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Mishcon Academy: Education in a Digital Age – Talking to young children about difficult topics

Posted on 08 June 2022

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

For the first episode in the new series of Education in a Digital Age, we consider how adults can talk to young children about difficult issues, with leading parenting consultant, Rachel Vecht of Educating Matters.  Whether it’s Covid, the war in Ukraine, cost of living, global warming or racism the news is filled with doom laden stories.  Even as adults, it can feel overwhelming.  To what extent should we try to shelter our young children from these issues?  How do we know when they are ready to deal with them?  And, when they are aware, how do you explain issues to them without causing them undue anxiety?  Hello, and welcome to the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions podcast.  I’m Robert Lewis, Partner and Head of Education and I’m joined today, as I say, by Rachel Vecht, founding Partner of parenting consultancy, Educating Matters.  Rachel, hi. 

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Hello.

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

First of all, I’d be really grateful if you could start by just letting us know a bit about your background and your business, Educating Matters.

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Sure.  So, I started out my career as a primary school teacher, nothing to do with the corporate world, and I taught in both the state and independent sector but realised quite quickly that most of the learning takes place outside of the classroom, so I felt like I could have a bigger impact on the lives of children by working with parents and my eldest child, who’s coming up to twenty-one, that’s when I founded Educating Mattes.  It was also about working more flexibly and so I’ve spent over twenty years, and quite quickly it moved into working with parents in a corporate setting, so I work with organisations all over the world, in a whole range of sectors to support parents with all aspects of educating and raising their children and then more broadly as a business, we cover all sorts of DEI topics around allyship and neurodiversity and mental health and wellbeing and all sorts of interesting things but really, helping people to get the best out of their kids and family life. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

That’s fascinating and I’ve met you from one of those corporate events a few years ago, attended it, and it was, you know, they’re fantastic.

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Thank you.  I mean, when I speak to parents, I’m drawing on the experience of teaching other people’s children but of course having your own is quite different, so I do have four, so testing out all these strategies on them as well and I don’t always get it right. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

So, like you said, you founded Educating Matters over twenty years ago.  Do you think that young children are more exposed now to difficult issues than they were then?

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Yeah, I mean, absolutely.  Even just seeing the difference between the childhood experience of my older two, as I said one is almost twenty-one, the next one is nineteen, and the younger two, who are twelve and fifteen, and I do feel that social media and technology have contributed enormously to this ease of exposure.  I mean, if I go back, you know 1995 is when I was first teaching in the classroom and we didn’t have iPads and smartphones and really, the main way prior to social media and phones, to get information was through the news and starting to be through the internet but you had to actively seek it and what I see all the time with kids today, whether it’s on YouTube or a social media platform, things can pop up surreptitiously even if you didn’t select to see them and also the problem is, which is very different to when we were kids, these images are you know live, moving, very visual, so they do have a much longer lasting effect and impact than maybe something you saw in a book.  I mean, my husband’s father is a cardiologist and he always talks about once when he opened this really graphic medical book but you know, an image sticks in your mind, it’s so easy for kids to kind of type in the wrong date of birth and get access to all sorts of things.  But saying that, I don’t think that we should totally demonise screens, we’ve got responsibility to teach our children to use them safely and responsibly and some of these online forums can be enormously supportive and beneficial and a way for children to discuss, you know, quite difficult issues.  On the other hand, they normalise some really challenging things like, you know, self-harming or eating disorders so it’s definitely changed the landscape for children.

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

Yeah, as a parent myself of two young children, kind of almost six and almost two, at the moment we’re kind of deferring that issue about digital technology because we basically don’t let them have unrestricted access to it but I feel like it’s coming, particularly with the six year old.

