August 15, 2011

Action Coalition for Media Education Conference April 7, 2011 at Boston Park Plaza Hotel

Along with Rose Dyson and Robert Rattle, I attended the Action Coalition for Media Education (ACME) conference held in Boston on April 7, 2011 on behalf of Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment (C-CAVE).

ACME is a national media education organization based in the United States that promotes independent media education. ACME is the only organization of its kind that does not take money from corporate media. This was ACME’s sixth national conference. Others have been held in New Mexico, California, Vermont, Tennessee and Minnesota.

The 2011 ACME conference was held at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel steps away from the Massachusetts State House. Concurrent sessions on five themes structured the day. These themes included Media Literacy, Media and Democracy, Health, Youth and Technology. The sessions ended with a keynote address by Robert McChesney titled, “The Golden Age of Propaganda! Understanding and Reforming Today’s Media.” McChesney spoke at the historic Arlington Street Church near Boston Common.

The following presenters dealt with the themes of Media and Democracy, Media Literacy and Health respectively.

Dr. Rose A. Dyson, Anne Venton and Robert Rattle presented on the theme of Media and Democracy and the topic, A Sustainable Future Depends upon Developing Trends in Media Use and Misuse.

The presentation addressed the question, “How do we change the conversation from consumption to sustainability?” Media literacy and Eco-literacy are the key.

Survival of humanity will depend upon our ecological literacy which can only be achieved through media education and media reform. Understanding the basic principles of natural, environmental processes and how media distorts them is essential.

According to Fritjof Capra co-founder of The Center for Eco-literacy at Berkeley, California, “In the coming decades, the survival of humanity will depend on our ecological literacy – our ability to understand the basic principles of ecology and to live accordingly. This means that eco-literacy must become a critical skill for politicians, business leaders, and professionals in all spheres, and should be the most important part of education at all levels – from primary and secondary schools to colleges, universities, and the continuing education and training of professionals.” (The New Facts of Life, 2008)

Market force domination within a digital age can swamp us in ever expanding genres of cultural information. Billions of advertising dollars, targeting us from the cradle to the grave, enhance the seductive characteristics of consumerism, shrinking energy resources and increasing carbon outputs and pollution. Most scientists warn that we need to reverse these trends. Value systems that threaten a sustainable future could be replaced with those which are, ultimately, more satisfying.

A transition to a more sustainable lifestyle where ecological footprints are reduced yet health and well-being are enhanced were discussed as well as strategies for media literacy curricula including Media Madness; an insider’s guide to media (2005) by Dominic Ali and Michael Cho which provides hands on strategies to encourage young readers to consider how they are being manipulated by print and non-print mass media.

In schools today, a war is going on. The school’s goal is to create responsible citizens. Corporate America’s goal via advertising is to create consumers. Schools, parents and communities must teach children and teenagers that aware citizens are not the same thing as consumers. We must fight back by teaching our children and students media literacy.

The C-CAVE presentation also emphasized the need for key policy changes that better integrate cultural, health, community safety, energy and environmental issues. Media literacy and how it interfaces with eco-literacy are vital to adult education, as well, which extends well beyond the classroom. Regulation and legislation which restricts advertising to children on the basis of research showing harmful effects, such as that which has existed in the province of Quebec for over a quarter of a century, is gathering momentum throughout the Western World. It needs to be accelerated. It is one of many preliminary steps that must be taken if we are to make progress socially and economically toward a sustainable future.

Several speakers at the ACME Conference, including Jacques Brodeur of Edupax in Quebec and Dr. Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in Boston, addressed this issue and provided tools to help teachers, parents and communities to win the war. The enemy is TV advertising. Advertisers know psychology and neurology and glue messages into children’s brains. We need to teach children and young people to become more powerful than advertisers and reject the message, “You were born to consume”. Instead the message will be, “You were born to be responsible citizens”.

