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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 3, January/February 2004

Report spotlights need for media literacy

by Dan Blake

Which of the following statements do you think are true?

  1. The Simpsons is the most popular TV show for both boys and girls of all ages.
  2. For both boys and girls, reading for pleasure decreases consistently with age.
  3. Forty-eight percent of children have their own TV set, and 35% have their own VCR.
  4. In Grades 3 to 6, roughly 30% of kids claim they never have any adult input about what TV shows they can watch.

All four are true. Those findings, along with a host of equally startling ones, can be found in a survey of about 5,700 children conducted for the Canadian Teachers’ Federation and released in November. Children in Grades 3–10 from every province in Canada were asked a broad range of questions on their use of different media. The findings make compelling reading for teachers and parents who are concerned about how the mass media shape children’s understanding of the world.

One of the most interesting findings in the report, Kids’ Take on Media, is the discrepancy between boys’ and girls’ consumption of media.

"Almost 60% of boys in Grades 3–6 play video or computer games almost every day; even in Grade 10, 38% of boys chart it as a daily activity. For girls, the picture is very different: 33% of Grade 3 girls play interactive games every day; by Grade 10, the figure has dropped to 6%."

Those findings have important implications for teachers. Although most of the popular video games have little redeeming value, boys become more comfortable in using computers as a result of playing video games and are thus likely to have better careers in the computer industry.

Although the CTF report does not mention it, girls in my secondary school classes spend a lot more time using computers for "instant messaging" with their friends than boys do. That is consistent with the report findings that older girls prefer social activities over the more solitary game playing boys favour. In response to survey questions, boys speak of enjoying the competitive aspect of game playing. Boys say they like to win.

Another interesting dimension to the gender difference in consuming media products is in the attitude to violence in the media. Boys’ video and TV choices are three times more likely than girls’ to have violent content.

"One of the top choices for both Francophone and Anglophone boys in Grades 3–6 is Grand Theft Auto, an ultra-violent action game aimed at mature audiences, which involves murder, bludgeoning, and prostitution. For Anglophone boys in the Grade 7–10 category, Grand Theft Auto is the run-away favourite title, being chosen by one-third of the respondents in this group. It is much less popular among Francophone boys, for whom hockey rates number one."

A master’s degree student in the Communication Department at SFU recently produced a video for his coursework that examined the behaviour of groups of 10- to 12-year-old boys while playing video games. In the video, we see a group of 10-year-old boys enthusiastically "whooping it up" while playing, and watching others play, a violent video game. The boys took on a pack mentality, urging their fellow game players on as they pursued their simulated killing and maiming rampage.

The CTF report notes that violence is well down the list of ingredients that boys identify as qualities of a game they might choose to buy. Clearly the report doesn’t provide adequate insight into what motivates young boys to choose violent games.

Girls, as the report notes, see violence as a negative attribute and have very little appetite for violent video games. What can we learn from the socialization of girls that might help us to raise boys who are less "addicted" to simulated violence?

The major responsibility for children’s media consumption lies with parents. According to the children interviewed for this survey, parents are failing to exercise their responsibility.

When parents do monitor their children’s media consumption, they are more likely to monitor TV viewing than video games. In fact, a majority of parents know little or nothing about the content of video games. Yet video games are much more violent and antisocial in content than TV programming.

Clearly, parents must become more involved in their children’s media consumption. It’s not a question of censorship. Rather, parents need to engage their children in discussions about the media they consume. That includes what they see on TV or at the movies, the music they listen to, the magazines they read, and most of all, the video games they play.

The CTF produced a very useful guide for parents based on the findings of the survey. The guide recommends that parents ask the following questions when watching TV with their kids. The questions can be adapted regarding playing video games.

Do you like it? How is this going to end? How does it make you feel? Could that really happen? How would you solve that problem?

Although the survey recognizes the central role for media literacy in helping children become more informed and critical media consumers, it gives no advice to teachers on how to teach it. While every province in Canada has an organization that struggles to provide in-service education on how to teach media literacy, teachers receive no training at the pre-service level. Nor have the provincial teacher organizations played a significant role in promoting the teaching of media literacy among their members.

For more information on the report, go to the CTF web site: www.ctf-fce.ca .

Dan Blake teaches at Earl Marriott Secondary School, Surrey, and is president of the B.C. Association for Media Education.

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