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Soaps: more harm than good?

Fact or fiction: are television soap operas a corrupting influence or stimulating entertainment for children?

IN virtually every home, there is an extra member of the family, a substitute for the elderly relative who regales us with tales of former exploits, or the grandparent who dispenses acquired wisdom - namely the television.

Often derided as the monster in the living room and destroyer of conversation, television is just the opposite. It has the potential to enrich our lives by allowing the viewer to share in new sights and sensations. It has the power to shape our thinking and to be a social force. It is at once a source of relaxation, entertainment and education in its widest sense.

I like television. I am not one of those "eccentrics" who abhors its influences. But, I do believe that television soaps do children more harm than good because of the effect they can have on impressionable young minds.

The problem lies in the genre. A soap is in essence fiction dressed up as fact. We are told soaps are a true representation of our lives. How many people, especially the young, recognise their lifestyle in them? When Itaught in a Salford school, in the area which features in the Coronation Street credits, I remember that the locals were annoyed with the "demeaning" depiction of their way of life.

A soap has to have a wide appeal across its audience, including the young, if it is to succeed in the ratings war. But, aiming mainly at children will not attract the older audience, as seen in the falling ratings of the Australian soap, Neighbours, since the decision to focus upon its school-age characters.

Grange Hill, it is claimed, is aimed strictly at young people. But, what is appropriate for discussion by pupils in Years 10 and 11 is not always suitable for their siblings in Years 5 and 6.

Those responsible for the production of these soaps will tell us that they aim to deal with "real life" issues in a responsible way. But do they? Are not the storylines just to catch the headlines and increase the audience share?

'Fiction becomes confused with fact. Our children, without the experience to discern the difference, get wrong messages'

Are sensitive issues dealt with in an appropriate way? The message might have been to "practise safe sex" to those old enough to understand it.

However, I wonder how many younger children asked their parent, "What is a condom, mummy or daddy?" after Alfie's recent exploits in EastEnders.

The Broadcasting Standards Commission has at last woken up to public concern. It has called for research into the effects of violence on our screens, especially in soaps. In many situations, the way to get what you want or settle a problem appears to be to resort to violence. Is this the message we want our impressionable youngsters to be receiving?

We are told that "children will not take that message. They are far more discerning than we give them credit for." Are they really more discerning than adults? If adults see characters as "real" people and react to storylines accordingly - witness the recent response to court appearances by characters in the main soaps - can we expect our youngsters to be able to do better?

Therein lies the rub: fiction becomes confused with fact. Our children, without the experience to discern the difference, get wrong messages. That is why, overall, I believe that television soaps do children more harm than good.

Jim O'Neill is president of the Professional Association of Teachers

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