Although the violent crime rate overall in Canada has been going down over many years, the crime rate is going up among kids 13 to 17 years old. Violence in videos and advertising has been linked to childhood and adolescent negative behaviour.

Jacques Brodeur and the Edupax organization in the province of Quebec have a plan to fight back at advertisers and video messaging.

The 10 day Screen-Free Challenge experienced in many schools in the province of Quebec for the last 7 years allows children, teens, teachers and parents to join the same team and enjoy a new game improving their health and success at school and in the community. The Challenge increases children’s desire and ability to augment their media diet with healthy activities.

Planning is necessary. Students, parents and communities are invited to take part. Prizes are not given as it encourages kids to cheat. Community organizations are encouraged to provide events for families during the 10 day screen free period. Students are encouraged to listen to hockey on the radio rather than watching it on television. Parents are encouraged to read to their children and play board games, sports or to participate in outdoor activities.

Behaviours of kids are monitored before and evaluated after the 10 day Screen Free Challenge. The reward is for the kids to exhibit courage and develop a strong mind.

Dr. Susan Linn has written several books including Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood and she has a plan. There are too many screens and too many products directed at children. Neilson states that 2 to 5 year olds spend 32 hours per week at home in front of screens as well as many hours at daycare. As a result, children acquire materialistic values from early childhood which threaten democracy. Kids with materialistic values are less engaged with the environment and environmentally friendly behaviours. The message of materialism is “me first”, impulse purchase and brand loyalty from the cradle to the grave. However, things that we buy don’t make us happy and so we buy more and more and being a consumer becomes the definition of self in one’s life. Too many screens in a child’s life erode children’s creative play which is the foundation of learning. Through creative play children learn self regulation (self control), internal motivation and how to wrestle with life. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child includes play as a right. The U.S. and Somalia have not signed this Convention.

Creative play is eroding in North America and world wide because it is not profitable as Big Business sells less. The best toys are enhanced by children’s imaginations and stimulate creativity. The worst toys, like Tickle Me Elmo where the child presses a button, give instant gratification and detract from problem solving.

Dr. Linn notes that brand licensing of toys and food products begins with babies. For example, Sponge Bob is found everywhere including Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. It is the parents’ job to challenge schools that take money from advertisers. Dr. Jean Kilbourne, well-known film maker (Killing Us Softly 4), spoke on the topic of Body Image. Dr. Kilbourne states that advertising portrays stereotypes and negative images of both girls and boys which appeal to emotion not the intellect. These images which are crafted by psychologists and marketing gurus in America are repeated over and over again with the goal of creating consumers to benefit corporations. The images portrayed of young girls and women in advertising result in depression, low self esteem and eating disorders. Ads objectify girls and women as sexual objects to be consumed like products. Mean girl syndrome is common when girls internalize stereotypes and girls objectify each other which is symptomatic of the hatred of the oppressed for each other. By contrast in the European Union, female models with low body mass are excluded in some fashion magazines and images of healthy weight are encouraged. Reference was made to the legislation which already exists in Scandinavian countries, some EU countries, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, Malta, Turkey and Quebec to protect children from ads targeting them as consumers.

Ads objectify boys and men as well, but they are portrayed as powerful and strong with fewer consequences. These masculine portrayals are linked to violence and contempt for all things feminine such as compassion, co-operation, empathy and intuition. Violence is eroticized and boys and men become de-sensitized to violence. Themes including women in bondage, battering and women murdered by their partners are trivialized.

Dr. Kilbourne speaks and shows her films in schools and colleges across North America. Her films show students how to deconstruct advertising and neutralize these negative images. The discussion that follows the films reinforces these messages and encourages children, teenagers and young adults to think for themselves and not to become victims of corporate messages.

Dr. Michael Rich, Director, Centre on Media and Child Health (CMCH) affiliated with Children’s Hospital Boston, Harvard School of Public Health and Harvard Medical School, spoke on Reclaiming Childhood from the River of Electronic Media.

