September 10, 2010

Media Use and Misuse at Odds with a Sustainable Future

Presented at the Global Ecological Integrity Group Conference
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C.
June 27th -July 2nd , 2010


“Awareness has to be raised in both the East and the West to deglamorize unsurvivable consumerism” (Julia Whitly, 2010). The paradox is that although alleviating poverty may be the fastest way to reduce poverty and family size, it is also the fastest way to increase individual ecological footprints. Clearly, a delicate balance is required with a compromise between fewer people and more people with fewer needs, desires and wants. This means that changing behaviour and common practices to ensure a sustainable future is the primary role for educators, policy makers and researchers today. It also means bridging the gap between theory and practice. No where does the disconnect between the two persist more than in the field of media content, communications technologies and cultural policy - where they are leading us, how to harness their enormous potential and where the balance between regulation and cherished freedoms ought to lie?

But time is running out. Building safe, liveable communities now includes the added overlay of unfolding complications due to climate change, shrinking resources and financial instability. The need for a new economic order that encompasses modes of social and economic organization based on co-operation and social responsibility designed to serve life rather than accumulation requires examination of how profit driven, corporate media block such objectives with emphasis on materialistic definitions of desirability and success. Countless studies have been done and books written on the subject. The task ahead is to translate this accumulated knowledge into effective policy before it is too late.

Peter Nicholson, President of the Council of Canadian Academies, tells us that as we become information-rich, we are becoming attention-poor, an inevitable side effect of the digital revolution. “Economics teaches us”, he says, “that the counterpart of every new abundance is a new scarcity - in this case, the scarcity of human time and attention.” ( Nicholson, Sept 12, 2009). Additional observations and reports warn us of radiation overload from too much cell phone use and screen time, ways in which ever intensifying stimulants first initiated by television diminish our capacity for imagination and creativity, and how these accumulating side effects still receive little attention in policy making circles (Robbins, 2010).

American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winning author, Chris Hedges, warns us of the diminishing distinction between reality and illusion (Hedges, 2009). Such trends lead to death and we are at a crossroads. Either we will wake up from our state of induced childishness, where trivia, gossip and celebrity worship pass for news and information in our search for an elusive and unattainable happiness and confront the stark limitations before us or we will continue our headlong retreat into fantasy and ultimate demise.

As the propaganda machines grind on, too many reporters function as stenographers for corporate elites rather than hard working investigative journalists. Yet, the extent to which our cultural environment is controlled by large conglomerates, dominated by marketing and advertising interests, is poorly understood by the public at large. The irony is that this era is rapidly coming to an end. Journalists and policy makers around the world are watching what is happening in the United States where century old newspaper dailies are folding or declaring bankruptcy. It is the nation that has exported both the ideal of a free press and the pathologies of a corporate mass media system to countless other countries (McChesney & Nichols, 2010). Although the Internet is the undisputed future of journalism, the profit driven model of support from advertising dollars is not materializing in sufficient numbers to sustain private newspaper ownership in a way that can guarantee decent wages for essentials such as scientific and investigative journalism.

Educators, activists, and media scholars have for years, chronicled from the margins, the systemic deterioration of journalism as well as entertainment media, increasingly dominated by violent content because it sells well in a global market and translates easily into any language. A deep seated and long term crisis has resulted because media owners have made the commercial and entertainment values of the market dramatically higher priorities than the civic and democratic values essential to good journalism and in turn, a good society. An erosion of standards has led to a rise in stories about sex scandals and celebrities, giving the illusion of controversy. This has led to an increasing displacement of good journalism with sophisticated propaganda which tells people what they need to know to consume products and support spurious wars but little of what they need to know to be voters and responsible citizens. According to David Suzuki, over $ US 500 billion is spent annually by the advertising industry to get any of us on the Planet to buy things ( Record profits are frequently announced by Microsoft and other gaming manufacturers who socialize our youth to amuse themselves with endless sedentary, interactive screen time with video and computer games such as Killzone Liberation and the World of Warcraft. Many, such as Manhunt 2, banned in the U.K. are produced in Canada and subsidized by our own tax dollars.

There is an obviously strong link between public education and a free press. The downgrading of journalism leads to ignorance, corruption and misery, the very symptoms that tend to accumulate both within government and the private sector when transparency and vigilance from a free press are reduced. Although the blogosphere and citizen journalism are encouraging symptoms of positive transformative change in the way news is now gathered and reported, close observers stress that most of these developments are still driven by and attached to old media operations. And while non profit organizations can provide valuable information for public education purposes in their respective areas of expertise, the general trend toward Internet provision of news which results in digital sweatshops is to be avoided.