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Yeah.  And the problem is, you know parents say oh, I have to put router under my pillow, it’s the only way to… you know but really, they are part of their lives and we need, obviously with younger children it’s fine not to let them have them using it that much but as they get older, it’s how they access learning and everything else, so it’s more about teaching them through communication and connection rather than coercion and control to actually, you know, use them in a safe way. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

So, actually, that kind of brings us on to my next question which is to what extent do you think adults should try to insulate young children from difficult issues?  So, you know for example, should parents avoid exposing young children to the news on television and radio, to avoid them hearing about say bombs dropping on schools in Ukraine or how many people have died of Covid?

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Mm.  Well, one of the things that I always say to parent is, you as a parent are the expert on your own child, so I might have you know literally thirty years now of experience working with parents, I’ve read hundreds of books on parenting and psychology but doesn’t make me an expert.  Each parent knows what is right for their child and needs to take into account their emotional temperament and their stages of development and every child is different so, some people might have a child who is very sensitive and anxious, another child may be unbelievably laid back and resilient so, I don’t think it’s a good idea to pretend an issue isn’t there, especially if your child has started to ask questions about it but of course you need to think how to frame that conversation in a way that’s appropriate for their age.  And, just in terms of understanding what to expect from different ages, I thought I’d just go through some of the basics in terms of children’s developments.  So, with like the three to five age group, I mean you might not choose with them to have the news and all these images bearing because even on basic news channels, they can be quite graphic but three to five year olds, on average, are at a totally egocentric stage of development, so really all they care about is whether they are safe and how things impact them directly, which means when you are having those conversations, they don’t need a lot of information, you know, they just need two or three explanatory sentences and it’s more about asking them what questions they have.  So, for them, you know, be aware of the radio and the news.  For primary school age kids, they not only want to know if they are safe, they start to worry about if other people are safe and they are at a more logical stage of development.  So, with this age group, I would probably start by saying, you know, what, when you hear this story or you know what are you worried about?  And it’s also about not trying to talk them out of those feelings so, saying things like it’s okay, don’t worry about it, but really I mean what parents do is act like a kind of emotional container vessel to validate and acknowledge and normalise some of those feelings.  Now the thing with older kids going through to teenagers, I mean most teenagers, do you know where they get most of their news from?  As a parent of a younger child, you might not realise. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

YouTube?

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

It’s TikTok nowadays, in the last year or so.  I mean YouTube is supposed to be the platform that more kids use than anything else but the starting point is always to determine, you know, what they already know and check for any misinformation or confusion and the problem with teens is, you know, they are, it’s not a problem but that’s a time of developing their own sense of self and identity and very often they may have views and opinions that don’t align with yours, they are much more worried about their peers think.  So, I think with that age group it’s important to check-in regularly and make sure wherever they are getting these news stories from, that it’s, you know, accurate information and maybe comparing what you might have read in The Times versus what they saw on TikTok. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

From my experience on the kind of younger side of things, so some stories just, they’re there and you can’t avoid exposure to them.  Like, my daughter was three when Covid hit.  We hadn’t really had to think very much about how to handle difficult issues with her but it was something that affected her life so much and we had a bit of a crash course as how does a three year old respond to something so kind of catastrophic, in a temporary way, to her life?  It was really challenging as a parent. 

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

And that’s the thing, like when you say when should I expect, it also depends whether it impacts them or not.  Now, obviously Covid was something that impacted everyone so you are going to have a conversation about it but then there are other stories that might just come and go and they’re not really going to hear about so you think do I really need to raise this with a four year old if it’s not going to impact them and that people are unlikely to discuss it with them. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

I feel like you know certainly where we are in parenting, which is that age of six, just starting to get this feeling like you no longer have total control over what your child has access to and what information they have access to and it seems to me that as a parent I’d rather my child first discusses difficult issues with me or with another responsible adult, like a teacher, than other circumstances where they are exposed to difficult or confusing things, say by other children.  I mean, how as adults do we make that judgement call about the right age to talk to your children about difficult issues before they hear it from somebody else?

