By Sean Rose
Media are very powerful agents of socialisation in contemporary society. They oftentimes supersede the influence of traditional agents such as the family, religious organizations, political and educational institutions, and even peer groups. After all, nowadays, many peers, irrespective of the demographic group, communicate with each other more frequently via some form of media than heretofore. As citizens of a multicultural-globalised world, consumed by a revolution in communication and information technologies, I submit that media, particularly television, reign undisputed as a universal babysitter.
Sean Rose is a media and communication practitioner and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Arguably, as a medium, TV is a vital source of information in our knowledge-driven societies. The medium offers opportunities to learn about different cultures; exposure to ideas that we may not encounter in our immediate community; pro-social messages that can positively affect people’s behaviour, such as best practices in health, information about politics, war and conflict, weather patterns, natural disasters and other significant events in towns and cities across the globe. Television programming can be very entertaining too and is largely responsible for the magic bullet effects of pop-culture as artistes, actors, athletes and superstars of all genres-introduce styles, slangs and trend-setting fashion from the TV screen to our communities in rapid succession. Moreover, the medium acts as a source of companionship for many people.
Looking through the lens of media and cultural studies, I have observed that, although traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers and other print based sources), along with new media (internet based sources), particularly social-websites (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), are all very popular and influential agents of socialization in contemporary society, it is TV and other video based formats that rank highest on the popularity charts for millions of people world-wide.
Television dominates the media lives of young people (Americans), despite the explosion of media technologies, according to a 2010 study conducted by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation. The US Census Bureau says that by 2020 there will be 174 million Americans between ages 5 and 44 who would have grown up with PlayStations, Xboxes and Game Cubes from childhood. This is likely to represent a large demographic base that is dexterous with video-based technology.
Where the Caribbean is concerned, while access to internet services and mobile devices is on the rise, the television set is still the most accessible medium for many households. For instance, while the US ranks highest on the world chart for television sets per capita at 740.53 per 1,000 persons, Antigua and Barbuda leads the Caribbean region with 451.093 per 1,000 persons. Where TV sets per household are concerned, the US also top the rankings with 97.84% but, strikingly, the spice island of Grenada ranks third in the world, and number one throughout the Caribbean with 93.75%, according to Nation Master.
Data from a Kaiser Family 2010 study also suggest that new platforms for TV viewing have become the norm for many young people. In that study, 48% of respondents between ages 8-18 reportedly watch TV online and 30% do so via a cell phone, IPod, or mp3 player. TV viewing among young people today is apparently in the 60/40 ratio between live viewing on a TV set and other sources of viewing. The figures also indicate that 59% view live TV sets and 41% on demand -- using both mobile and other computer-based devices via the internet, along with DVDs and DVRs. Having perused the data, we can also deduce that, in general terms, media consumption is on the increase.
The Kaiser study showed daily hours of TV viewing by 8-18 year olds amounting to 7½ hrs in 1999; 8½hrs in 2004 and 10½hrs in 2010. Importantly, while the US-based study reported satisfactory levels of physical activity among the respondents in the study, despite the increase in TV viewing, a relationship was identified between media use and academic performance.
The 2010 study suggests that 8-18 year old children who are heavy media users are more likely to report getting fair or poor grades (mostly Cs and lower) with 47% of heavy media users reporting that they get fair or lower grades when compared to the 23% of light media users. While media consumption and grades are also influenced by factors such as age, gender, race, parent education, personal contentedness and two-parent vs. single parent homes, the study also indicates that children who spend less time reading for pleasure record lower grades than those who do.
Let us now look at how the universal babysitter could impact violent behaviour. “The link between on-screen violence and subsequent violent behaviour is as strong as evidence that smoking causes lung cancer,” said Christakis and Zimmerman (2009). These discoveries suggest that one of the strategies to stem violence in contemporary society, should include increased censorship of violence via all media and replace them with images and messages that will inoculate those who consume them with anger management and problem solving skills. The role of parents is largely relegated to buying snacks and toys. Many rods of correction are sacrificed on altars of inconsistent disciplining and outright inexperience. The importance of instilling values at an early age is too often treated as an antiquated practice.
The University of Michigan (USA) warns that violent scenes on TV can affect the health of a child; influence that child’s behaviour and family life generally. Arguably, incidents such as the gruesome December 2012 shooting of 20 innocent children and 6 adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Connecticut, USA, do not imply a cause and effect relationship between violent images and sounds transmitted by media outlets and violent behaviour among young people. But shouldn’t we better monitor the content that our young, impressionable minds consume to help negate the likely debilitating effects?
“Violence implies behaviour,” says Von Feilitizen (2009), “but in addition to behaviour it also implies aggressive feelings, ideas, values and norms.” The Pediatrics Journal (Nov. 2009) identified a link between violence in TV programming and subsequent violent behaviour in children. “Parents have been socialized to think that cartoon violence is harmless, but it's not,” the report advised, adding that “violent television viewing at the pre-school level is associated with anti-social behaviour during school age.”
The level of violence in cartoons has increased. Even though, quite often, there is a goodwill message at the core of many cartoon shows. The crusading Ninja Turtles, the violent clashes of the Power Rangers and Kung Fu Panda are all vehicles of violent socialisation. No Road Runner can escape the pitfalls of the slangs other jagged language lessons spouted from scenes such as “The Regular Show”, among others. For the most part, the cartoons of today cannot be compared with the Sesame Street type content of the 1990s.
Many unsuspecting parents visibly breathe a sigh of relief when their children, especially boys ages 3 to 12 are glued to the universal babysitter, consuming violent cartoon shows or spend quality hours engaged in virtual battle playing their favourite video games. Worse even, many parents/guardians pay little attention to encouraging their young ones to watch educational programmes of any kind.
Sadly, watching/listening the nightly news is a practice seldom practiced by children. The reason is simple; many parents do not include this in the daily routine. Conversely, those that encourage this healthy practice reap the benefits of having a more informed young adult, to say the least.
For those willing to discuss the upsurge in male violence in many Caribbean countries, or any region for that matter, we can question the extent to which excessive exposure to violent videos, movies, music and the antagonistic behaviours portrayed by some adults on a daily basis act as mirrors in the socialisation processes of our young impressionable minds. Have we replaced effective parenting, guidance and supervision with the concoction of media sources that now rule supreme in many homes as a universal babysitter, charged with shaping the future of successive generations?