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Thank heavens for Dr Tanya

November 24th, 2005

Dr Petra

Like many people across the UK I love watching ‘House of Tiny Tearaways’.

If you’ve not seen it, it’s a television series where Dr Tanya Byron offers advice and life skills to parents who have children presenting with difficult or challenging behaviour.

I’m glued to the screen each night as you follow different families through a journey of identifying problems and watch them working together to solve it. Dr Tanya’s really inspiring to watch, both in terms of the advice she offers to parents and her interactions with the children which can range from hilarious to deeply moving.

Not everyone in my house is so keen. My partner despairs of my fascination with the show – ‘why are you interested in yet another kid who won’t eat?!!’, and both my partner and cat tend to do a runner when one of the ‘tiny tearaways’ throws a tantrum.

The reason I like the show is that it neither preaches nor blames, it shows strategies for action, and most importantly is hosted by a highly skilled and qualified expert who is also very engaging to watch. Although my background is psychology it’s a long time since I (briefly) touched on child development and I find I learn so much with every programme.

But I’ve got even more respect for Dr Tanya after reading a recent interview with her in ‘The Psychologist’, the publication for members of the British Psychological Society. In the latest edition Dr Tanya explains about the programme’s success, and more importantly about the role of psychologists in the media. I’m including two excerpts her interview here, which journalists and television researchers might want to take note of.

(In this interview the editor of The Psychologist, Jon Sutton poses the questions).

JS: Is it important to you that your media work is evidence-based?
Dr Tanya: Completely. I can’t tell you the amount of stuff I get offered that I won’t do, because I wouldn’t be talking from a place of particular expertise. There are quite a few of those on television, but not me.

JS: I’m not sure the reaction (to a psychologist on television) would have been so positive a few years ago.
Dr Tanya: Whether it’s a ‘change your kids’, ‘change your life’, ‘change the mess in your house’, ‘swap your holidays’; the current glut of reality programming is all about social psychology. The thing that worries me is there are so few psychologists who are actually commenting. Anyone can look as if they’re one of us when they’re not. That’s why I always use my Dr title, I always let them know I’m a clinical psychologist and I always let them know I hold a consultant grade in the health service.

I completely agree with Dr Tanya’s views and approach. Just to give a bit of perspective from a social psychologist’s position, the problem about us not being visible isn’t through want of trying. I’d love to do more television work, and I’m offered stacks, but all I’m mostly asked is to commentate, judge, ridicule, or criticise. I’m rarely offered programmes that would allow me to use any evidence, theories or critical reflection. I know many of my peers have had the same experience. That’s the reason why those who seem like psychologists but aren’t can get away with it. They either falsely claim a title of ‘psychologist’ when they’re not qualified, or they occupy a space saying what truly ethical and qualified practitioners will not. The result is those people continued to be used whilst all of the eager, qualified psychologists are left out in the cold.

Anyway, back to Dr Tanya who continued to say….
You know, medics have got it all sewn up. You wouldn’t have anything on TV that is ‘What’s my disease?’, where you have a panel of lay people saying ‘Actually I had a pain there…why don’t we cut you open and see if it’s appendicitis?’ But you have endless programmes with people who are deeply unqualified, apart from the fact that the media knows they’ve had a very difficult life that they’ve come through, giving advice to incredibly vulnerable people who are absolute fodder for these kind of programmes. You can find out whether your child’s father is who you think it is because they’ve swabbed his cheek and he’s opening an envelope in the studio…that blows my mind.

Thank goodness for people like Dr Tanya who’re respected media figures and who’re prepared to go on record and explain their reservations about the current use of ‘psychology’ in the media.

There are actually a lot of professionals in the social and health areas out there who feel the same. Some respond by simply cutting off any links with the media, refusing to get involved in what they see as ‘bad science/practice’. Others do try and get involved but give up after finding the pressures of actively engaging with the media both exhausting, depressing and time consuming. Still more do really try and challenge things. I know of researchers and practitioners from a variety of psychological perspectives who are trying to challenge how the media works and enable journalists and television researchers to work more accurately and effectively.

However Dr Tanya’s interview has got me thinking that there’s still more to do. Let’s hope that because she’s got a high media profile and is respected by viewers and her peer group, that those in the media may also listen to what she has to say.

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