With sociologists arguing that expectations for each age group have changed, are the likes of Channel 4’s Educating Yorkshire exploiting children for our entertainment?
Educating Yorkshire, a school-based documentary-cum-reality drama, was first shown last Thursday on Channel 4. The opening credits depicted children acting foolishly (as if to say ‘yes, they certainly do need educating’), and the entire concept was, seemingly, an invitation to pass judgement on these children. It is on that basis that it thrives.
The programme is a sequel to 2011’s Educating Essex, which followed a similar formula, appearing not to question or pry, but simply to observe. In the current series, the children, more than before, are acting out adult themes. We see the teachers dealing with an alleged racial slur with the vigour of a police investigation, a girl determined to mask her insecurities, and a young boy trying to get noticed in a place where attention is fiercely desired.
In Educating Yorkshire, the children are acting out adult themes. There’s a blurred line between adulthood and childhood
There seems to be a blurred line between adulthood and childhood evident here, and perhaps it’s that that gives the adult viewer a feeling of entitlement when judging them on a level playing field. All of these kids have grown up in an environment where Disney is sexy and the internet is free to browse for varying definitions of cream pie. And, when they speak to their teachers, it is clear there isn’t a strong divide. But, how OK is it to scoff at them for drawing on their eyebrows too thickly or making nonsensical remarks? They are just children after all.
Kids are used for our entertainment across reality TV, and Educating Yorkshire is really just the tip of the iceberg. Honey Boo Boo and her family are watched on the assumption that they’ll do something stupid or disgusting in each episode. She’s getting paid for it, sure, but this is going to be with her for the rest of her life, and a future employer may not be too receptive to someone they’ve once seen burp the alphabet incorrectly.
Then there is the lesser-known Jon & Kate Plus 8, a reality show from back in 2007 that documented the life of a family with eight kids (twins and sextuplets). When it finished after seven seasons, there was a large concern regarding the kids’ ability to live their lives without being watched. Psychotherapist Russell Hyken, who has worked a lot with kids in the spotlight, says “when children are showered with attention because they’re on TV, that creates behavioural problems because they become more attention-seeking.”
The children on Educating Yorkshire are all vying for attention to be the episode’s star
The children on Educating Yorkshire aren’t followed around from birth, but it’s obvious that they are all vying for attention in order to be the episode’s star. You could call this human nature, or you could look a little closer at the culture they live in. The X Factor started in 2004, meaning it has aired every year for most of these kids’ lives. They live in a world where winning The X Factor is a legitimate aspiration. They’ve been taught, from an extraordinarily early age, that to win at life they have to stand out, and just being cute and innocent won’t cut it.
Today, children play a starring role in TV listings. Perhaps this is because it’s easier to get them to do stuff that makes us laugh, or maybe it’s because the culture of reality TV has altered the way kids are seen. In Educating Yorkshire, we’re invited to recall our school days and, in turn, judge the children we see in it as equals. Reality TV is facilitating a change in the perception of children because it exposes them to an adult world, a world where they can be criticised on an adult level. Most of us are guilty of judging kids we see on TV, which may be a reflection of emerging societal norms and values. But we should consider what effect this judgement culture is having on kids and how they are changing in the process.
Featured image: Channel 4
Inset image: TLC