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Mm.  I totally agree with you that, you know, even if a topic is difficult or upsetting or perhaps even, you know, a bit awkward to start that conversation, I also feel as a parent I would rather be the one to choose how they hear it first, to kind of, not control but have something to do with that introductory narrative, you know, rather than one of their friends or them learning on a YouTube video, you know, something about how babies are made or, you know, being the source of that information.  I mean, just to share a really tragic example is recently, a lovely mother that I know of four, took her own life and two of her kids, her twenty and fifteen year old, were friends with my children and of course that’s a really difficult to talk to your kids about and I was speaking to another friend the day we found out, how we were going to discuss it with our twelve year olds and she took the decision to think mm, I don’t really want to like start explaining everything so I’m not going to tell her and I thought, well she may go into school tomorrow and other kids will talk about it, so I think it’s important that I start that conversation and sure enough, the next day, she phoned me to say oh gosh, now I don’t know what to do because my daughter did find out.  So, as difficult as it is sometimes to have those conversations, you know you know your child, you know how you want to explain it and also, as parents, we often make mistakes, everyone, I’ve made loads, so it’s like gosh, I wish I would have discussed that earlier, I wish I… but sometimes things also just happen that you didn’t imagine you would need to have that conversation, like just another, I’m giving you horrible examples but my son, in his first week of secondary school, I mean now he’s at university, he came home one day from school looking just really disturbed and upset and it took a while for me to get through what was going on and basically, in the library, a sixth former had managed to show him pornography, at school, and so this is my first child, I hadn’t had a conversation, you know he was just eleven, about this and I was like, oh my gosh, I’m really, I don’t know, I’m his mother and I don’t know how to start this conversation but so the, you know, guidance is you should start certain conversations even earlier but it’s kind of knowing do I need to do this, is my child exposed to this situation or can I leave it for a few years?  It very much depends on also the circumstances and what they are experiencing in their own lives.  It’s difficult. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

Yeah.  I mean, I guess as parents, we’re kind of constantly trying to look and future gaze and stay ahead of the game.  Do you think that there are some issues that you should consider totally off limits for children below a particular age or in theory, is anything fair game provided you approach it appropriately?

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Yeah.  I would say that so, my focus in all the work that I do supporting parents and I’ve got like this group, like online parenting course, and really, everything is about your relationship and connection with your child.  So, the absolute priority is that, and I can tell you this as a mother of well I suppose two adults now and two teen… almost teenagers, you want to have that relationship where your child feels they can talk to you about anything on their mind and ask anything, even though it might be you know really uncomfortable and really awkward and if they ask you, even if they are only three and they ask you a question that you just weren’t expecting them to ask, rather than fobbing them off, it’s about finding a way to explain it in a way that’s appropriate for their age.  Now the good thing about the online world is you can literally put in anything on Google, like how do I explain to a four year old about death?  Like, you wouldn’t necessarily need to tell them what cancer is unless somebody in their lives, you know was experiencing it. so you can find and there’s kind of all sorts of online forums and you can get advice on psychology, like literally just by searching online and the other thing to say is if there is a difficult issue and your child out of the blue asks you a question or a situation presents itself you didn’t anticipate, there’s also nothing wrong with saying I’m really happy that you’re coming to ask me this question or that you are talking about this and it’s really important, can we speak about it, not to fob them off but let’s talk about it when you come home from school, we’re going to talk about it at the weekend, I need a bit of time to think about you know the best way to explain or even, I’m not even sure of the answer, like, also don’t feel like you nee to be put on the spot and know what to say in that particular moment, as long as you do come back to it, otherwise your kids just think oh, you say I’ll tell you later and then you don’t, so that’s what I would say.  Your question also made me think about quite a few years ago I was observing some lessons run by the NSPCC in primary schools about a really tricky topic about how to teach four and five year olds what is or isn’t appropriate for an adult that they may know, in terms of you know touching and I was like, how do they teach this to four/five year olds?  And they did it in such a clever way and got the message across so, there’s always ways, like obviously the conversation with a four year old is different to a fourteen year old but it can be done. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

So, in our household, we’ve had quite a significant debate which we don’t, we’re still not quite sure what the right answer is, about when to talk to our children about racism.  When do you think it’s suitable to talk to children about this issue?

