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Protecting children from harmful content: new research reveals the biggest upsets and how to deal with them

A new study has underlined the importance of safeguards to protect children from harmful content on television and the internet.

Nearly nine out of ten children over the age of 10 told the Children’s Media Use Study 2020 that they’d seen content that made them upset during the past year.

The research, which was carried out for the Broadcasting Standards Authority and NZ On Air, found they were most often upset by seeing animal torture and sex scenes. But most of them knew to change channels or click out of a website and tell an adult.

The research was last carried out six years ago and the latest findings reveal changes in behaviour over that time. It found parents and caregivers were more proactive now in having home rules for managing content, including 77-80% supervising TV and internet consumption, compared with 17-26% in 2014.

But they still need encouragement and support with using parental locks and filtering software to protect their children from accessing content that could be harmful.

BSA Chief Executive Belinda Moffat said: “We are delighted to see that parents and caregivers are being more proactive about protecting their children from harmful content. They have a good understanding of the ways their children’s behaviour can be negatively impacted by what they see and are also far more likely to stop their children watching adult only content than they were in 2014 (49% v 23%).

“It is challenging for children to navigate the wide range of content that is now so easily accessible to them. This is why classifications, parental locks and filtering software are so important and it is heartening to see more families using safeguards and supporting kids in this dynamic environment.”

Parents reported that their children’s behaviour could be negatively impacted by what they saw, including 32% learning inappropriate words, 20% having nightmares or sleeping difficulties, 19% imitating aggressive behaviour and 15% engaging in behaviour that was inappropriate for their age.

Safeguards including programme classifications, warnings and the 8.30pm watershed on free-to-air (FTA) television were recently updated by the BSA and broadcasters to keep up with changing viewing habits.

The changes were announced in May, along with the launch of the website to provide information about ways parents and caregivers can manage TV content in the home, including how to use parental locks.

The study found that adults aren’t the only ones to use the safeguards: 51% of children use classification labels and 47% heed warnings on TV to know that content is not suitable for them. This has risen substantially since 2014, showing that these protections are important safeguards.

Belinda Moffat added: “These safeguards for free-to-air TV are equally important across other platforms. The findings have told us what upsets children, so anyone who produces content for them or has a role in protecting them from harmful content can see where to focus their efforts on harm reduction and safeguards.

“The research also shows that parents and caregivers continue to have a big role to play in protecting children, with 89-92% of tamariki feeling better after they have told an adult about something that has upset them.”

“We undertook this research with NZ On Air, with the intention that it will be useful to the wide range of organisations and agencies in New Zealand that work to provide children with safe access to appropriate, stimulating and entertaining content. We hope it will help to guide children’s positive interactions with content and to mitigate harms,” Ms Moffat said.

More information about safeguards on free-to-air and pay television can be found by visiting the BSA’s website, email or call 0800 366 996.

The research was undertaken in March 2020, with fieldwork concluded just prior to lockdown. For findings related to NZ On Air please read the NZ On Air media release here.

The full report is available here.



NOTES - Key findings:

  • 87% of children aged 10-14 have seen content on television that upsets them, 72% on the internet and 54% on radio
  • 32% of children learned inappropriate words from the content they consumed, 20% had nightmares or sleeping difficulties, 19% copied aggressive behaviour and 15% engaged in behaviour inappropriate for their age.
  • 48% of children kids know to change channels or click out of a website, 46% watch something else and 39% tell an adult if they see something that upsets them.
  • 51% of children use classification labels and 47% heed warnings on TV to know that content is not for them.
  • 72% of parents use classifications and warnings at least some of the time to decide whether children should watch a programme, only a slight decrease since 2014 (78%).
  • Parents and caregivers are more proactive in using home rules than in 2014 with 96% (television) and 93% (internet) having rules for managing content.
  • 86% of parents/caregivers restrict time spent on TV, compared with 42% in 2014
  • 78% restrict time on the internet, compared with 45% in 2014
  • 77% of parents supervise TV v 17% in 2014 and 80% supervise internet use v 26% in 2014.
  • 49% do not let kids watch AO content, up from 24% in 2014.
  • Most children who talk to an adult if they see or hear something distressing on TV (92%), the internet (91%) or radio (89%) feel better afterwards

For more information contact Raina Ng on 021 623 794.


The BSA is an independent Crown entity that oversees the broadcasting standards regime in New Zealand. The BSA determines complaints that broadcasts have breached standards, undertakes research and oversees the development of broadcasting standards in consultation with broadcasters.

The Authority members are Judge Bill Hastings (Chair), Paula Rose QSO and Susie Staley MNZM. The Chief Executive is Belinda Moffat.

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