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Soaps Make Matters Worse.

Guest Frankie

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Sydney Morning Herald 29th July 06.

Rather than educating children, television soaps may be making matters worse, writes Brad Newsome.

IT'S fast times at TV High. There's a pregnant teen in Neighbours unsure who the father is, a bulimic girl in Home and Away, a pot-smoking kid in The O.C., turkey slaps being given in Big Brother and many other examples of teenagers - or at least their scriptwriters - pushing the boundaries.

The federal Attorney-General, Philip Ruddock, put Big Brother on the agenda at this week's meeting with his state and territory counterparts. He wants new restrictions on the show after the "turkey slap" incident in which one housemate rubbed his groin in the face of a female contestant.

But do such storylines merely entertain or do they have a dangerous impact on their young audiences? Do they encourage copycat behaviour or do they help children take the steps they need to get help?

Angela Conway, the Australian Family Association's Victorian vice-president, says that the teenage TV milieu is "hyper-focused on sex" and fears that it is giving children "a skewed view of reality".

"They're seeing a fairly hefty diet of sexual involvement and there's evidence to suggest that it's ageing young people," she says, supporting a view from people working with young adolescents that the consequences of children getting involved in sexual activities go beyond just sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancy. "Risk factors for drug abuse and relationship difficulties are linked to early sexual involvement," she says.

Conway says teenage soap operas need to lose their "overemphasis on dysfunction" and portray marriage as a viable, stable relationship.

She says that if programmers want to get into difficult issues like sexual involvement, infections, unplanned pregnancy and then eating disorders and adolescent self-harm, they should create a more normal environment so a teenager can see it's not normal.

While "a well-informed playing-out of issues can be helpful", Conway says, some programs are pitched at wide audiences, "so you've got very young children watching shows like Home and Away and, unfortunately, The O.C. You don't want 11- and 12-year-olds being interested in how you throw up to keep your weight down or how to go about cutting yourself."

Some may view today's children and teenagers as much more discerning and media-savvy than those of previous generations, she says, but they still need protection.

"People assume that adolescents have adult capacities - they don't. Their brains are still developing and they have poor impulse control and other developmental needs."

Conway says Big Brother in particular portrays sex as a "point-scoring thing"."I think young people are being sold short big time in these programs. With Big Brother they're being sold a very ugly caricature of their lives."

Conway says she resents the culture in which "girls carry grog and knives" for boys and "are supposed to put up with turkey slapping and deliver oral sex" when required.

Some of her concerns are shared by child psychotherapist Frances Thomson Salo. She says while examinations in soaps of delicate issues, such as teenage homosexuality, can be helpful in letting children in such situations know they are not alone, the bawdy behaviour of the Big Brother housemates poses problems. "The message we want to try to get across to kids is that relationships should be based on reciprocity and responsibility. I think we have to look at what is happening in the culture that these shows are so popular and we are not helping [teenagers] to find guidelines for their own sexuality."

According to Thomson Salo, children in a supportive and loving family environment are less likely to be influenced by the behaviour of Big Brother housemates, but younger children and those developmentally delayed or struggling with personal or family issues could ape their behaviour.

Rick Pellezzeri, the executive producer of Neighbours, says his team is aware that children watch the show and that they take their responsibilities, and any complaints from the public, seriously. "We make a family show. We have a G classification and within that classification we have responsibilities. One of those is that parents should feel safe in letting children watch without supervision. But we have a responsibility to tell good, interesting stories relevant to Australians living in the suburbs in 2006," he says.

Pellezzeri says the depiction of issues can seem a bit unrealistic sometimes because "we're making drama, we're not making documentaries". Even so, he says, it can be of benefit to viewers; one sent in a letter of thanks for a breast cancer storyline. After seeing a character examine her breasts, she did the same and found a cancerous lump.

Pellezzeri says his scriptwriters take professional advice for medical stories and if they have concerns about a storyline on any issue, they take it to the network's in-house censor. "You can watch the news and see dead bodies in the street and that's fine, that's a decision that's been made, but [children who watch the news] have to deal with material that's far harsher than anything we could put on TV."

