“TLC announces series with Toddlers & Tiaras‘ Alana, A/K/A ‘Honey Boo Boo.’ Called ‘Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,’” NPR’s Linda Holmes announced mournfully on Twitter this morning. “We don’t deserve electricity.” Whenever news of some media move that exploits children in a way that creates a permanent record breaks, I end up feeling like a Church Lady. But it really does seem like we need some sort of media code of ethics when it comes to the presentation of children.
It’s abundantly clear that there are some parents and media outlets who simply can’t be trusted to act in their children’s interests when it comes to media exposure. Whatever the Toddlers & Tiaras or Dance Moms parents say about their children wanting to compete or enjoying being in front of the camera, it’s an unnerving abdication of parental discretion and judgement to kids who can’t possibly understand how far they’re being broadcast, what the reaction to them is, or how permanent the record of their behavior is going to be. Similarly, the boy from the Time Magazine cover on attachment parenting, shown nursing at what a lot of folks would consider an advanced age, may grow up so he’s not immediately recognizable, but his name is out there, Googleable in relation to that picture for forever. His mother may have thought posing for the portrait was an act of pride, but parents’ jobs are to think through the crueler assumptions will make about them and their children. And for every parent willing to expose themselves and their children, there’s someone willing to make money by broadcasting them doing so or publishing images of them.
I’m not saying we should legislate against that kind of behavior. People are free to do more damaging things. But it would be nice to have a code of ethics around the depiction of children—Holmes laid out some potential guidelines last fall, and I added a few more. The presence of such a code might not stop some shows. But networks and parents would have to decide how comfortable they felt to be in violation of it. And such a concept might help The Learning Channel think a little harder about whether it wants to extend a fig leaf of respectability to parents who want to make a buck or win public recognition off their kids.