the latest installment of a story that has held readers in thrall for eight years. In Bangalore, the long-awaited release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince the previous day had inspired front page headlines such as "Muggle world sways under new Potter spell", "Magic in the air: Potter spell at work again", "Potter magic sweeps the globe", "Potter takes Indians by storm", "Potter magic grips the city", and so on.

However, children were pretty much missing from media coverage of the penultimate volume of the wildly popular series of books written essentially for them. Instead the focus was on how the latest book was selling. There were, of course, photographs of children queuing up outside bookstores, looking at posters of the book, browsing through the book, dressed up as characters in the book, and so on. But few children were quoted in any of the reports, which relied mainly on sources in the book trade, and none of the hasty reviews were by children.

There is not much space or time in the media for children to express their thoughts, articulate their doubts, fears, hopes and aspirations, and offer their ideas on current affairs. 

The conspicuous absence of children in the media during the recent Harry Potter weekend confirmed a trend revealed by a quick survey of the Bangalore-based English press through the preceding week: children barely figure on the radar of the media. Their voices are missing even in reports and articles on events and issues directly related and relevant to them.

Seen but not heard

Take, for example, a number of such stories that appeared in the press on 16 July. A report on the mobile schools planned by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (The Times of India) was entirely based on what the project director had to say, with no information or comments from anyone else, least of all the children who are supposed to benefit from the new scheme. Children were also missing from an otherwise welcome follow-up story on school safety (The Hindu), in memory of the 90 young victims of the Kumbakonam school fire tragedy a year earlier. Even a write-up on a children’s theatre festival organised by the National School of Drama (City Express, The New Indian Express) failed to give voice to children even as three adults were quoted. Similarly, a story on "Success Programmes" for children offered by a local organisation (Bangalore Times, TOI) did not reveal what children had to say about the proposed activity.

If children are generally missing from the text, they tend to appear quite frequently in photographs – in keeping with the old Victorian adage that children should be seen and not heard. Sometimes such photographs are related to events involving children, especially those that also feature a "Very Important Person." Apart from the fact that most of these show children as passive beneficiaries, the celebrity concerned often eclipses the children. For example, not a single child appeared in a picture in Vijaya Times (11 July) of a Bollywood actress distributing saplings to school children in Mumbai. Similarly, a photograph of Rahul Gandhi serving mid-day meals to school children in Hubli in The Hindu (15 July) showed none of the assembled children.

Another category of photographs (and reports) featuring children showcase child achievers in various fields, ranging from the International Physics Olympiad to a local under-16 football tournament (although school and city level sports generally gets short shrift, especially in comparison with the coverage given to national and international events, particularly cricket). The celebration of certain types of accomplishments and specific symbols of success is very noticeable: among the children picked up by the media that week were the "wonder kid at 11" who was to be the "Junior Ambassador of India" at the 17th Asia Pacific Children's Convention in Japan, "the youngest Chess International Master from India," the winners of the Horlicks Wiz Team contest, and a motley group of "meritorious" children photographed with cricketer Rahul Dravid.

Children also regularly appear in photographs relating to conflicts and disasters, presumably to highlight the pathos of the situations being covered. For example, in that one week there were pictures of a Palestinian girl in a West Bank town looking at the body of a slain local leader and another one of Israel settler children in Gaza, there were pictures of child survivors of the train accident in Pakistan and children affected by a flood in Kolar and a house collapse in Hubli, and of course there were pictures of Iraqi children killed in a suicide car bomb attack as well as an Iraqi child near a pool of blood from another blast on another day.

Visuals featuring children are also used to illustrate reports and articles on a wide range of subjects – such as the photograph of a row of babies in a government hospital that went with coverage of World Population Day in one newspaper, and a picture of Laura and Jenna Bush with two Rwandan children that accompanied a news item on their visit to an AIDS project in Africa. They appear in even less pertinent photographs, too – e.g., a boy looking at waves in the Dominican Republic and children watching river rafting in Kodagu.

When children do appear in news reports, it is generally as victims (and, more rarely, perpetrators) of crime, as victims or survivors of abuse, violent conflicts, disasters and/or socio-economic deprivation, as recipients of charity or beneficiaries of welfare schemes, as participants in cultural or sports events, and as winners of various kinds of competitive events. For the most part they remain silent. Rarely are their experiences and opinions taken into account even in the occasional report on education, which obviously affects them more than anybody else – for instance, the move to make CBSE examinations "stress-free," reported in the press on 14 July.