One of the biggest challenges for educators in this digital age is to dissect the myth that has sprung up in the last century and a half about the evils of government involvement in journalism. The notion that only the corporate sector is the true guardian against censorship has developed into a woeful under examination of the privileges media moguls enjoy. Public interest obligations originally promised in exchange for these privileges have virtually disappeared in recent decades. An early commitment to provide professional media services has gradually evolved into a euphemism for “self-regulation”. Freedom of the press rests with those who own one, or control the broadcast microphones or own the Internet servers.

Responsible journalism ought to be regarded as a public good like health care, national parks and defense. Historians have tended to avoid attempts to reconcile the fact that the same enlightened sages of the past who laid the foundations for democratic governance, also created a partisan press system, subsidized by political parties and government contracts which included postal giveaways. Furthermore, these have never been “free” markets. News, advertising and entertainment, either in print or electronic form, have been recipients of huge direct and indirect subsidies, tax breaks and exemptions. Few people understand this.

On the eve of China’s 60th anniversary celebrations last fall, a front page article ran in The Toronto Star on Beijing’s vast and effective propaganda apparatus (Schiller, Sept. 27, 2009). But the reporter’s description of how inhibited Chinese journalists are compared to those in the West was overstated. Granted, the firing of Chinese journalist Liu Yuan for breaking a story on the death of a 15-year-old boy at a camp to cure Internet addiction was inexcusable. Such a story in Canada might well have resulted in an award for the journalist. But that is as far as it would be allowed to go. Corporate media interests would very quickly block any progress toward serious policy development to address the problem.

For example, in 2008, a tsunami of opposition orchestrated by corporate media interests broke out in the mainstream media over a bill proposed in the House of Commons which would have eliminated tax credits for audio visual productions deemed to be harmful to the public interest. Industry lobbyists rejected the argument that such discretionary funding is expected of any democratically elected government entrusted to set policy on how public money is spent. So the upside-down world of journalism is hardly unique to China. The difference in Canada is that it is the corporate media rather than party officials who call the shots. Indeed, in China, the problem of Internet addiction among youth in particular, is at least acknowledged. In Canada it is ignored. Within the mental health community, growing concerns from parents, educators and family therapists about increasing evidence of Internet addiction among youth have also been ignored. Denial is the order of the day. The problem is considered too messy and difficult to address despite news reports that Canadian children are engaged in 3 times the medically recommended amount of screen time (Ogilvie, 2008). In Japan the government has warned parents and teachers of new legislation restricting screen time for youth as a result of evidence of widespread addiction to computer use. In recent months South Korea and Switzerland have both banned violent video and computer games (Grossman, 2010).

Parents, on the other hand, are now up against enormous odds in rearing their children. Ways in which the advertising industry knowingly undermines family cohesion through the use of marketing tactics such as “the nag factor” and “pester power” need to be better understood and resisted. Media literacy courses for both adults and children should emphasize ways in which media detract from eco literacy.

Harmful media content also fuels climate change and social upheaval in ways beyond obvious concerns about fair and accurate reporting Despite the popularity of Al Gore’s celebrated documentary, An Inconvenient Truth vast amounts of fossil fuel continue to light up billboards, and power vehicles for a single film, television or commercial shoot. In 2008, it was pointed out to the Canadian Senate Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce that, in the previous 12 years, taxpayers contributed over $22 billion to the audio-visual industry.

In 2007, Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, ran an article on a television recycling plant near Toronto’s Pearson International Airport where overworked technicians scramble to keep up with the demand for removal of lead and other harmful metals from old fashioned tube style sets as viewers switch to flat screens. But for every old set shredded, it was reported, 600 new ones are manufactured for distribution in China. Similar stories abound about the life cycles of computers, cell phones and other forms of communications technologies. Ironically, at the 2008 Conference of the Canadian International Council, held in Toronto, Wenran Jiang from the University of Alberta spoke of how China was starting to wake up to the ills of environmental devastation and climate change and is especially concerned about becoming the dumping ground for 90 percent of the world’s electronic garbage.