Dr. Rich came to medicine after a 12 year career as a filmmaker, including serving as assistant director to Akira Kurosawa on Kagemusha. Dr. Rich combines his experience with media and scientific evidence about the powerful positive and negative effects of media to advise children and families how to use media in ways that optimize their development at

Dr. Rich developed and directs Video Intervention/Prevention Assessment (VIA), research in which patients who share a medical diagnosis or health risk factor make video diaries of their lives. He has authored numerous papers, including the first video-illustrated research paper ever published by Pediatrics. Dr. Rich has testified to the United States Congress and many other legislative bodies and makes regular national press appearances.

Dr. Rich’s presentation at ACME focused on the physical, mental and social health of children as it relates to their consumption of internet and communication technologies. His comments on the harmful effects of excessive screen time on children fall into line with the findings of many studies released into the public domain in recent decades. Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood notes that recent evidence demonstrates that children who watch television or video games before the age of two actually show slower vocabulary development and lower IQs by the age of three than those who experience no screen time. However, other research shows that supervised children who watch Sesame Street between the age of 3 and 5 are more ready for school, have more pre-reading and math skills and are more pro-social. Many pre-schooler teachers note that children are arriving in kindergarten with no experience in creative play.

Dr. Rich speaks of television and other screens as electronic wallpaper that provides a pervasive background to our lives even during meals. Media is a powerful environmental health influence. Too much TV watching contributes to childhood obesity, lower grades and kids who are in trouble a lot. He adds that World of Warcraft has created a psychiatric emergency with 11.5 million subscribers. Deaths have been acknowledged in China, Taiwan and Korea where excessive use of internet and video games creates addiction disorder. Other symptoms related to excessive screen time include obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, hostility and paranoid ideation. Another side effect is poor quality sleep with no stage 4 deep REM sleep resulting in the inability to lock into long term memory which may result in poor math skills. Excessive screen time also erodes “mind wandering” which is essential in developing the template for “self” which impacts on decision making skills, the ability to relate to people and creativity. Children today have less time to reflect.

Studies show that violence in media increase fear, anxiety, desensitization and increased aggression in thoughts and behaviour. As well, violence in media trains children to be victims, aggressors and bystanders. These behaviours are transferred to the school room and school yard. The cyber bully becomes the school yard bully.

92% of children aged 2 to 17 play video games. Players are rewarded on-line for behavioural scripts which are frequently violent. Ratings systems of these games have been designed by producers of these products to protect producers not children who play the games. Our kids live on-line and 58% do not tell adults about porn sites and bullying.

Dr Rich emphasizes that we need to equip our “digital natives” to use media in positive ways. One positive application is giving a sick child with spina bifida, asthma or cystic fibrosis a smart phone to be able to tell the doctor what his or her illness is like. In this way patients and the medical team can be partners in healing. At the Centre on Media and Child Health, child patients and the medical team share videos about their illness which leads to better communication and care. This process is moderated by Children’s Hospital Boston. “Ask the Mediatrician” finds a research based, balanced and actionable approach to childhood illness.

As a member of C-CAVE, I found that the sessions we participated in and attended had particular relevance to our mission of raising the awareness of the harmful effects of violence in media and of helping to curb the growing culture of violence.

Wendell Holmes states, “A mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.” Media Literacy and Eco-literacy stretch the mind and create independent thinkers.

Editor’s Note
On April 29, 2011, it was reported on the front page of the Business Section in The New York Times that the U.S. Government has proposed sweeping new guidelines on Thursday that could push the food industry to overhaul how it advertises cereal, soda pop, snacks, restaurant meals and other foods for children.

Said reporter William Neuman, “Citing an epidemic of childhood obesity, regulators are taking aim at a range of tactics used to market foods high in sugar, fat or salt to children, including the use of cartoon characters like Toucan Sam, the brightly colored Froot Loops pitchman, who appears in television commercials and online games as well as on cereal boxes.

Anne Venton
C-CAVE Communications Director
Vice-President of the OISE Alumni Association