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Media Analysis Lab
Media As Risk
Living in a Risky World

I. Growth of Risk Science

There are many other things our children do in the course of there lives which knowingly involve risks to their health and well being – from skiing at Whistler, smoking, or eating at McDonald’s. The growth of risk science was predicated on the belief that the better we can predict a health hazard occurrence, the more we can avoid their devastating consequences. This is particularly true of lifestyle risks, because the dangers arise not from eating one hamburger, or smoking a single cigarette, but from a cumulative patterning of voluntary behavior over time.

The reason for acknowledging, rather than avoiding risks is that we sometimes discover simple ways of reducing them by changing the way we think about them. For example on average 1700 children die each year in car accidents. This makes cars one of the greatest mortality risks to children. Yet this number has been halved since the 1970’s because we use seat belts and car seats that helped reduce the risks associated with cars. We benefit most from the scientific study of risks when they provide us with a sensible way of reducing, avoiding or limiting the risks to our kids.

II. Lifestyle Risks

III. Media As Lifestyle Risk

a. Risks to Education

b. Risk associated with Media and Sedentary Lifestyles

c. Risk associated with Media and Bullying, Aggressive and Anti-Social Behaviour

IV. Decrease in Murder Rates

V. Bullying and Anti-social behaviour still exists

VI. Canadian studies

VII. Media factors debate

VIIII. Parental Regulations

IX. Alternatives: Dr. Robinson’s study

X. North Vancouver Pilot Project

XI. Media as part of Peer Culture

XII. Media as part of Family Life

XIII. Media Risk Reduction Strategy



Lifestyle Risks:

Thinking about lifestyle risks is now an important part of contemporary parenting. As long as they are a matter of informed consent we accept a certain degree of risk in our children’s lives. Certainly, if we thought about all the risks we would drown in the waves of anxiety or become exhausted by searching for accurate information about them. So we normally tolerate levels of anxiety about our kids as part of the normal course of life (walking to school) and even acknowledge that our children seek others (back country skiing; skate boarding etc.) because they also have other benefits. The tragic backcountry avalanche that recently killed seven students has brought home the importance of the science of risk assessment to help us make better everyday decisions about our children.

We could of course opt for state regulated zero tolerance. But because lifestyle risks are voluntary and distrubted in the marketplace, governments are increasingly reluctant to regulate them. Even cigarettes are legal. More and more responsibility for managing risk therefore falls upon the consumer or user. So parents and adult guardians must wrestle with difficult decisions daily about their children’s access to and use of risky products and experiences: should we get a helmet for our young skiier; should we allow our 10 year old to take the bus home after dark? These are the choices we must make. Yet we often find that we make these choices with very imperfect knowledge of the real risks. And if it is hard for adults, imagine how much harder it is for children who have even less access to reliable risk assesments.

If adults have trouble making wise choices, then how much harder is it for our kids. This is why when risks are hard to estimate, we lean towards the the ‘precautionary principle’: to err on the side of safety in situations of uncertainty.

Media As Lifestyle Risk:

In fact, parents have been concerned about the risks associated with new media since TV first diffused into our living rooms after WWII. Originally announced as a window onto the world of knowledge, the media also revealed itself to be a vast wasteland of low brow entertainment. So there have been a series of inquiries dating back to 1951 assessing the benefits and risks associated with media. It will come as no surprise to you, that there are significant health and safety risks associated with excessive media consumption. Recently we learned that even sitting in front of a computer screen all day, created a risk of heart attack. So too, the flickering screen of the Pokemon cartoon, was found to induce epileptic seizures in 13 Japanese children before it was changed. Both these risks are relatively rare. But as we are learning with the internet, and video games, every media has both costs and benefits: even though the internet allows children to do their homework on-line, it also allows them to surf for pornography, be cyber-stalked or to be subjected to email bullying. And the more kids use them the greater the risks can be.

The dossiers we prepared are to help parents learn more about children’s relationship to TV, video games or the internet which underwrites heavy media consumption. But these reviews document two fairly well known lifestyle risks associated with a pattern of heavy media consumption: risks associated with media use and sentendary lifestyles and risks associated with media use and anti-social behaviour.

Our goals were to develop a critical media education curriculum which gets kid to examine their media consumptin habits and encourages them to explore alternatives that reduce the risks.

