Gunning for the admen

1st August 2003 at 01:00
Should the media take the blame for events such as the Columbine high school massacre? Gill Brown argues the case

Kid Stuff: marketing sex and violence to America's children

Edited by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P Viteritti; Johns Hopkins University Press pound;22

If you can't beat 'em, join 'em? Last month, the OCR exam board launched a computer games option in its AS-level media studies course. It includes the study of Vice City, a game that encourages players to create their own evil empire through violent means. Such a controversial move cuts to the heart of the debate about if and how far we should protect children from this 21st-century wave of marketing.

Some see television, video games, music, the internet and films as peddling addictive and poisonous wares designed to lure children to part with their souls and their money. Others believe the message is less clear, arguing that most young people can divorce fantasy from reality. Yet most parents in the switched-on households of today say there is a war going on.

Children are having to filter messages about sex, violence and drugs daily.

The trick is to protect and equip them without losing all communication.

So at first glance, this series of essays by American experts in media studies, psychology and health promises a useful exploration, and even some guidance. Placing the birth of today's "adolescent subculture" in the 1950s, the editors' introduction bemoans a widespread lack of parental support, which they see as springing from the liberal values of the 1960s.

Into this gap, they say, stepped the media barons, sowing the seeds of the popular culture that thrives today.

The aim of the book is to examine the nature of this culture and its affect on children. Yet within the first few pages, the finger is pointed at parents and the media. Whether this is fair or not isn't new or helpful to anyone hoping to get beyond the old chestnuts. The introduction sets the tone and agenda.

Perhaps one reason is that Kid Stuff originates in and is largely about the society in which "dumbed down" television and violent video games were first produced (one writer refers to "the sheer obscenity of what passes for culture in America").

Although many teachers here are familiar with the TV language of pupils who have cable television, we have not yet reached the levels enjoyed by households in the United States, where 76 per cent are signed up to cable packages.

Readers in the UK will recognise familiar concerns, yet may be surprised that in a book that refers to the effects of violent television, computer and video games on almost every page, the word gun is rarely mentioned.

References to the killings at Columbine high school in 1999 cite 78 per cent believing "the mass media deserve "some" or "a lot" of blame for recent mass shootings, rather than the US gun-hawking fraternity (according to FBI statistics, of 13,752 US murders in 2001, 8,719 were by firearms, of which 6,790 were by handguns) so well documented by Michael Moore in his film Bowling for Columbine.

These 11 essays contain evidence aplenty for anyone wanting to prove links between the "marketing of noxious products" and current social problems.

Teen pregnancy, violent imagery and aggressive behaviour, the emotional thrills that come with video shoot-outs, the unregulated nature of the internet - not to mention the confusion facing parents who, despite all efforts, find their children "watch it anyway".

Essentially a book for media studies and sociology students, it is full of surveys, studies and debate about the role of parents and government.

Dissenting voices are thin on the ground. The few references to the media industry's own response are presented as defensive and insubstantial.

But two chapters stand out. Both look at the attraction and effect of contemporary music. Peter G Christenson questions whether music is a harmless pastime giving young people a social focus and an outlet for emotions they can't express elsewhere, or if it has a darker and more pervasive influence. He energetically engages with both arguments in a way that will strike a chord for anyone keen to know more.

A chapter from Jeffrey Jensen Arnett discusses content from Elvis to Marilyn Manson and the lyrics of rap from a fresh and unbiased perspective.

Ultimately, the editors have done themselves a disservice by casting their net too wide and, although they fall short of blaming Rupert Murdoch personally, by setting out their own media-bashing agenda from the start.

Gill Brown is an independent television producer

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