As for sex, "We never show them sleeping together, so if you're a six-year-old kid you wouldn't know what's going on," he says, pointing out that teenagers are having a lot more sex in the real world. There are things, however, that Neighbours will never touch. "Suicide is one of the biggest issues [facing young people] and I don't think we'd do that because it's too complex and too difficult for us," Pellezzeri says.

The most controversial storyline in an Australian soap is on Home and Away, where Mattie Hunter (Indiana Evans) is in hospital with bulimia.

A Channel Seven spokeswoman said: "In the Matilda 'self-hatred' storyline, the Home and Away writing department and medical adviser worked with some eating disorders experts and made some adjustments to scripts based on their recommendations. Our writers and producers are always speaking to experts in a particular field and those that have experienced an issue. Naturally, each actor also adds input to the character, performance and the storyline. Indiana did her own research into the Matilda storyline. She was conscious of making her performance as real as possible."

Sarah Walker, a project assistant with the Victorian Centre for Excellence in Eating Disorders, who also works on the eating disorder wards at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, says that while the storyline could encourage people to seek help, she still has reservations about it. She is concerned that the story will be wrapped up too quickly and neatly and perpetuate the stereotype in which "eating disorders are seen as trifling and self-inflicted".

Walker, who was hospitalised with an eating disorder seven years ago but has recovered, says that people often have eating disorders for five to seven years before seeking help, and that they can continue to struggle for 10 years afterwards. She says it is essential that Home and Away handles the story well because its audience is the highest-risk demographic for eating disorders.

Professor Ian Lang, head of the school of film and television at the Victorian College of the Arts, says program makers have a strong sense of responsibility and that parents who are concerned about their children's viewing should take more responsibility.

"I'd be more worried about an eight-year-old seeing the bombing of Beirut that's going on at the moment than Neighbours."

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Thats Frankie

She says it is essential that Home and Away handles the story well because its audience is the highest-risk demographic for eating disorders.

But HAA does handle their storylines well, they show what can happen if you dont tell anyone about your problems, ie Mattie and bulimia. I reckon HAA is doing a great job unlike Neighbours and OC :P Still <3 OC

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If they are so worried about it why is nobody whinging about the news?that's far worse.

Hell Yeh do you have TV guides In Aussie? do you read the people complainments Man they just moan about things I read a comment and It said 'Puffing Brenda' and they say something like you shouldn't do smoking sences or something like that far out It annoying when somebody say something aye spunkyl We have a poll at my school the other day and I said It ok to have smoking sences cause the Ciggerettes arn't real when they are shown on TV I wonder If they are mad cause everything that they do on TV Is not real life like a Charcter on TV drinks Vokda-I can't spell It but In real life It maybe water do you know what I mean

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Thanks Frankie!

I agree with what everyone else has said, I think HAA is handling the storyline heaps well. If people don't like seeing bulimic teenagers, then they can turn of HAA. But seriously, heaps and heaps of teenagers stuggle with disorders, and I think this is a great way to raise awareness. :)

Personally, I have never had an eating disorder, but have recently noticed a close friend of mine acting a bit 'odd.' After seeing Mattie's symptoms, I have realised that my friend is going through all that too! :( It took my friend a while to open up, but basically HAA saved her life! For that I am very thankful. :)

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It's the same people who will always say NO to homosexuals on 7pm timeslots shows. So they can go **** themselves!

Besides, who'd want to watch a show about a couple not having any sort of trouble and living a peaceful life? If they want kids to be blind and stay naive, then I pity their kids if they have any.

Soaps are meant to be far fetched storylines and characters who can bomb a city in a week and be a saint the next.

These people just want the world to go back to the 20s, where women were not allowed to work and married someone, even though they don't love them, and stayed with them til the end of their lives.


Kids don't need shows like The OC or Home & Away to learn about sex (actually how can anybody learn about sex in H&A? Wtf?). They have school, friends, brothers/sisters, internet, and so on.

"Rather than educating children, television soaps may be making matters worse, writes Brad Newsome."

Since when does the TELEVISION educate children? Isn't that the PARENTS job? Television is mostly meant to entertain and inform us of current news and affairs.

So freakin' lame.

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I think Home and Away are helping because in the Matilda storyline she does end up seaking help, and for the better. So that may make others see sence that there are people out there that can help them and want too. :unsure:

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