Pushed to the margins

Of course, The Hindu, Deccan Herald and The New Indian Express do publish special supplements for children – Young World, Open Sesame and School Magazine respectively (this is in addition to the education supplements brought out by various newspapers, powered by advertisements from educational institutions, which are in any case more geared to higher education).

Besides the expected staples such as cartoon strips, jokes and activity corners (quizzes, word games et al), these supplements provide some space for children’s creative expression in the form of poems, essays, letters, stories and artwork. They also feature various kinds of information that can be broadly categorised as "general knowledge," listings and reviews of children’s books (the 22 July edition of Young World called for children’s comments on the latest Harry Potter), as well as brief articles on a range of subjects, including events and issues of current interest and concern (e.g., global warming, London hosting the 2012 Olympics and safety on roads). However, even here there is little evidence of a conscious and systematic effort to engage with children as citizens.

This is despite the fact that the media are becoming more and more omnifarious, omnipresent and omnipotent, and that children across the board are increasingly exposed to the media – good, bad and ugly. On the whole, the media today reflect little active awareness of the fact that they have an important role to play in enabling children to learn about and make sense of the highly complex world they live in, which they cannot but be conscious about, bombarded as they are by random information from a variety of sources, including multiple forms of media. There is not much space or time in the media for children to express their thoughts, articulate their doubts, fears, hopes and aspirations, and offer their ideas on current affairs.

Surviving on adult fare

The print media are not the only culprits who overlook their responsibility towards children. A study of children’s television programmes in Asia, including India, conducted by the Asian Media Information and Communication Centre (AMIC) in the late 1990s revealed the predominance of animation programmes and foreign programming in the fare offered to children by both Doordarshan and private broadcasters (indigenous and transnational) telecasting to Indian audiences.

According to Anura Goonasekera, writing about the study, "In India the total number of children’s programmes in all channels is less than one per cent. Most of these programmes are designed for upper class urban children. However, these are not popular among this audience because of lack of entertainment… When respondents from DDI were asked about programme priorities, none of them mentioned children’s programmes. None of the networks has any specific policies to create awareness or to create programmes on children’s rights. An obvious gap in children’s television programming in India is the virtual absence of programmes specifically made for early teens."

As a result, children watch whatever is on TV. According to media researcher Mira Aghi, quoted by Goonasekera, 75 per cent of her sample of children mentioned programmes made for adults as the ones they liked, including comedies, thrillers, crime and family serials. A 2002 study conducted by the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR), New Delhi, revealed that many children in the city watch as much as ten hours of television a day. In the absence of good children’s programming, they watch what the rest of the family does, including popular, prime time family sagas/soap operas such as the "K" serials, and game shows like the erstwhile Kaun Banega Crorepati.

A five-city study on media violence and its impact on children, conducted by CFAR in 2001, disclosed a high incidence of violence in TV shows of all genres, across channels and time bands, as well as in computer/video games. It also registered an increase in children’s TV viewing, in terms of both number of hours and types of programmes. According to the study, children watch all categories of programmes, across channels and throughout the day -- up to 11.30 pm on weekdays and even later on weekends. Over 50 per cent of their favourite programmes comprise adult family dramas. This is obviously because there are so few appropriate and good quality programmes for children on Indian television.

The neglect of children by the media is particularly incomprehensible – and reprehensible -- considering that nearly 40 per cent of the Indian population comprises children under 18 (estimated at around 415 million in 2003). With children under five making up only a little more than ten per cent of the total population (approximately 118.5 million), it is clear that at least three quarters of the child population -- nearly 300 million Indian children -- can be counted as members of media audiences, actual or potential.

Not surprisingly, those who "have something to sell" have been aware of the market value of this section of the audience for quite some time. As Namita Unnikrishnan and Shailaja Bajpai reported in their book, The Impact of Television Advertising on Children, by the early 1990s "children had become an important audience segment for Indian advertisers and … television had been instrumental in targeting them… Before television became a major social force, Indian children were less exposed to aggressive advertising and became aware and sensitive to its claims only as young adults. Today, children graduate into becoming consumers much earlier. They begin watching TV almost at birth and, since no skills are required to absorb ideas from television, they become part of the advertising audience fairly soon." According to their study, of the commercials taped from Doordarshan during April and May 1992, more than 35 per cent featured children and a little over 30 per cent of the ads reviewed held a direct appeal for the child audience.