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

I think we’ve got, you know, a fundamental duty to talk to our kids about racism, homophobia, antisemitism, whatever it is and after the killing of George Floyd, we had a lot of demand for our talks, well we created this talk actually about teaching children how to be allies and it’s really about raising allies for the future and I think it’s really important to discuss and to celebrate and appreciate different cultures, races, people who are neurodiverse, people with disability, and I would have this conversation even if your child, you know, hasn’t actually been affected by racism and books are an amazing way, particularly with young children, picture books to introduce different cultures.  Unfortunately, most children’s picture books do not really feature children of colour.  There is someone I know, who used to work in diversity and inclusion at Unilever, has created an amazing picture book series called Sophie Says and it really addresses topics like racism, world diversity, mental health, disability and so one of the suggestions actually the other day which might help with your kids of how to introduce this topic, in her newsletter I picked it up, it says ask a young child to go to the garden or go outdoors and pick up all the different coloured, natural objects that he or she can find.  So, leaves, petals, twigs.  And then explain all of these different items come from the soil and they grow in different ways and they are all different colours and you know wouldn’t it be so boring if people were also all the same colour and then to explain to them like some people are not nice to people that look different to them and I would just kind of start the conversation like that, more gently, I think. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

One of things that has bothered me about the topic is that sometimes some of the material out there, I’m not going to name the books because I might get in trouble for it, but the material out there which talks about kind of stories about celebrating particular famous historical women’s lives or people of colour’s lives.  When I look at it from the point of view of what my child is getting out of it, I worry sometimes reinforces stereotypes because what she’s learning first of all is that that person was a woman and they couldn’t go to university or they couldn’t do what their brother did and at the time of reading it, I was like well I’m not sure it even occurred to her that she couldn’t have done it, that she couldn’t do those things or there were those barriers…

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Yes, so you feel like you are planting the idea in her mind. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

Yeah, and the same goes, you know the, that person is of colour and therefore they couldn’t do the same thing as white people and again it was like, I’m not sure that thought would have gone through her head until that idea has come in and it’s really, it’s really tricky because you worry that you’re trying to do something which is positive but are you actually reinforcing something that’s negative, at least at an early stage?

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Yeah, I know, I mean at primary school, I remember my daughter not so long ago, learnt all about, you know Rosa Parks and the fact that you couldn’t sit on a bus in America not so long ago at the front and you know, they also hear stories about women that couldn’t vote and so, I just think, I understand what you are saying but I think also helping them to realise how lucky we are now that we don’t have those kind of stereotypes, not only about race but you know what men and women can do or can’t do and just the whole, the world is a much more kind of inclusive, accepting place. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

And do you think there’s a difference between how you might, or how early you might want to talk about it depending upon who your family are and your background so, it may in theory be easier to defer conversations about racism if you’re white because your child might not experience racism themselves directly but if you’re not, it might be something that they have to understand and recognise that might happen to them. 

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Mm.  I still think especially, you know if a lot of schools these days, they meet so many people from so many different backgrounds, you don’t need to you know frame it as a really horrible scary thing and start talking about, you know, Ku Klux Klan or anything like that but just to, to just explain that it’s some people are not kind to people that are different to them, that’s kind of how I would frame it with a young child. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

I just think about, I think when I was young, certainly topics like this just generally, in my growing up, weren’t really discussed and maybe I was a bit slow on the uptake as a child but the first time it actually occurred to me that kids in my class, who were of different races, were different from me, was when I was eight and one of the boys in the class who had older siblings, said something racist and I had, I didn’t know what the word meant, I had no idea and there was a massive stink about it and it was the first time it actually occurred to me there was a difference. 

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Yeah.  So that’s what you are saying is, like otherwise, if you talk about it too early, you feel like you are planting an idea in their head which wasn’t even there and they don’t even really see those differences when they are young. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

Yeah, potentially. 

