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Our Social Responsibility: Quality Media for Children
Bogota, Colombia,
Mucho que ver TV de Calidad
August 30-September 2 , 2007  Patricia Edgar

Australians are among the heaviest television viewers in the world despite our temperate climate and interest in sport.  90 per cent of our population lives in urban areas and we take up all forms of media as soon as the market makes them available. The structure of our television system is more like the system in the US than European systems. We have three commercial networks and two government financed free-to air-broadcast networks. As in most places the commercial networks are the most popular with viewers. About 25% of Australians can receive cable or pay television.

Most Australian children watch television for a minimum of 23 hours a week.  That figure is changing with convergence but that simply means one form of media usage is replacing another or children are doing two or three things at the same time. They are very good at that. So children's media usage occupies children more than any activity other than sleeping. The Australian pattern is typical of Western countries and as countries develop similar viewing patterns will follow. Media are central to children's lives everywhere and since they spend so much of their time with media we need to pay attention to what is going on.

The programs children watch have become merely an excuse to string together commercials which encourage them to eat and pester their parents to buy.  Over the past 15 years, budgets for advertising to children in the United States, the flagship of the Western world, have risen from $100 million to $300 billion.

Over that same period obesity has become the single biggest threat to child health in the Western world with juvenile diabetes at record levels.  While many children on the planet are underfed the West is feeding itself to death.  The overweight people on the planet - more than one billion - now exceeds the number of malnourished.  'Tweens', 8-12 year olds, have become a target market over the last decade with media selling fashion and sex, and the desire to look and behave like adults.  Such marketing has been dubbed 'corporate paedophilia' in Australia. 

Through such advertising we promote a dysfunctional mismatch between biological maturation and social maturation which is leading to mental and physical health problems for young children - depression, sexually transmitted diseases, anorexia and bulimia. 

The best brains in advertising are working hard on how to access our kids. The partnership between toys, food, fashion and media is well integrated, particularly online.  Creative forms of marketing draw attention to brands and blur advertising and entertainment - sex increasingly is part of the deal.  Millions of dollars are also being invested in advertising formats to bombard mobiles, now seen as the next big revenue earner.

Sophistry bedevils the debate.  The food and beverage industries insist we should exercise more, the media industries insist it is not their problem - they only offer entertainment.  Governments call on parents to be the guardians of their children; they can turn off the sets, say no, refuse to buy, feed their children healthy food.

This marketing agenda is being driven by 6% of the world's population who are attempting to impose their will, their values, their media power and technological power on the other 94% of human kind - all in the name of progress.  The developing world can make the argument that they are not going to repeat the mistakes of the West, but our global systems are so integrated and our survival so clearly interlinked that there is no choice.

The rule book of international politics has been torn up in recent years and the human community has to learn to live in much closer proximity to one another than ever before. Tony Blair, now a peace envoy for the Middle East, has said: 'The economics of globalization are mature but the politics are not… What are needed are multilateral institutions that act in pursuit of global values: liberty, democracy, tolerance, justice'. (NYT 11/5/07)

And individually we must work together, cooperate, learning from the mistakes that have led to such imbalance in global world power, environmental damage and conflict. As part of that process we need to recognize that teaching our children to consume from the time they are toddlers is nihilistic. 

There is growing concern among parents, educators, health professionals and others that so much media consumption - with children viewing so much commercial, often violent and banal programming - is doing irreparable damage to their health, their social and intellectual development.

Children come to media willingly. They love it. Yet television does little to stimulate their interests, improve their tastes, or widen their experience of life. We are squandering this resource on marketing. Children watch programs of inconsequence which consume their time when their sharp acquisitive brains should be stretched and stimulated.

So much viewing prevents children from doing other things.  At an early age the most important activity children can engage in is active play. 
We now know from new research on brain development that the early years  of a child's development are critical to its future.

A baby's brain develops at an incredible speed. The foetus at 17 weeks has one billion brain cells more than the adult brain and its cells proliferate at a rate of 50,000 per second.  By eight months there may be 1000 trillion synapses in a child's brain.  By 10 years of age a child has half that number, the same as an average adult, but the synaptic connections are stronger and the brain still has plenty of flexibility for future learning.

The most important principle in child development is 'use it or lose it'.  The child who repeats sounds, or movements, or connects names to people and objects will strengthen her brain connections; if there is little stimulation the connections will weaken and fade away.  Only those connections and pathways that are frequently used are retained.  So a child's early experiences -   touch, smells, sounds, sights, colour and movement - all build new connections if presented in a warm manner, consistently and predictably.

On the other hand, lack of stimulation, lack of loving attention, neglect and abuse, shut off the growth of brain connections as the child concentrates fearfully on surviving.  Children discovered in Romanian orphanages, who had survived in cots, left alone with no stimulation, had smaller brains than children who grew up in sensually rich environments with warm relationships; their deprivation made their brains resemble closely, those of Alzheimer patients.  Animals raised in zoos have brains 20 to 30% smaller than those raised in the wild.

By the age of three months the brain has the potential to distinguish between several hundred spoken words.  Over the next few months the brain  organises itself to recognize only the sounds it hears, but those it discards are like the trash on your computer - it can still be retrieved if needed.  That is why young children can easily learn new languages accent free.  After age 10 this plasticity is lost (the trash gets emptied) so although you can still learn a new language, it takes more effort, especially to get the accent right. 

The first four years from conception to about three are the most critical period of human development.  The brain is at its most absorbent and every child has the potential for learning to walk, to talk, to fit into society, provided it has many experiences that help it master those important skills. In the early years everything is new and life for children should comprise a bombardment of experiences while the brain is at its most flexible.

Yet we decide to sit them in front of television for much of their waking hours and think ourselves lucky if they don't make any noise. We don't much care if the content is 'harmless'- that is, not violent - so long as it keeps them quiet. This is a mistake.
By encouraging or allowing such passivity we are throwing away a wonderful opportunity to use a powerful resource for positive social, cultural and educational benefit.

Throughout childhood television should be a major educational resource. Instead we use it to divert children and turn them into consumers. Most of the commercial programming they view wastes their valuable time, limits their experience of the world and shrinks their brains with its banality.

There is another very important cultural reason we should worry about our children's television. Programming for them is not simply there to entertain them. It should be there to challenge them.

As former Prime Minister Paul Keating - a supporter of media policy for children - recently commented in an address to students at the Australian Film Radio and Television School, 'Visual media - television and film - can ignite the imagination and tell us something, not only about ourselves, but about the wider world we could only otherwise ponder'.  Television is able to bring other cultures to us, indeed get inside those cultures so as to present them to us from another standpoint, different from our own. 'Visual media are the mirror of what we have become; they have the ability to let us see ourselves 'warts and all' as well as at our finest'.
Too often the media reflect the worst of the human condition - the abuse, the neglect, the conflict: the overwhelming problems. Young people need to see the world and what we have made of it, for they must deal with its potential and find solutions for the world's problems in the future. They need to see human endeavour at its best. They need hope and they need to see children, like themselves, resolving the issues they are facing growing up. We must prepare children and inform them effectively and television can be a wonderful medium for this purpose.

We should share and show them the best international children's programs  which will help them understand one another and encourage different perspectives. And we need to start early before other patterns become entrenched.

Alongside the best of international content our own cultural programming must be produced and shown. When it comes to television the question of culture should be non-negotiable.  Television is all pervasive and it is crucial your television be predominantly Colombian. If your programming ceases to be Colombian, your culture will disappear like unused brain cells and the trash on your computer: local content requirements are essential.  If you have no local content quotas and, as a consequence, your screens are dominated by other cultures - predominantly the US, as they have a monopoly position in the media market - then you might as well pack up and go to live in California.

Cultural benefit is a difficult concept to define.  Culture is derived from our historical, artistic and traditional heritage and has significance for society as a whole.  A cohesive national culture and identity would not be possible without shared cultural experiences and film and television programs enable us to share those experiences.  Yet such programs are not necessarily profitable productions so commercial enterprises resist their production.  It therefore becomes the responsibility of government to ensure the provision of cultural experiences - which are the glue that bind us together as a nation - through regulation, subsidy, or other means.

It is particularly important your children do not grow up with the impression that their own culture is second rate in comparison with that of other countries. Colombian children have the right to be told Colombian stories, to dream Colombian dreams. Making sure this can happen is your social responsibility; if you do not you will surrender your children.

With electronic media, government reserves the right to issue licenses for use of the public airwaves and in sets 'community standards' that an applicant for a license must meet in order to maintain a right to broadcast.  That right carries responsibilities.  One responsibility is to provide an accurate and balanced account of news events, and another is to provide appropriate programming for the child audience.

Our youth will need to apply their brain power to solve the problems of an increasingly stressed planet; they will need to be in excellent physical and mental condition. The media have an important role to play in developing young citizens because of the pervasive presence they have in their lives. Obese, dumbed-down, uneducated, marginalized, medicated children will not make the smart decisions that the future requires.

We need policies for children to integrate their health, education and social development which have media at their core.
     -    The media programs we design for children must have educational goals, not goals to sell soft toys or designer clothes.

  1. Such media must be trustworthy and put the interests of children as citizens above the interests of profit.
  2. Children must be treated as active participants in the production and consumption of their media content. 
  3. Effective children's media must take risks, push the boundaries, explore new possibilities, raise new questions, challenge children to think and act effectively and of course be multi-platform. 

We must work in partnership with educators.  We need an ethical agenda to challenge the pursuit of consumerism and personal gratification over the collective good.  And to challenge the fact we spend $1000 billion a year on military expenditure and only $50 billion on development.

These are big issues.

If children spend their early years in a compromised environment they are at risk.  For those who will only concede the economic argument - rather than the ethical argument - they should understand: for every dollar invested there will be a gain.  Educated, engaged children mean a future for this planet, improved health, fewer teenage pregnancies, higher school achievement, fewer dropouts and improved employment records - lifetime opportunities.

I have always believed that media have enormous potential to inspire, to educate and bring us together.  But these industries are out of control in a race for market share with no regard to social consequences.  How to meet this challenge in Colombia is for you to consider.  We must all do our part where ever we may be in this global village. That is our joint social responsibility.