Pushing the limits of precociousness

BY Radhika sachdev| IN Media Practice | 18/05/2012
Talent shows Part II-- Although children often face danger, trauma, and ridicule on television shows, ambition-blinded parents have been using them as their status symbol.
Experts feel a good code of conduct is absolutely essential, says RADHIKA SACHDEV. Pix: judges of India’s Got Talent

On July 31, 2010, during an episode of Color’s India's Got Talent-Season 2, one of the judges, Bollywood director Sajid Khan couldn’t watch a seven-year-old boy, Manpreet Singh, perform a Sikh martial art sequence called Gatka.

A dance form of "Bir Khalsa Gatka Dal" from Tarn Taran, the sequence required the crossing of swords between young participants, coupled with amazing antics and a fire-eating sequence. 

The other two judges on the show concurred with Sajid Khan, and Manpreet Singh was promptly ejected from the round.

According to a complaint filed on October 2, 2009 to the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) by Dr. Anuradha Sahasrabudhe, director, Dnyana Devi, Childline Pune, “two babies who were working in a Marathi serial have suffered permanent, irreversible eye damage from exposure to the harsh studio lights. Their role in the serial was minimal.” 

The NCPCR guidelines mention the case of a teenage participant, who after being rebuked by the judges on a show (aired on May 19, 2009), went into depression and had to be hospitalised.

On one episode of Color’s India's Got Talent, judges Sonali Bendre and Kirron Kher got up to halt a martial art sequence that required the performer to step on two toddlers. “Do you realise that their skeletons are still developing and could be vulnerable to such assaults,” a shell-shocked Bendre asked the performer, who looked equally aghast because no one had bothered to inform him of such debarring conditions (“no injury should be caused to the child participant”) at the pre-screening round (if there was one) before he got bundled off to the podium with the toddlers in tow to perform the dangerous feat.

All child-participants are not so lucky.
One episode of Zee’s Lil Champs that this correspondent happened to watch had judges Geeta Kapur (‘Geeta Ma’) and Farah Khan leaving their seats to mimic a performer on national TV (in contravention of the NCPCR’s “no ridicule” rule). Anu Malik, Sunidhi Chauhan, and Salim Merchant have often shown lack of sensitivity towards children who dare to give their dreams a shot.

Once, the trio demanded to know why a contestant wanted to be on the show. He gamely replied he wanted to earn the respect of his family because no one at home wanted him to sing. He began to croon off-key and the judges found his performance so hilarious they declared his parents were absolutely right in not allowing him to sing.

These episodes beg one question – are we, as viewers and parents so desperate for “talent-spotting, glamour, and riches,” that we are willing to push our children into spotlight before their time, unmindful of the adverse consequences of such premature celebration of their artistic prowess?

The NCPCR guidelines make it incumbent upon all stakeholders to first define a “child’s best interest,” before pushing him into such programmes to satisfy the vicarious  needs of their parents and the broadcasters’ need to gain more television rating points. That these shows are becoming popular can be gauged from the fact that if there were seven children’s reality shows on Hindi general entertainment channels (GECs) in 2011 reaching out to  11.9 crore viewers, this year, only three programmes have a cumulative reach of 12.5 crore viewers, according to television rating agency TAM (See box).  

Dr. Jitendra Nagpal, a consultant psychiatrist with VIMHANS who specialises in adolescent issues says he was once consulted by the parents of a four-year-old, who had an invitation to participate in a ramp show. The girl was an introvert and camera-shy but the father dug his heels in. He wanted to “draw her out of her shell” and wanted Dr. Nagpal’s assistance.   

Later, invited to be part of the NCPCR consultative panel for the framing of the guidelines, Dr. Nagpal heard of several other cases, where parents were willing to carry books to studios, make their children miss classes and exams in order to appear in auditions, and where child-participants were made to often wait for hours in the sun or in dark studios for a half-an-hour performance without providing any basic amenities. To be sure, they came out feeling numbed and exhausted.

“Even if we have to mobilise them for such shows, we need to first put in place a good code of conduct for producers and parents with the consent of children,” says Nagpal, who is against the use of children below 10 years in any TV show, cinema, or advertisement. The age of adolescence, as defined by the World Health Organisation is also ten. 

Accepting that in some cases the parents may not be aware of child rights, he says: “The consent from parents has to be more informed. They need to be apprised of the long-term consequences of such media exposure on the child. We’ve observed behaviour problems that are not immediately visible or even assessable. But they exist and surface later. We’ve observed melancholic children breaking down inconsolably before the judges only because they got eliminated from a competitive round,” he said. 