The dossiers we prepared provides parents with a research review intended to help them in dealing with the media saturated world. These reviews explain the research behind three fairly wel known lifestyle risks.

a) Risks to Education

It is long been said that watching too much TV turns our children’s brains to mush. Well this is not exactly true, But the literature shows a clear correlation between excessive use of media, poor reading and lower grades. The reasons for this relationship are complex and depend on a variety of other factors, including the child's intelligence (Schramm 1968) and the way the family supports and encourages reading and homework (Williams 1986; Rosengren 1989). Data from the 2001 Youth Risk Behavior Survey of 13000 teens in the USA provides a fairly strong indication that excessive media consumption interferes with reading and school achievement. Grade A students are almost twice as likely to be light viewers as heavy viewers of TV. Grade C students are over represented in the heavy viewing group.

b) Risks associated with Sedentary Lifestyles

It has also been said that TV makes kids passive couch potatoes. Although such rhetoric is unhelpful, because it blames TV for what is a lifestyle risk, there is an element of truth to this assertion. A number of recent studies note that obesity is much higher among heavy TV watchers, especially for girls. (Risk to Health Dossier) Again the YSRB study shows that there is a general relationship between excessive media consumption and the health risks associated with obesity and inactivity. Such correlations we be expected for two reasons: first because children who watch a lot of TV will be exposed to more snack and fast food commercials. And second because in order to watch a lot of TV these children tend to give up other kinds of active leisure activities like sports and walking.

c) Risk of Bullying, Aggressive and Anti-Social Behaviour

With crime rates rising from the 1950’s, youth violence and crime have become a leading health issue in North America. After each shooting -- Littleton, Taber and the motorway sniper we ask ourselves an important question: are our children safe in a world whose mean and brutal spirit is magnified on the screen. In 2000, the Surgeon General of the USA published a comprehensive study of youth violence adopting a public health perspective, which ‘focuses on prevention rather than consequences’. The Surgeon General explains, “the concepts of risk and protection are integral to public health. A risk factor is anything that increases the probability that a person will suffer harm. A protective factor is something that decreases the potential harmful effect of a risk factor. … the public health approach to youth violence involves identifying risk and protective factors, determining how they work, making the public aware of these findings, and designing programs to prevent or stop the violence.” Health Canada has provided similar information and precautions about the risks associated with long term violent television viewing.

Decrease in Murder Rates:

First the good news; Murder rates have after 30 years of climbing, peaked in 1992-93 and have begun to go down in the USA – especially for young victims. The Surgeon General report concludes that, “three important indicators of the violent behavior – arrest records, victimization data, and hospital emergency room records – have shown significant downward trends. The total number of school killings peaked in 1992 at 55 and have been declining since. Although these brutal acts command the headlines, such killings account for less than 1% of all murders of children in the United States . School-yard shootings are a tiny fraction of the mortality risks to children, with over 1700 dying in car accidents and close to 30 % suffering from obesity. If we want to stop killing our kids, we should probably ban cars and chocolate bars, rather than guns. Which is why the Surgeon General states: Americans cannot afford to become complacent. Even though youth violence is less lethal today than it was in 1993, the percentage of adolescents involved in violent behavior remains alarmingly high’.

Bullying and Anti-social behaviour still exists:

And now the bad news; The media’s emphasis on murder and violence provides a distorted sense of the real safety risks that kids experience. Youth violence and bullying has not diminished. Recent studies in the USA reveal that about 14% of children bring weapons to school, about 38% get in fights during the year. The Surgeon General concluded: “Americans cannot afford to become complacent. Even though youth violence is less lethal today than it was in 1993, the percentage of adolescents involved in violent behaviour remains alarmingly high”.

Canadian studies:

Although the mortality rate is much lower in Canada, a similar survey in Ontario indicated that 12.3% of students reported assaulting someone during the past year and 10.4% carried a weapon to school. The Ontario report suggests that fighting, bullying and weapons in the school remain a serious issue for teens, peaking in the 9th and 10th grades. One main effect of media, then is that children see their own world as filled with risks. 9% of children in the USA report feeling so afraid that they miss school; and from the BC study 14% of children report not feeling safe “sometimes” to “not at all” at school. And we parents feel afraid too – which is why we often feel better about them going to their room to watch TV or play on their computers than go out and play on the street.

Media factors debate:


But are they safer in these virtual playgrounds? Over the last three decades researchers have accumulated lots of evidence that children learn about conflict from their media – and the more they watch and play, the more their view of conflict reflects the mean world of terrorism and revenge that permeates that world. For example, from the YRBS in 2001, teens who watched more than 4 hours of TV per day, are 7% more likely to report getting in a fight, than those that watch 1 hour or less per day. That doesn’t mean that watching fictional battles causes kids to feel more hostile. But it may mean that those kids see fighting as a legitimate way of solving social problems or have never learned that there are alternative ways to respond to conflict. Over the population those attitudes become magnified. We might estimate that 1,700,000 fights every year can in part be attributed to television in the USA.

In its review of the problem of youth violence, the Surgeon General of the United States has said: Research to date justifies sustained efforts to curb the adverse effects of media violence on youths. Although our knowledge is incomplete, it is sufficient to develop a coherent public health approach to violence prevention that builds upon what is known, even as more research is under way. Unlike earlier Federal research reports on media violence and youth (National Institute of Mental Health, 1982; U.S. Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, 1972), this discussion takes place within a broader examination of the causes and prevention of youth violence. This context is vital. It permits media violence to be regarded as one of many complex influences on the behavior of America’s children and young people. It also suggests that multi-layered solutions are needed to address aggressive and violent behavior.

