Values, not viewing habits, are the key to moulding behaviour, writes Patricia Edgar.
Here we go again with a simple-minded answer to a complex social question. For every hour a four-year-old spends in front of television, we are told, regardless of what they view, the odds of his becoming a bully increase by 9 per cent. (The Age, 6/4). That has to mean every four-year-old is a bully shortly after his fourth birthday.
The single question that has occupied researchers in relation to children and the media since the introduction of television is: what is the impact of media, particularly media violence on children? Despite the many millions of dollars spent on research, the findings are spurious.
Two large studies in the 1960s, one in the US by Wilbur Schramm and his colleagues, and one by Hilde Himmelweit in Britain, got it right when they reported: for some children, under some conditions, some television is harmful; for other children under the same conditions, or for the same children under other conditions, it may be beneficial; for most children, under most conditions, most television is probably neither particularly harmful nor particularly beneficial.
Effects studies have become a self-perpetuating industry for four decades. Answers have not been found, because the wrong questions are being asked.
Some British researchers, notably David Buckingham, have pointed out that effects studies miss the social and narrative context.
The context of violence is what makes it acceptable or unacceptable, and the depiction of violence in drama is essential for children to understand the world in which they are growing up, both at an individual level and a societal level. Yet the belief that media violence is harmful, and now the suggestion that watching any television is harmful, remains.
The factors that have been identified as risk factors for children who are in trouble and who become bullies are child abuse, family breakdown, unemployment and poverty, isolation, lack of social success, peer-group pressure. The media are not high on the list of influences when other risk factors are absent. But trying to isolate the impact of media alone misses the bigger issue.
While media violence may not be a major factor in explaining individual acts of violence and bullying, it may be a very important factor at the societal level. The media depict a very violent world and the media exploit that violence in news programs as well as in sport and fictional drama.
In the society we see on TV there are high levels of aggression, and there is wide acceptance of antisocial behaviour. As a result of viewing this kind of program day after day, we know that people (viewers) perceive the world to be a much more dangerous place than it actually is and fear they will be the victims of violence. This is particularly true for the vulnerable: those living alone, children, women and older people. Perpetrators learn that aggressive attitudes and behaviours are often acceptable, even on the sports field.
Media content has changed its form in the past few decades. Morality tales are now few. Remember when the hero drew his gun only when he was provoked, and always in the service of good? Increasingly the models of behaviour in films, television, video games and music are antisocial. Gangsters, drug dealers and psychopaths are often glamorised.
Right and wrong are no longer clear concepts. This extends way beyond fictional programs, as we know from the war in Iraq, our treatment of refugees, and the debate that surrounds these issues. We don't believe our politicians any more. And the examination of their manipulation of facts becomes part of the media environment where conflict is heightened and exploited for commercial advantage. Altogether this media world presents an experience where the values depicted are at best ambiguous and confusing.
Behaviour is a function of social context. If young people are to grow up to be socialised human beings rather than bullies, constructive rather than destructive, they have to have hope and opportunity. They must be offered something to live for, to believe in, to value. And our media with its emphasis on conflict, violence and sensationalism, its exploitation of bullying in sport and other arenas consistently undermines that process.
We know the importance of a child's early years. If children are not given the stimulation and support they need in those early years, they will grow up to become marginalised adults. Their health, literacy, and physical skills are all-important. But just as crucial for their social wellbeing is the development of their emotional and moral intelligences. Children require healthy bodies, educated minds, and an understanding of their social purpose.
We won't reduce bullying by the impossible task of stopping four-year-olds watching television. Rather television can have a positive role to play. It can be a wonderful medium to inspire and inform as effectively as it now promotes antisocial values.
In 1995, Nelson Mandela, then president of South Africa, sent a message to the first World Summit on Television and Children in Melbourne. In part, he said: "The future of our planet lies in children's hands. All of you involved in television, which is one of the most powerful influences on children, have an awesome responsibility on your shoulders."
At a time when it appears that the moral and the cultural fabric of our society is disintegrating, it is ever more important that we instil in our youth and children a strong sense of values, a compassion and understanding of one another's culture and humanity, and offer them knowledge about the world.
Dr Patricia Edgar is the chairwoman of the World Summit on Media for Children Foundation, founding director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation.
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