Current demands for net neutrality and the right to equal, unlimited access to the Internet, regardless of energy costs or the purposes of its use are shortsighted. What we need, instead, are new lifestyles and changes in basic modes of production and consumption with restriction of advertisements to essential information and compulsory rationing of products. Pornography, now estimated to involve 40 percent of all Internet use, fuels violence against women and children. The worldwide sex slave trade is identified by the United Nations as the largest illegitimate form of business in the world today. Meanwhile, alternative sources of livelihood, in poverty stricken developing countries, in particular, continue to shrink in the aftermath of globalization, climate change and growing food and fuel shortages. The pornography industry has actually won the culture war fought with feminists to free women from sexual tyranny. As Hedges points out, “Stripping, promiscuity, S&M, exhibitionism, and porn are now mainstream chic” (Hedges, 2009, p. 86). Pornography is the same disease involving violence and domination that glorifies the cruelty of war and celebrates it in other forms of ‘action filled’ popular culture commodities. These, in turn, are metaphors for the disease of corporate and imperial power.

Yet the dots remain stubbornly unconnected. In both the 1000 page Falconer Report on Violence in Toronto Schools released in January, 2008, and the yards of ink which followed, the focus was on the code of silence and fear among teachers and superintendents, with none on the culpability of the media industries, themselves. The result is a gradual erosion of our right to feel safe and our responsibility to make others feel safe as the boundaries between entertainment and victimization fade.

What About the Research?

Findings on the harmful effects of violent entertainment from thousands of studies, released into the public domain in recent decades, are usually quickly neutralized to ensure that the debate never gets beyond proof of harmful effects and onto policy (Dyson, 1995). In 2001, a leading Japanese brain specialist found that playing Nintendo video games renders parts of the brain inert. The corporate giant approached him and quickly became his number one research donor. Since then, Dr. Rutya Kawashima has reciprocated by calling for more research and for the gaming industry, it has been back to business as usual (Cameron, 2006). Findings involving the use of MRI techniques, demonstrate that brain cells which normally counsel empathy are shut down in teens who play violent video games (Linn, 2004).

Aggressive marketing yields $1 billion U.S. in annual sales for Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein videos despite protests from the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, based at the Harvard University Medical School. The American Pediatrics Academy recommends no screen time at all for children under the age of two, yet only 6 percent of parents are aware of this. Recent evidence demonstrates that children who watch television or video games before the age of two actually show slower vocabulary development than those who experience no screen time (CCFC, 2007a). In this case a rare, but qualified win should be noted. Last fall, Walt Disney was persuaded to refund all purchases of these videos in NA within the last 5 years on the basis of false claims. The offer in Canada and the U.S. was good until March, 2010. This success did, however, result in the CCFC losing their lease at the Judge Baker Center for Children because of corporate donors upset over this development.

What about censorship?

Demands for the First Amendment to be updated are growing. This is a central theme in McChesney and Nichol’s book on The Death and Life of American Journalism. Scholars, from various disciplines, particularly in the humanities, are calling for a reinterpretation of both the Amendment and the definition of healthy economic activity in response to mental and physical health issues, looming environmental disasters and the crisis in American journalism itself. ( Global warming and the coming energy crisis are not our main problems. They are symptoms of deeper, entrenched cultural and societal problems. Massive changes to our conceptions of truth, freedom, individual and human rights, and how we see ourselves in relation to the Earth as a whole must change dramatically in the next few years if we are to survive as a species.

Indeed, the threat to our survival goes well beyond the issue of climate change. Violent video and computer games are also helping to fuel terrorism. It is estimated there are now over 8,000 websites associated with extremist groups, many used for recruiting young converts (Dyson, 2007). Almost all terrorist activities in recent years have been executed by members of diaspora communities, whether in Spain, England, Holland or Canada. Often they are well educate, technologically- savvy and look up to al-Qaeda. (Blatchford, 2008). As Thomas Friedman pointed out in a PBS television interview with Charlie Rose recently on the Afghanistan war, the war on terror is now virtual. The threats are now longer contained in that country or along the Pakistan border (May 14, 2010).

