Children can become informed users of the media and contribute in a positive way to developing a democratic way of life
Banishing violence from the media is impossible. Monitoring, censorship, blacklisting or filter devices only seem to have the opposite effect. So people have to be educated, while bearing in mind that violence has always been an integral part of human interaction.
Educating children means teaching them to understand what they see by having them create their own television images. It means encouraging them to be demanding towards the media by providing them with critical tools and guiding them in their use suggested Elisabeth Auclaire at a recent conference.
They will then be equipped to distance themselves and avoid being dominated by what they see. Such domination led 29 young Americans, aged between 8 and 13, to shoot themselves in the head after seeing a scene of Russian roulette in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter
Children should also learn to refuse to do what French sociologist Jean-Louis Missika calls going along with and legitimising the gratuitous display of violence which can make it seem normal. Such violence can be in fictional material, cartoon films, or in programmes which glorify violence, such as Crime Time, Prime Time, one of Americas most popular TV shows. In 1993, the show had as a guest mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer, who dissolved the bodies of 17 young black men in acid baths. Dahmer said he had met God in prison, talked of his wish to die and generally gave the impression of a worthy, almost heroic young man, if a shade confused. The results of such shows? The newspapers carried a report some time later of a 16-year-old boy accused of disembowelling a five-year-old girl. He said he was an admirer of Dahmer.
What mattes is what children make of the media, especially in the grey areas, where the line between reality and non-reality is not clear. Programmes about parapsychology and the supernatural, for example, give the impression that it exists, or that it could exist. It is not like being frightened by a ghost which you know doesnt exist, but of events and situations which sow doubt. Letting children see such things without giving them any balancing view could leave the door open to religious sects, warns Auclaire. Similarly, the Gulf War was portrayed on television news like some kind of video game, out of context and without explanation. Kids were so wide-eyed at the accuracy of the firing and the high number of targets hit that they had to be reminded there were people at the receiving end of the shooting, not necessarily bad-guys, and that it wasnt all a game, she adds.
Education through developing a critical attitude is starting to be included in school curricula. But it isnt always welcomed. In Argentina, in the 1980s, many teachers regarded the media as an evil influence which children had to be protected from. On the other hand, in France, APTE (Audiovisual for All in Education) offers to teach children, from kindergarden to high school, this approach to what they see, to understand how images are made and their relationship to reality. Later, this new awareness gives children the desire to share their new knowledge with adults. In Portugal, according to Manuel Pinto and Sara Pereira of Minho University, the media was often used as a supplement to teaching, but now the aim is more to understand its social function by encouraging children to be critical and demanding from a moral, social and aesthetic standpoint. Analytical tools are created to look at what the media does as a mirror and children are given a chance to set up their own media in workshops.
In Spain, they call it developing visual skills among television viewers, says J.M. Perez Tornero, author of The Educational Challenge of Television. Unlike reading or writing, which is learned by simple repetition, watching television does not give the viewer any greater ability to interpret its messages and techniques.
Educating viewers means making them active instead of passive. It means they watch but can also use language to express their own feelings and discover how audiovisual language works.
Children can then become informed users of the media and contribute in a positive way to developing a democratic way of life. But, one must avoid demoralising them. So the question should be: what positive part can the media play in educating children? An experiment in Brazil showed that children considered analysis and thinking a very important part of their education. Maria Luiza Bellani of the Federal University of Santa Catarina found the children also better understood their own relationship to the violence they saw on television and realised the contradiction between their taste for it and their reasoned condemnation of violence in real life. This critical awareness was much sharper among poorer youth who automatically mistrusted what was said on television.
Another method might be to hold public discussions. This was advocated by Bertrand Tavernier when his film LAppat (The Bait) a particularly violent story of three youths who become killers was shown on French television. He said fiction could be instructive in an organised discussion. This assumes that TV network bosses accept criticism, forget about ratings wars and resume their vital social role as messengers.