Using underage children in political campaigns is undoubtedly not a new phenomenon. Some child psychologists argue that there is no such thing as too young to get engaged politically. Even children too young to vote are affected by politics every day. So it is best to get involved.
Others disagree with this line of thought and believe that children should not be forced to get engaged in politics until they are old enough to understand the political process.
The campaign for the European Parliament election has seen the main political parties using children in the public relations material. Candidates generally use photos and video clips of their children on social media to project themselves in a favourable light with voters.
The Commissioner for Children Pauline Miceli has made her views clear on this issue: “Babies and young children should not be involved in campaigns by political parties.” It seems that the main political parties have ignored the Commissioner’s advice.
What is perhaps more worrying is that it is usually the parents themselves who push their children to appear in political adverts.
Using underage children in political campaigns may help to humanise a candidate. Political spots that include children can soften up a grumpy and aloof candidate and provide testimony about a candidate that, if properly executed, cuts through the clutter of ordinary campaign ads.
However, there may be more sinister reasons for using children in political campaigns. Some candidates may use their children in publicity spots especially on social media to demonstrate a contrast with an opponent who has some perceived deficiency – an opponent who is divorced, childless or embroiled in some sex scandal. These subliminal messages poison the good ethical climate that should always prevail in a democracy.
Politics plays itself out in the daily lives of children in almost everything they do: their schools, recreational facilities, neighbourhoods and even when they spend their pocket money. Children are smart, but they do not have a solid base of information.
The first decision process that they learn is the bicameral dictatorship where mum and dad make all decisions. They soon learn the art of lobbying and if they are ignored will resort to civil disobedience by screaming or stamping their feet until they get what they want.
Transitioning to a more sophisticated system of decision-making inevitably involves getting to understand how political decisions are taken in a democracy. Parents will do well to make this transition in the decision-making process that rules our lives an easy one for children by discussing political issues that affect the lives of their children.
However, this is not the same thing as exposing children to public attention by allowing them to appear in political propaganda. The Commissioner is right to advise parents that before agreeing to their children appearing in political spots, they should ask themselves whether the children themselves would be happy to recall this experience later on in their lives.
Political parties, as well as candidates, need to understand that using underage children in campaign ads is fraught with danger. There is a fine line in safeguarding the right of children to gradually understand how the political system works and exploiting children for political gain.
Parents and political parties should never want to be on the wrong side of that fine line.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial