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19 January 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

A danger to the nation's children
The NSPCC's new 'Someone To Turn To' campaign will poison family relations, says the author of Paranoid Parenting.

by Frank Furedi

If you want to get a story circulating in the media, all you have to do is get some numbers, call it research and put out a press release.

Political parties, charities, non-governmental organisations, lobby groups and other advocacy groups have perfected the strategy of promoting their cause through advocacy research. Advocacy research is the very opposite of scientific investigation. Sound science is devoted to the exploration of the unknown and the discovery of the truth. Advocacy organisations don't have to discover the truth - they already know it and their research is designed to affirm what they already know. 'Let's get some numbers to prove the cause' seems to be the motif of such research.

In contemporary times, advocacy research provides one of the principal instruments for gaining publicity for a cause. And publicity is what advocacy is all about. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is one of the most successful advocacy organisations in the UK. In recent decades the NSPCC has become a lobby group devoted to publicising its peculiar brand of anti-parent propaganda and promoting itself.

Its expensive Saatchi and Saatchi TV campaigns have succeeded in raising the organisation's visibility. With so much of its funds devoted to sophisticated propaganda campaigns, it is not surprising that providing real services for children no longer appears to be its main priority. Critics have pointed out that most of the NSPCC's budget goes on publicity and campaigns. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the direct services that the NSPCC provides for children have become a mere adjunct for this publicity-hungry machine. Somehow, the NSPCC zealots have lost touch with the world of real children.

The NSPCC is shameless about its obsession with publicity. Its website proudly displays the logo 'PR Week Award 2003'. A press release published in December 2003 boasts that its 'hard-hitting' cartoon TV and poster campaign gained an award for being 'the best charity ad in the world'. These ads featured a child in the form of a cartoon character who is thrown from wall to wall by a real live father. Viewers see the 'child' having a cigarette stubbed out on his head, being punched and then thrown down the stairs. Another ad portrays images of distraught cartoon babies covering their ears in terror to keep out the noise of their father battering their mother next door. The NSPCC's publicity crusade relentlessly portrays a world where parents, particularly fathers, systematically brutalise their children.

In 2003, slick adverts made by Saatchi and Saatchi compared a baby's scream to a road drill and depicted a father slowly losing his temper to the point where he rushes towards his child. The message is crystal clear - fathers can't handle a toddler's tantrums without reacting violently.

You don't need a PhD in child psychology to know that children worry a lot
While the NSPCC is brilliant at self-promotion, its research verges on the banal. Today, it launches new 'research' in order to promote its 'Someone To Turn To' campaign. Ostensibly, the aim of this campaign is to get children to talk to people about their anxieties. However, its real objective is to target children and to get them to communicate their family problems and parental misdeeds to disinterested lobby groups like the NSPCC.

Why should this be necessary? Because the NSPCC research 'shows' that children are anxious about their life and also worry a lot. If you read the NSPCC' s advocacy research, you can discover that 34 per cent of 11- to 16-year-old children go so far as 'to say that they are always worrying about something'. And apparently, surprise, surprise, 82 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds worry about exams and 42 per cent worry about not having a boyfriend or girlfriend.

You don't need a PhD in child psychology to come to the startling conclusion that most children have a lot of worries about growing up. Indeed, as most adult readers will recall, being anxious is a fairly normal aspect of childhood. There is nothing particularly novel about childhood insecurity; what is new is the attempt to turn it into a disease and a social problem. What is also new is the mendacious project of turning childhood anxiety into a justification for the predatory activity of a publicity-hungry media machine.

Even worse is the message transmitted by this campaign - that the NSPCC understands children far better than their mums and dads do. Aside from promoting itself, the campaign seeks to popularise the idea that families need the NSPCC to coordinate their children's communication with the world of adults.

In recent years, the NSPCC has used advocacy research continually to raise the stakes in its propaganda campaign. At first the NSPCC sought to scare the public through inflating the risk of stranger-danger; in recent years it has focused its publicity machine against 'parent-danger'; now its addresses its propaganda directly to children.

The current initiative is the latest phase of a three-year-old publicity drive. In May 2000, the NSPCC launched its expensive Full Stop campaign. Shocking pictures on billboards showed a loving mother playing with her baby. The caption read: 'Later she wanted to hold a pillow over his face.' Another picture showed a loving father cuddling his baby, with the words 'that night he felt like slamming her against the cot' serving as a chilling reminder not to be deceived by appearances.

The NSPCC distracts youngsters from communicating problems to family or friends
The NSPCC justified these scaremongering tactics on the grounds that it was telling parents that it is normal to snap under pressure, and that they need to learn to handle the strain. But this alleged link between parental incompetence and abusive behaviour has disturbing implications for every father and mother. If anyone can snap and smash the head of their baby against the wall, who can you trust?

Of course, it is easy for a parent to lose control and lash out at their youngster. Regrettably most of us have done it on more than one occasion. But when we snap we don't go on to smash our baby's head against the wall. It may be normal for parents to snap under pressure, but it is wrong for the NSPCC to suggest that this temporary loss of control 'normally' leads to abuse. The implication that parenting under pressure is an invitation to abuse is an insult to the integrity of millions of hardworking mums and dads. It also helps to create a poisonous atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust.

In contrast to the graphic and scary depiction of parental behaviour in previous NSPCC initiatives, today's 'Someone To Turn To' campaign appears unobjectionable. After all, it can be argued, what's wrong with getting children to talk about their anxieties and problems?

The problem with targeting children in this way is that it distracts youngsters from working out ways of communicating problems to family members and friends. It encourages the belief that problems are something you take to a professional or disclose to an NSPCC helpline rather than share with people you know. For children, communicating problems is difficult at the best of times; displacing parents with the NSPCC will only make it more difficult to develop an intergenerational dialogue. Its effect will be to disconnect children from their parents.

Isn't there something distasteful about a slick high-profile Saatchi and Saatchi TV campaign aimed at children? Most parents would not let a stranger come into their house in order to influence directly the behaviour of their kids. That is why many adults feel revolted when TV advertisements prey on their young audience and attempt to incite children to hassle their parents to buy their products; by influencing children's behaviour, such ads directly compromise parental authority. In this sense, the new NSPCC advertising campaign is no different to the tactics adopted by many commercials that haunt children's programming.

But there is a big difference between encouraging kids to hassle their parents to buy a bar of chocolate, and inciting children to look for solutions to their personal problems outside of the home. Such campaigns will further complicate relations between parents and their offspring and undermine the potential for family dialogue. Personally, I would far rather that kids hassled their parent to buy the latest electronic gadget, than listened to adverts that will make them feel that their normal childhood anxieties requires the attention of yet another professional.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:
  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)

    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)


  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)

    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)


  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)

    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)


  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

    Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
Visit Frank Furedi's website


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