“They face elimination rounds, and the judges use adverse comments in the guise of honesty. There are situations where children are hapless spectators as their parents argue with the judges,” mention the preamble of the NCPCR guidelines. In this context, Section 15.4 of the guidelines specifically states: “No child should be put in distressing situations to obtain a more realistic depiction of an emotional reaction.”

Section 15.1 states: “No child should be cast in a role or situation that is inappropriate to the child or that may distress him/her or put him/her in [an] embarrassing situation.” Lowering the dignity of a child-participant, denigrating or ridiculing him/her in front of peers and significant others is also a violation of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, specifically, Rule 6 of Programme Code, according to which, a show should not offend good taste or decency; denigrate children; not be unsuitable for public exhibition; must not contain any bad language or explicit scenes of violence; and must not be carried in the cable service at times when the largest number of children are viewing television. 

Yet, on February 14, Anjali Pawar, director of Sakhee, an organisation working for child rights in Pune, wrote to NCPCR against an episode (aired on Jan.26, 2012) on sony channel’s Adalat and another (aired on Feb.13, 2012) on Life OK’s Shapad– both of which denigrated institutionalised children, branding them as “criminals” and showing them being hauled across courts like common thugs.

There have been countless studies that testify to a child’s vulnerability to sustained media exposure. “In a make-believe world, where everything is defined by glamour quotient, exposure to such programmes make children anxious, depressed, or shallow in their thinking,” explains Nagpal.
“Where children are concerned, the content has to be carefully assessed. Along with self-assessment, we need peer-assessment, parental assessment, and industry assessment so that finally by the Law of Averages, we get a complete assessment of the child-worthiness of a show,” says Nagpal.

“Parents have started using children as status symbols,” says Nagpal. “Even though the achievement is eventually credited to the child, there is a sense of satisfaction drawn from the child which violates its rights as an individual,” he explains.                  

In the case of baby Shaurya, recorded by the NCPCR inquiry panel of Pati, Patni aur Woh, although the baby was assessed by mental-health experts to be betraying signs of “emotional distress and separation anxiety,” the mother was adamant in stating, “Shaurya is a settled child. There is a comfort level in him. I’ve never wanted him to be a clinging child and become a sissy.”

When she was confronted with evidence to the contrary, she still stuck to her guns and maintained that the show was a “beautiful experience for her, her spouse, and her child.”  

“It’s not surprising,” says Nagpal. “We often encounter this kind of double-bind in ambition-blinded parents.”

Finally, talent spotting is good, but we need to ask, at what cost?

Box: Expert
recommendations on realty shows made to NCPCR
• The recruitment of children below the age of three in reality shows should be banned
• There must be a regulatory body to screen content of all TV shows involving children. The content should not damage the child emotionally
• There need to be clear guidelines on the age the child can be allowed to participate in media programmes
• At the very initial stage of auditioning, the parents need to be informed of the possible psychological impact of exposing their child to the media and its incumbent competitiveness
• The contract signed with parents must not place all the obligations on parents and almost none on channel owners and broadcasters
• A child psychologist must be present on the show involving children at all times
• Parents must be made to realise that the children’s interests may not be the same as theirs. Children are separate entities. They are entitled to constitutional and legal rights independently of their parents.
• Parental consent is also not a justification for a child’s participation in a reality show. They must be protected from all forms of physical or mental abuse, injury, violence, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment, or exploitation, including sexual abuse while in the care of parents, legal guardians, or any other person, as required under article 19 (1) of the UN Convention on Rights of Child, 1989, to which we are a signatory.
• The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting should establish an effective mechanism in legal provisions and administrative structure to have a “pre-clearance system” for reality shows to be vetted by a multi-disciplinary expert panel before they are aired for public.
• The Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC) and the Inter-Ministerial committee of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting should make proactive interventions in taking cognizance of the reality shows affecting child rights and taking prompt steps to prevent their telecast, instead of waiting for the public to lodge complaints.
• The shooting sites/sets need to be inspected by a multi-disciplinary inspection panel constituted for the purpose by the government, and the producers and TV channels associations. There should be a regulator to whom the producer must furnish prior information about the shooting of the programmes, especially, the place (s), schedules, and particulars of the programme, the particulars of the participant’s name, address, age, sex, qualification, etc., proposed to be involved in the shooting and the safety measures/safeguards proposed to be taken.

*Note : Cumulative reach is unduplicated number of individuals who watched a particular TV channel/programmes for at least 1 minute

Kids Reality shows on Hindi GECs
Programme Genre
No. of Programmes
Cum Reach (In 000s)
Kids Reality Shows
Year 2009
Year 2010
Year 2011

(Source: TAM media research)
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