In other words, the commercial potential of young audiences is being fully utilised, if not exploited, through the media. However, the potential benefits of the media as a source of information and ideas, and as a forum for discussion and debate – in fact, as a critical component of "the public sphere" so essential to the proper functioning of democracy -- are still not being made really available and accessible to children.

The good news

Yet there is plenty of evidence that, given an opportunity, children can be highly receptive, discerning and critical consumers of and participants in the media. I have personal experience of this in the context of both "mainstream" and "alternative" media. The fortnightly column I wrote in The Hindu’s Young World for eight years in the 1990s ("Spaced Out"), which dealt with a wide range of issues triggered by current affairs, attracted tremendous reader response, with children spontaneously writing in to express their views on diverse subjects such as child labour and education, gender discrimination and environmental degradation, poverty and justice, war and social conflict, caring for the sick and the elderly. Similarly, Bhima, the wallpaper for street and working children produced by The Concerned for Working Children (CWC), which I helped to conceptualise and nurtured through its infancy a decade and a half ago, continues to be a popular medium of communication which is avidly read, discussed and contributed to by both urban and rural children.

More recently, children have proved themselves eminently capable of being critical consumers and creative producers of, as well as active participants in, various kinds of media. For instance, a group of Indian children critiqued media coverage of the tsunami disaster in 2004. According to a report in The Financial Express, members of Bal Panchayat, a forum for children's self-expression, analysed the coverage of children's issues by major English and Hindi newspapers over a fortnight in the aftermath of the tragedy and concluded that the media did not pay adequate attention to children affected by the calamity or to issues concerning their safety, nutrition and post-trauma care and rehabilitation.

"In the process of consultations with various children's groups…children have expressed unhappiness over the patterns of media coverage of children. They want to know why the media ignores them and their opinions and perspectives" --- CWC Last year children from two slums in Delhi, Madangir and Khanpur, launched their own newspaper, Udayachal, in order to highlight the concerns and problems of their communities. In a similar initiative, children from some other colonies in Delhi launched another newspaper, The Yamuna -- Creating Waves. According to One World South Asia, these publications are meant to reflect the knowledge and opinions of children about issues that concern their lives.

Mini-documentaries made by teenagers from one of the poorest slums in the capital city won the 2003 One World Media Award in the category Special Achievements. The videos dealt with problems they have to deal with every day, such as child prostitution, child labour, life in a garbage dump, and living in the midst of smoke and fumes from a hazardous industry. Part of a package titled ‘Children have something to say,’ the films were made by children but intended for an adult public.

In a reverse situation, a series of films currently on air in two districts of Karnataka via Edusat, the indigenous satellite launched last year to exclusively serve the educational sector, has been made by adults but builds on the inherent genius of children to create fascinating and enlightening lessons in history, science and English. In the history series titled "Young historians," for example, 10-12 year old students of a government school in Belvanki village, Gadag district, embark on a voyage of discovery that helps them to understand how history is constructed at various times by various people in various places for various purposes, and how historical events and personalities often connect to their own, present-day realities and life experiences.

According to Deepa Dhanraj, who conceptualised and directed the series, the children were so quick to grasp the concept and understand the process, and so keen to apply their minds to each subject under discussion, that they kept raising the bar and, in the end, made it possible for the films to provide a sense of history that acknowledges both its complexities and its consequences.

Need for introspection and dialogue

In another recent initiative, a "Media Code of Conduct to Realise Children’s Rights" has evolved with the active participation of children in the discussions leading up to the working draft. Spearheaded by CWC, the code examines three aspects of the interface between the media and children: children as subjects, as users and as producers of media.

According to the chapter setting out the raison d’etre of such a code, "In the process of consultations with various children’s groups…children have expressed unhappiness over the patterns of media coverage of children. They want to know why the media ignores them and their opinions and perspectives… They want to know why their voices are never heard in the media, why their perspectives never feature in the media, why information relevant to them is so sparse and why media does not respect their diverse opinions. They want to know why information relevant to them is never presented in ways that they can understand… They object to the stereotyping of children by the media and want to know why children’s programming is never a priority for the media." The code is expected to stimulate constructive dialogue on how these issues can be addressed.

Examples of "best practices" in media by, for and about children, such as those mentioned above and the many others that exist across the country (and the world) could – indeed should – form the core of a fresh approach to serving the interests of children through the media. If they do, perhaps a day will come when children grow up hearing stories not only from people who have something to sell but also from their peers and adults with a genuine interest in communicating with them.