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Yeah.  I mean, it’s so difficult and there is, there isn’t kind of a right or a wrong answer.

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

There are some things, I mean you talk about things abstract in the news but some things in life are happening inside your household that are significant pressures so, for example, you know cost of living crisis at the moment, there will be many families who they are having money struggles, they may never have had them before and now they are.  And to what extent do you think parents and carers should try to insulate children from those types of struggles and to what extent do you think parents should help young children understand the worries or issues going on in the house?

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

One of the things I think is that children are way more switched on and aware than we necessarily give them credit for or realise.  You know, I don’t know if you have ever experienced, even with a baby, if you are literally rushing out of the house to get to an appointment or something, it’s almost like they can sense your stress and worry and they like, you know, the start vomiting or crying or making it a lot more difficult and basically, there’s neuroscience behind it so, in our brains we have mirror neurons which means we literally mirror the emotions of those closest to us so, if you, for example, are feeling incredibly anxious about your child’s first day at nursery or as many parents were, there was a real anxiety to even you know just go to the local supermarket during Covid.  That fear can filter through to your child and it’s like this idea that our eyes are their mirrors so, our thoughts and feelings will send a message to our children and we need to think about what that reflection is.  So, you create that environment in your home, so what I am saying is, I wouldn’t advise in most situations literally pretending everything is perfect and everything is great because your kids will pick up on it anyway and if they don’t know what’s going on, either they’ll have their own ideas or it will just make them feel very uncomfortable and if we go back to what I said before, the priority is creating that environment and culture where if basically, if you want your children to be open and honest with you and share something with you when it’s troubling them, I think they are more likely to do that if you model doing that for them.  However, they don’t need to know every single tiny detail and every worry or problem that you have in your mind so, for example, like you were saying about money or maybe, I don’t know, a parent has lost a job so, to say right, this has happened, you know I’m trying to find a new job so for the moment, we might not be able to go out for dinner or go on holiday or do some of the things we’ve done and I’m not sure exactly how long this is going to go on for and if you have any questions or things you want to ask me but it’s creating that space where children can, you know share their emotions openly and I would always take that approach rather than just literally pretending, I mean you are talking about in the past, you know, my grandmother would never use the word ‘cancer’ so if someone died, we would never actually know why and there was that kind of thing of protecting children but I think they pick up all those subtle nuances, even from a very young age so, it’s just working out what is a way to explain this that’s age appropriate and they don’t need to kind of feel as anxious as you and being conscious of that, that energy that you are generating but you don’t need to completely hide it from them either. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

That’s really good advice.  What are your kind of practical tips for adults about raising difficult issues with young children or answering questions they might ask you?

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Well, as I said, with young kids I do think one of the best ways is through picture books, I always said that, so whether it’s you know starting school, trip to the dentist, death in the family, new sibling coming along, even you know drugs, sexual abuse, as kids get older, there’s normally a book about it.  Also, I often share with my kids stories that I’ve maybe heard in the media or someone told me that this happened because it’s kind of a, feels a bit separated.  Basically, when you use stories, it feels more authentic and it provides a real context and a way to get a message across, especially with older kids, can be a lot more powerful than just giving them a lecture.  There are amazing online resources as well, so for example, when we were talking at the very beginning about screens and technology, there’s a website called Think You Know, which has you know how on earth do you explain to an eight year old about online grooming without them being absolutely terrified, it’s like, it’s the modern version of stranger danger.  So, there’ll be like a video, a five minute video that’s very carefully thought through, it’s absolutely pitched for this age group, you can watch it with your child and then discuss it afterwards and whenever kids come and ask you questions, the first thing I always do is try to throw it back at them and say to them well, you know, what do you mean by that?  Or what do you want to know about this topic?  Rather than thinking right, I’ve got to give them the entire lowdown.  Maybe they just want to know something really simple and you don’t have to go into that level of detail and also, once they’ve got these kind of thoughts and questions, it’s really important to give them outlets to express their emotions, so whether that’s you know journaling, drawing, imaginative play for younger children, one thing I always used to have in the classroom and I did it at home as well when they were younger, was called like a worry box so, if a thought comes into their head, they just pop it on a piece of paper or you can scribe for them and then maybe once a week you just look what’s in the worry box and you realise actually, it’s not a worry anymore and with older kids, you do this exercise where they just write down all the thoughts in their head and then distinguish between those things that are in their control and the things that are out of their control and there’s actually not point wasting too much time or energy on things that you can’t control anyway.  So, you know, it’s checking in with them regularly and just trying to say to them like, if you’ve got further questions, always come and ask me about them, I think. 

