Helping kids make sense of the media

Toronto Star
November 19, 2003
By Terry Price

"What did you learn in school today?"

It's a frequent parental question and, depending on the age and mood of your child, the response it elicits may range from a dismissive shrug to a torrent of enthusiasm.

But these days, there may be a much more important question to ask: "What did you learn from the media today?"

We've known for years that kids spend as much or more time interacting with television, video games and computers than they do in school. The lessons that teachers deliver are constantly scrutinized and tested for their relevance and effectiveness at building informed and responsible future citizens. The same can't be said, however, for the lessons learned from after school sitcoms, Internet immersion and weekend gaming.

Yet the impact of this "alternative curriculum" is being felt in Canadian classrooms every day. Students who watch the news at home regularly show up at school with questions and concerns about everything from birth control to international terrorism. And educators frequently report witnessing kids imitating dangerous stunts and violent behaviour that they've seen on TV.

So the Canadian Teachers' Federation decided to ask the second question itself. We commissioned Erin Research Inc. to conduct a national survey of more than 5,700 students across the country in Grades 3 to 10 to find out what media products they watch and play, and what they think about their experiences.

The results, published in a report released today and titled Kids' Take On Media, are illuminating.

Choices: Despite the amount of time students spend watching TV, surfing the Internet or playing video games, both boys and girls rate hanging out with their friends as their preferred activity — and it becomes more popular the older they get.

Conversely, reading for pleasure decreases as students age.

In a finding that should be of interest to TV producers and programmers, "exciting" and "funny" topped the list of attributes of the students' favourite TV programs, the majority of which don't contain violence. Excitement and competition were also key aspects of what attracted both girls and boys to video and computer games.

Violence: However, the survey responses did reflect some stereotypical trends, with girls expressing a decided preference for non-violent TV shows, and being much less interested in games. In fact, violence in video and computer games seems to be one of the attractions for male students and by Grade 10, boys are choosing electronic entertainment as a preferred weekend activity at twice the rate of girls.

One of the favorite games for boys across all grades surveyed is Grand Theft Auto, a game designed for mature audiences. The extreme violence in this game --  it involves murder, bludgeoning and prostitution -- raises questions about the definition of "mature," but more disturbing is the fact that the game is very popular among boys even in Grade 3.

Hundreds of previous studies have documented the impact of media violence on society. We know that repeated exposure to violent depictions, whether real or fictionalized, increases people's fears, desensitizes them to the suffering of others, and encourages aggressive behaviour. And in the real world of schools, that sometimes translates into the kind of bullying and violence that can have a profound effect on students.

In fact, in this survey, 51 per cent of Grade 7 to 10 kids said that they had personally witnessed the real life imitation of some "violent act" from a movie or TV show. What can we do about this?

Supervision: The results from Kids' Take On Media suggest many children receive little or no parental restriction when it comes to their media consumption. Forty-eight per cent have their own TV, and 26 per cent have their own computer and Internet access.

Nearly half of those surveyed say there are no household rules regarding which TV shows they can watch, and two-thirds report that no one dictates which video or computer games they can play, or for how long. Perhaps not surprisingly, kids who experience little supervision of their media use are more likely to regard media violence as benign.

At the same time, many of the students recognized the value of adult restrictions. They identified TV programs such as The Simpsons and South Park that they felt should be off limits to younger children and believed that there should be tighter age restrictions on mature-rated computer and video games than on R-rated movies.

Opportunities: The survey also found that children who do watch TV with their parents and are encouraged to talk about what they see are more aware of the potential impact of media violence, and more likely to have discussed the issues of racism and sexism. They also tend to spend more time doing homework, reading and participating in extra-curricular sports, clubs and hobbies.

Kids' Take On Media demonstrates some of the ways children benefit from adult perspectives on the media's alternative lessons.

It also shows that the older kids get, the more they themselves see the value of studying media in school.

Clearly, parents and teachers have a crucial role to play in helping young people to sort through the wealth of media that's available to them -- much of it intended for older eyes and ears. We can and should provide context for the "lessons" being taught by the news, entertainment and advertising media.

This is why media literacy should not be considered a frill but a life skill we should be teaching our young people. In addition to the traditional literacies of reading and numeracy, students need to learn to understand and analyze some of the messages they see and hear in the media.

Terry Price is the president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation. A summary of the findings of the Kids' Take On Media study is available at http://www.ctf-fce.ca and http://www.erinresearch.com.