There has been 50 years of debate among media researchers about the relationship between regular consumption of violent entertainment and aggression among children and youth. The media industries predictably claim that solid evidence concerning the causal hypothesis is lacking and that kids know the difference between fiction and reality. Both of these points are valid: no-one expects ordinary kids to play Soldier of Fortune and then go out and shoot their best friends. Sure they know it's only a game. But with the recent murder of a Counterstrike player in Coquitlam, the industry also seems to be missing the point about how media are an important aspect of the socialization of aggression in the modern world. With children being exposed to 8000 deaths and 100,000 violent conflicts by the time they are 12 how could media not affect their attitudes about social conflict and their understanding of moral constructs?

Although the scientific debate about whether media cause aggressive behaviour continues there is little a growing consensus that heavy consumption of violent entertainment is one of the risk factors contributing in the development of anti-social behaviour. “tapping into a rich but often fragmented knowledge base about risk factors, preventive interventions and public education, the public health perspective calls for examinging and reconciling what are frequently contradictory conclusions.” A recent study published in Science (Johnson et al. ,2002) also noted that whereas 45% of the boys who watched television more than 3 hours per day at age 14, subsequently committed aggressive acts involving others, only 8.9%, who watched television less than an hour a day were aggressive later in life and that this relationship existed even after other factors that contribute to aggression such as neighbourhood, family dysfunction and developmental issues are accounted for.


Parental Regulations:

Most Canadians belief that these risks are sufficient that media violence should be regulated. The Media Q study reported that 57% of parents see their kids as being effected by the movies or TV they watch. In Canada, up to 70% of parents surveyed by Media Watch had media violence as their highest regulatory concern. Although task forces have recognized these risks for many years, they are not politically important enough to do something about them. Of course there was the V-chip, but this has turned into one of the most laughable regulatory tools ever. The video game ratings system developed by the last BC government was one of the first to be abandoned by the Liberals. Even the widespread concerns about internet stalking have produced not safeguards. The reasons are, that to do so would violate limit the industries rights to make money off selling their legal products. The industry therefore puts the onus for these risks on parents.

Alternatives: Dr. Robinson’s study: (Robinson Obesity Study, Robinson Classroom Intervention)

The alternative to this political stalemate lies in thinking globally and acting locally argued Dr. Tom Robinson and colleagues in San Jose who researched the risks associated with media violence differently by applying the public health perspective suggested by the Surgeon General of the USA: if heavy media consumption increases risk to children’s health and safety, then getting them to cut back on media should reduce the risks. They therefore developed an 18 session media education program conducted in grades three and four classroom which encouraged children to limit the time they spent watching TV and playing video games. By doing so, they were able to reduce the incidence of aggression on the playground by 25%, slow the rising tide of obesity, and make kids ages 8and 9 feel safer and happier at school. Our mission is to pilot test this same risk reduction strategy in Canadian schools. The following program outlines how we hope to challenge both children and families to make better choices about what they do with their free time.

In the absence of legislation we feel that the Robinson study provides one glimmer of hope. And perhaps it is time to think globally and act locally: Given that media are being increasingly deregulated, a community based program provides the only way we can attempt to reduce the risks associated with media: We are going to launch a well designed social communication campaign that attempts to persuade kids in grade three/ four to cut down their use of media for at least one week.

North Vancouver Pilot Project:

Inspired by Dr. Tom Robinson's demonstration project recently undertaken we propose a community based strategy which combines the tools of risk communication, social marketing and media education to reduce the developmental risks associated with heavy consumption of media.

To achieve this goal we have adopted a social marketing approach to community mobilization which recognizes children’s media use is deeply embedded in the routines of family life: to change these patterns first ask why do kids watch so much TV and play video game?: From our study of the media saturated lifestyle studies we conclude:

Firstly because there is pleasure in watching stories and playing games – to ask children to change their use of media can therefore be seen as prohibiting something that is theirs and fun. The task must be to challenge them to change without giving up something of value. From our surveys we know that kids often report that watching TV and playing video games is not their most preferred activity. In fact many of them even report they would rather being hanging with friends or even playing with their parents. They often choose to watch because of circumstances in their lives make it the best way they can balance boredom, sociality and family expectations.

Media as part of Peer Culture:

Children also consume media because they share experiences and get peer support for doing so. Discussions of programs and games is an important aspect of children’s peer interactions, which like adults tend to consolidate in taste cultures (interpretive communities). We are going to attempt to shift the emphasis in these peer cultures and make what you do when you don’t watch TV cool.

Media as part of Family Life:

We know that there are many circumstances in family life that make media the easy solution to boredom and loneliness. Children develop their habits within a family dynamic in which parents model and negotiate limits to media consumption as part of the family solution for a busy life. For example the conflict over what to watch is resolved by giving kids a TV of their own, often in their bedroom. Not only do many parents not know what their kids are doing with media, but few families regard TV or video games as a way of talking about moral and aesthetic attitudes with children. The majority of parents in our communities take a laissez faire attitude to their children’s media use, and never bother to communicate why playing or watching too much is not acceptable.




To learn about this Risk Reduction Strategy watch this video

Watch this video to learn about teachers' experiences of the project