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Are we so immersed in media brine that it's become an environmental health hazard?
 

Tom Abate
SF Chronicle, January 1, 2006


Twenty five years ago Harvard pediatrician Michael Rich was an aspiring filmmaker studying under legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. "I was assistant director on 'Kagemusha,' " he said, referring to Kurosawa's character study set in the samurai era. Today Rich is in the vanguard of a public health crusade that argues Americans are so saturated with media messages that it may be a health hazard. "Now that we're in the media age we have to see media exposure as an environmental health issue,'' said Rich, who has testified before Congress about media influences on children. "We have to see media exposure like the air they breathe, the food they eat, the water they drink," he said. "We should be aware of what we put in our kids' minds."

Toby Miller, a professor of film and visual culture at the University of California, Riverside, said this new public health critique is the latest front in a recurring debate over how media exposure affects society, especially the young. "Young people are seen as simultaneously being more vulnerable and yet more experienced with new media," he said. "The question is, 'Have we reached a tipping point?' " The answer is maybe. New studies suggest Americans spend more hours per day with media -- television, print, the Internet, video games and portable devices such as cell phones -- than they do sleeping. Social science researchers are starting to look for correlations between this media exposure and ills ranging from obesity to smoking to bullying.

Unlike moral or religious media critics of the past, media's new public health watchdogs seem to be following in the footsteps of environmental pioneers like Rachel Carson. Her 1962 book, "The Silent Spring," was initially ridiculed for arguing that chemical residues could be harmful. Today the Environmental Protection Agency warns pregnant women and young children not to eat too much tuna because mercury built up in the fish could interfere with human nervous-system development. It's one thing to slap warnings on fish and another to prove that media ephemera, accumulating in our gray matter, causes or contributes to unwanted behavior. What makes the epidemiological critique hard to dismiss is evidence that, as one recent news article put it, "we swim in an ocean of media."

That provocative line was inspired by recent research done at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. In the 1920s, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd chose Muncie as the locus of their landmark work, "Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture," which included observations on what was then the new media called cinema. Follow-up studies documented Muncie's cultural changes. In 2001, the Lilly Endowment, charitable offshoot of Indianapolis pharmaceutical maker Eli Lilly and Co., gave Ball State $20 million for media studies and research. Researchers used part of that money to fund a study that exposed flaws in how media exposure had traditionally been measured -- through telephone surveys or diaries that relied on people to recall what they had seen, heard or read. Instead, Ball State researchers hired observers to watch subjects. The observers made detailed notes on the media consumption habits of study participants. This study tactic laid bare what researchers had long suspected -- when it came to media use, Americans were in denial. The observers recorded far more exposure than subjects reported in diaries or surveys.

"Media use is higher (in hours spent) than sleeping. It is the No. 1 activity we do in our lives," said Ball State Professor Robert Papper, a former broadcast journalist. "People put on media shortly after they get up in the morning and then it accompanies them through their entire day." In a 2004 journal article, Ball State researchers reported that "people spend more than double the time with media than they think they do -- 11.7 hours a day in total." The study also looked at so-called media multitasking -- listening to music while surfing the Internet, for instance -- and found that adding these simultaneous uses together "results in a staggering 15.4 hours per day." But Papper said the Ball State studies don't address questions of possible harm. "The amount of time spent with media is absolutely staggering," he said. "But whose judgments are we going to use in deciding what is valuable and what is not?"

Such value judgments are implicit in the epidemiological critiques being leveled by groups such as the Kaiser Family Foundation, the nonprofit health think tank in Menlo Park spawned by industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. "We have to think about environmental health issues," said Victoria Rideout, director of the foundation's Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health. "It (media exposure) is one of the biggest parts of youth environment.''

Two recent foundation reports focus on media saturation and its possible effects. In the March 2005 report "Generation M," the foundation cataloged how 8- to 18-year-olds used media ranging from television to video games. The report ever so delicately hinted that young minds may be getting pickled by immersion in media brine. "What does it (media exposure) mean for the nature of childhood . . . what about the impact of ever more graphic sex and violence, or the link to childhood obesity?" foundation experts wrote, adding "we can't even begin to address these questions" without "available, reliable and objective data documenting the patterns and trends of media use among young people."

In a November report titled "Sex on TV 4," the Foundation took aim at sexually explicit material on television. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat, joined Kaiser experts in arguing that parents have a hard time raising children "in a mass media culture that saturates our airwaves with a steady stream of sex, violence and materialism.'' Obama's remarks echo the alarm that New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton sounded over the summer, after a modification involving "lewd sexual acts" cropped up in the Grand Theft Auto video game. Clinton is following a path charted two decades earlier when Tipper Gore, wife of then-Sen. Al Gore, took issue with coarse lyrics in music. "I can remember writing something in my high school newspaper critical of Tipper Gore," said Mary Bissell, a child welfare expert with the liberal New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. "You do suddenly change your tune when you become a parent.''

