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Chief Censor: Censorship – where to now?

Posted on 13 September 2017 by Chief Censor David Shanks

After 90 days in the role of Chief Censor, I have been pausing for a moment to reflect on what the role means, and where it might be headed.

I have had a few people ask me the question about relevance of censorship in a digital age. Today, many of us always have our phones with us. Phones (along with tablets, laptops, and PC’s) provide us and our children with a window into virtually any content imaginable.

‘Given all of that’, people ask me, ‘where do classification and censorship fit today’?

It’s a good question. Some argue that all that can be done now is to accept that our digital age is a free-for-all and we just need to hope for the best. At the other extreme, some countries are adopting harsh new laws and technological blocks to enforce censorship.

I tend to answer the question by saying that the digital world has made issues of classification and censorship more relevant than ever before. Sure, we need to adapt our approach from what was done when content was physical, like movie reels or VHS tapes. But there is an opportunity to develop our thinking to allow everyone to take advantage of the freedom and opportunity the digital revolution represents – while being smart about managing the downsides.

There are plenty of indications that we need to get on with that work now.

Many of you reading this blog will already be aware of the work done by the Classification Office in engaging with a recent series aimed at teenagers, dealing with serious mental health issues. Shortly before I commenced my term as Chief Censor, the Office called in and classified the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why which focussed on teen suicide. Soon after my arrival I found myself discussing with Netflix the film, To The Bone, which dealt with anorexia.

I think it is likely that this is a trend, and that we are going to see more series and films dealing with these sorts of themes. 13 Reasons Why has been a massive success for the producers - in my own informal poll of several hundred 16- and 17-year-old NZ media students, more than 80 percent had viewed it.

Did they watch it with their parents, or at least with guidance and oversight from an adult, as required by our RP18 rating? Some will have. Not all.

That this is a problem is underlined by emerging research. Internet searches about suicide took a worrying leap after the show screened in the US. The preliminary results in from US emergency paediatric support services providing youth suicide support show a substantial increase in volumes. 

What is the picture in New Zealand, with our appalling youth suicide record? That’s not clear yet. While it is evident that this show breaches many of the medical guidelines proposed for content dealing with suicide, we don’t know how many teens or younger children have watched this with no adult support at all. 

This all has the feel of an uncontrolled social experiment, with young people as the primary subjects. It also reinforces the ongoing need for careful management of these kinds of risks.

This isn’t an issue that is going away, and it is not limited to streaming services. Increasingly all media platforms are using algorithms to profile us and our children, determining what content to produce and market to us. These algorithms are entirely blind as to whether that content might be harmful to us. 

We live in an age that offers unprecedented access to information, education and entertainment. This is great – but it also brings with it some real risks. These risks are playing out right now.

We have an opportunity to do more in this area. We can have better, more consistent information and guidance, more relevant education. I think that is where classification and censorship are headed.

David Shanks is New Zealand's Chief Censor at the Office of Film and Literature Classification.

Chief Censor David Shanks

This all has the feel of an uncontrolled social experiment, with young people as the primary subjects.

Chief Censor David Shanks

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