For decades there has been discussion about what the impact of video games, cable tv, the internet, and now of course, social media, has on our children. As far as polarizing debates go, this has long stood as one of the most critical when trying to understand how children are experiencing the world and what influences they take from their media.
It was recently reported the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated a large sum to the Normal Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to support an in-depth study of media impact on individuals, both children and adults. The goal is to create appropriate metrics that show not just how many viewers see something, but to try to get at the deeper meaning taken from viewership.
There are a great many tools – counting the number of like’s on Facebook, or the number of tweets on Twitter, or the Nielsen rating system which is used for both TV and internet viewing. Taking it a step farther though, is trying to understand how the media messages change thoughts or behaviors. The expectation is not that one public service announcement, or one emotionally challenging tv show will change the world, but how does it impact our social sphere, in which our children learn.
One of the first studies to attempt to connect these dots was performed in the early 1990’s when a soap opera (The Bold and the Beautiful) introduced their first character with HIV. Following this media entry of the issue of HIV, the Center for Disease Control noted a marked increase in calls inquiring for more information. Over the last twenty years, the social and medical attention due what was a relatively new disease has created an invaluable awareness for our society. This is a great example of how media can be used to sway understanding.
Today, we live in a world where mental health issues and their destigmatization are becoming increasingly important. Anti-bullying initiatives and character education are front and center in the schools. These messages will be compounded in children’s media, and that may be a really beneficial thing for all of us. Kids must be exposed to messages that they can weigh critically; soon there will be tools and measurements to understand how those messages turn into actions or increase attention on an important issue.
Parents will always lead the way in introducing, limiting and monitoring media influences on their children. In the coming years and decades, a more scientific approach to this will also be available and help parents and educators understand how to maximize their role in teaching critical media viewership, an essential skill needed throughout life.
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