Kori Bernards with the Motion Picture Association of America said parental control, coupled with media self-regulation in the form of ratings, provide the best, indeed, only way to police exposure in a free society. "Our goal is to provide parents as much information as possible to make the right decisions for their kids,'' said Bernards, adding that opinion surveys conducted by the Association suggest that three-quarters of parents are satisfied with film ratings. Former Motion Picture Association chief Jack Valenti has written about the genesis of the current film ratings' system on the group's Web site. He noted how the current rating system was formed during the turbulent 1960s, in the shadow of the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed local communities to set obscenity standards. Over the summer, while Sen. Clinton was taking aim at video game makers, one-time Valenti lieutenant Cindi Tripodi launched a new association -- PauseParentPlay.org -- as a one-stop-shop for ratings on movies, television shows, music and video games. The site is backed by retailers including Wal-Mart, cable television powers Comcast and Viacom, the Recording Industry Association of America, and software giant Microsoft, among others. Four U.S. senators -- republicans Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and John Ensign of Nevada, and Democrats Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Mark Pryor of Arkansas -- lent their names to this new group designed to empower parents with the tools to supervise the media consumption of their children.

Robert Liodice is president of the Association of National Advertisers, whose 340 member firms collectively spend in excess of $100 billion annually to promote 8,000 consumer brands -- as he reminded a U.S. Senate subcommittee in March 2004 that was looking into possible links between food advertising and childhood obesity. Liodice dismissed the notion that advertising aimed at children has fostered chubbiness, noting that food sellers today are spending less, in inflation-adjusted dollars, and buying fewer television ads aimed at kids, than they were a decade ago. "There is no scientific study that advertising is bad for children," Liodice said, adding that children ultimately do not bring food into the house, nor do they pay for meals consumed outside the home. "At the heart of this whole issue is parental responsibility," Liodice said. "Advertisers are getting blamed for social ills ... (when) personal responsibility is the name of the game."

But University of Michigan communications Professor Susan Douglas said advertising -- which is the bread, butter, jam and mother's milk of media -- has afflicted Americans with a perpetual unease that can be appeased but never quite satisfied with new purchases. "Advertising is designed to sell us envy, and the person we envy is the future self we become if we use the product,'' said Douglas, who believes media have come to "colonize our minds." Young people, she said, are most susceptible to the "extreme narcissism" fostered by media. "They live in a much more saturated media environment. They are the most heavily marketed-to generation ever," Douglas said, adding, "I'm not suggesting young people are dupes. A lot of them are talking back."

In fact, one trend that may help mitigate the effects of media saturation is that young people are not passive recipients. Half of all teens have published something on the Web, according to a survey released in November by the Pew Internet and the American Life Project. Pew social surveyor Amanda Lenhart said the randomly selected teens were not asked whether they were acquiring the sort of media literacy that would make them more alert consumers of media in general. But, she said, "the creative outpouring of content is a heady experience for teens. . . . In producing something it does somewhat alter your attitude toward the content you consume."

University of Southern California Professor Ellen Seiter has studied the interplay between media use and socioeconomic ills. Her new book, "The Internet Playground," argues that media technologies are more likely to be mirrors that reflect underlying social ills rather than prime irritants -- or cures, for that matter. For example, she said, witnessing violence at home is a far more important predictor of violence than seeing violent media images. And the child who lives in an unsafe neighborhood may watch a lot of TV after school and tend toward obesity, "but to assign media as the cause is to miss the boat." Far from being sponges, Seiter said, "kids can be quite critical, and very aware of commercial messages, early in their lives," research has shown.

Rich, the Harvard pediatrician, does not believe media self-regulation in its current form gives parents or individuals enough information about media content and the influence it can have. "We have a country where we're not going to let the butchers tell us the meat is safe, we have the USDA to put the stamp of approval,'' he said. "In entertainment we have the butchers telling us the meat is safe." He cited a new study published in the journal Pediatrics that suggests children who watch movies in which characters smoke are 2.6 times as likely to take up smoking, even after factoring out variables such as whether they have family who smoke. "Parents aren't aware there are real measurable health outcomes,'' he said. "They don't have something solid to hang their hat on" when they just say no.

At the same time, Rich has seen in his own clinical practice that young asthma patients, provided with video cameras and encouraged to document their illness, actually breathed easier. "Kids showed improvement in asthma just from doing this technological self-examination," he said. Could making media help people filter the messages they consume? Though not ready to proclaim home-made media the cure for saturation, Rich thinks it could be part of the societal self-protection formula. "Media literacy," he said, citing another parental favorite, "is like (wearing) the bike helmet."
 


 

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