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

The last question I’ve got for you is, do you think that teachers and parents and carers have different or similar roles to play when it comes to discussing difficult issues with young children and how do you make sure that the kind of messages and the way things are communicated are aligned between say the classroom and at home?

Rachel Vecht, Educating Matters

Well, the first thing is you can always, you know, check with the school so, how are you, in assembly, explaining to the kids about the war in Ukraine or how are you explaining about, you know, a big news story?  The schools also have a lot of policies around how to discuss various issues.  Now, every family has their own set of personal values and priorities, which may be different to the school or a teacher and I think there is this concept of a trusted adult, which they teach in schools as well.  As long as a child has got at least one adult, whether that’s a parent, an aunt, a godparent, a neighbour, whoever, someone that they feel that they can talk to and ask questions or raise difficult issues, that’s got to be the priority.  So, as a parent, you know don’t be offended if your child didn’t come to you first and also, it depends on the circumstances.  So, if a child knows that their parent is, I don’t know, like we said before, grappling with an illness or major financial difficulties, they might not want to upset them or worry them even more, so they might turn to a teacher.  Also, in schools now, you’ve got this PHSE curriculum, so every single year, they discuss certain topics that they feel are appropriate at the right time and sometimes that provides a really good forum, like my fifteen year old has been coming home giggling, like in quite an immature way because they have been doing stuff around sex and relationships but sometimes when you are in what they call circle time and you are sitting in a group with your peers and your teacher discussing these topics, they may find that easier.  So, I think it just depends on the topics.  Obviously, as a family, you might have a different way of explaining things and always check in with the school.  I’ve sometimes been that trusted adult for my children’s friends because of what I do and my kids have a very good relationship with me.  You know, I’ve been, a situation, it was my daughter’s birthday and some kids came up to me and they said we really need to speak to you.  I think they were about fourteen or fifteen at the time and one of their friends had like marks on their arm and had been self-harming and they wanted me to speak to that child’s parent.  So, as long as there’s someone, I wouldn’t worry too much, you know, as long as they’ve got that space where they could speak to somebody.

Robert Lewis, Partner, Mishcon de Reya

Thank you very much.  That’s really fantastic and I think that’s, take a wrap there.  I’d like to say thanks so much to Rachel Vecht for joining me for the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions podcast.  I’m Robert Lewis and do look out for the next episode in the series.  The Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts, all available at Mishcon.com and if you have any questions you would like answered or suggestions of what you’d like us to cover, do let us know at digitalsessions@mishcon.com

 

 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated, please visit Mishcon.com. 

Welcome to the second series of 'Education in a Digital Age', which explores the latest news, trends and government announcements affecting parents, children and professionals involved in the education sector.

In this first episode, Robert Lewis, Head of our Education team, talks to leading parenting consultant and founder of Educating Matters, Rachel Vecht, about how adults can talk to children and young people about difficult issues and how to assess what boundaries to set when social networks and technology have eased their exposure to the media.

Whether it's COVID-19, global conflict, cost of living, climate change or discrimination and prejudice, even for adults the news can feel overwhelming.  To what extent should we try to shelter our young children from these issues?  How do we know when they're ready to deal with them and how do you explain issues to them without causing undue anxiety?

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

Visit the Mishcon Academy for more learning, events, videos, podcasts and reports.

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