Some see involvement in terrorism as a graduation from gangstra rap for young testosterone propelled male teens to a kind of status symbol. Many bring with them skills and lifestyles associated with urban youth gangs where guns, violence and extremism are the norm. At the 6th Annual Summit on Emergency and Disaster Planning for colleges, universities and K-12 schools held in Toronto last fall, Bill Byrd, Safe Schools Inclusion Administrator for the Toronto District School Board reported on trends toward more gangs and youth violence while family control is deteriorating (Strategy Institute, Oct. 6-7, 2009). Speaking at the same summit, Craig Peddle, who studies and investigates youth gangs, said he has no doubt that popular culture is a causal factor and reported that for every single website that addresses the problem, there are 100 promoting it, not only on the Internet, itself, but through periodicals, rap music and other forms of popular culture. The gangs are growing in number, many are now inducting girls and the average age level is being pushed up as high as 22 years of age

One of the central themes in popular culture for young people for decades, has been a tendency to undermine all authority figures, parents and teachers included. The subsequent rise in government promises for tougher law and order measures and the increasing focus on national security issues was predictable. It resonates with the late George Gerbner’s definition of “ the mean world syndrome” as one of the harmful effects from entertainment violence to the community at large (Morgan,2002) .


Having tolerated the deterioration of our cultural environment despite countless studies warning us of harmful effects, how do we turn things around? First, we must break the international code of silence and fear on the subject. At the 2007 UNESCO annual meeting in Ottawa, Ahmed Djoghlaf, Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biodiversity and Culture, emphasized the importance of transformative change in large urban centers where reverence for nature and biodiversity must be cultivated. But he somehow managed to avoid entirely the issue of consumer driven lifestyles fueled by billions of advertising dollars and government subsidies for harmful content with universities collaborating through skills training .

Plans for safe schools in large urban centres such as Toronto, admittedly hinge on funding, but surely it is a no brainer that they must involve more than the millions earmarked to hire more social workers, policemen and psychologists to deal with cyberbullying, sexual predators and expelled students. One wonders if officials from Ministries of Culture ever talk to those in Ministries of Education. All applications for government funding - anywhere - should be carefully monitored for their impact, on both the cultural and natural environment. A lesson can be learned from Leonardo Di Caprio who concludes his film, The 11th Hour, with the statement that it was produced with the smallest possible impact on the environment.

Health care providers, on the whole, must become better advocates for change. Given the evidence of the potential harm of commercialized culture, it is essential for them to take on more responsibility for the education of parents about the negative effects of media and marketing on children and to work with parents to limit their access to screen media. But that is not enough. Limits need to be set on the access marketers have to children as well. As pointed out by educational psychologist, Susan Linn, Director of the Boston, Mass. based Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood, “Toward that end, health care providers need to move beyond their offices and become public advocates for policies that restrict and/or prohibit advertising and marketing to children” (April, 2010).

Canadian organizations such as Edupax, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment have taken public stands against media violence marketed to children, in particular, to in-school commercialism and to advertising directed to children. The Canadian Paediatric Society and its individual members should also become more proactive and join with municipal bodies such as the Toronto Board of Health, organizations such as the Ontario Public Health Association, the Toronto Elementary Teachers Association, and the Ottawa based Centre for Science in the Public Interest and become part of a growing movement to extend Quebec’s ban on advertising directed to children 13 years and under to the rest of the country.

Policy making everywhere in the developed world must measure up to standards in the province of Quebec and other parts of the world where advertising to children is banned. Such rules apply to violence as entertainment, the marketing of junk food and the sexual exploitation of children. The Scandinavian countries, Malta, Greece, Turkey and New Zealand adopted such standards years ago, with the U.K., Switzerland and Italy joining the list last year. The Canada wide ban called for by the Toronto Board of Health which has led to the introduction of private members bills in the Ontario Legislature and at the federal level in Canada should be quickly passed and implemented (Goar, Feb. 28, 2010; Jeffery, Fall, 2007).

Regulatory bodies such as the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission must be discouraged from corporate friendly plans toward further deregulation while ignoring findings of growing problems such as obesity from the sedentary nature of computer use and TV viewed and the relentless marketing of junk food. In 2004, researchers at Laval University found that, in 10 years, acts of violence on Canadian TV rose 286 percent with 81 percent of it before 9:00 p.m., the watershed hour established for the protection of children (Hansard, 2007). Clearly, industry self-regulation does not work without a little help from government and the rule of law. Cultural policy must become more topical during all election campaigns and better connected with global warming and other looming disasters. Only then will we begin to move toward real change.


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Rose Anne Dyson, Ed.D.
Chair: C-CAVE and the Media Working Group - Science for Peace (University of Toronto)
Editor- The Learning Edge
Author of MIND ABUSE: Media Violence In An Information Age
Co-author of MEDIA, SEX, VIOLENCE and DRUGS in the GLOBAL VILLAGE and Terrorism, Globalization & Mass Communication