Prime-time TV dramas provide valuable lessons for children, says a new study. Adi Bloom reports
Tina O'Brien, the award-winning Coronation Street actress, knows her experience of teenage motherhood is slightly unusual. "At the end of the day, I get to give the baby back," she said. "I go home and have the carefree life I've always had."
Parenthood may only be her day job as she plays Sarah, the teenage mother in the ITV soap opera, but Ms O'Brien took her role seriously.
She visited a school for teenage mothers and spoke to them about their experiences. The TV programme-makers worked closely with the Brook Advisory Clinic, which offers advice on sexual health, and the teen pregnancy unit at Manchester council.
"I hadn't realised what a difficult position it was," she said. "Meeting young girls who were going through this brought home to me how hard being a teenage mother is," she said.
Ms O'Brien, who won an award for her portrayal of a teenage mother, is not the only young person to have learned significant lessons from a soap-opera plot.
Latest figures from the Government show a rise in the number of teenage pregnancies.
Research by academics from London university's institute of education, however, shows pupils learn more about the facts of life from Coronation Street or Grange Hill than from conventional sex-education lessons.
Television soap operas are renowned for tackling many of the grittier issues of everyday life, including teenage pregnancy, marital infidelity, rape and abortion. And writers and producers regularly consult government agencies and charities when drawing up their storylines.
EastEnders writers consulted the Terrence Higgins Trust over a story about a character infected with HIV, for instance.
A spokeswoman for Coronation Street believes that it is the realism of such plots that appeals to teenagers. "We never shoehorn issues in," she said.
"They come out of the storyline. But when we hit upon an issue, we are conscious that we want to deal with it properly, and contact the right organisations."
David Buckingham, who conducted the study for the institute of education, said that children responded well to lessons from a familiar medium. "It's anonymous. Teenagers can watch television and nobody knows. And it's not po-faced and full of warnings."
In his research, he cites responses from teenagers interviewed for the project, as they list the lessons learned from their hours in front of the box.
EastEnders had conveyed this message to 12-year-old Ethan: "Don't get pregnant if you're a teenager."
And Jon, 17, had been taught significant lessons by the drama series As If, which follows the interconnected lives and relationships of a group of characters in their late teens and early 20s. He said: "There is actually love and feeling and emotion in gay relationships, and it's not just, like, a sex thing."
Professor Buckingham is working with the English and media centre in London to develop a teachers' pack. It will use soap operas, TV advertising and teen magazines to generate discussion about sex and relationships.
For example, a Grange Hill storyline in which a girl is coerced into sex with her boyfriend, and then seeks advice from a rape counsellor, will be used to engage pupils in debate, and highlight the support available for rape victims. "Children are keen to learn," said Professor Buckingham. "But they don't want to be taught. They don't want to feel as though someone is preaching to them."
He wants teachers to help pupils to become informed media consumers:
"Children already complain if credibility is sacrificed to make health-education points. But they need to make informed judgments about how drama relates to reality."