Youth learn to tune out violent media in course from St. Joseph's

May 1, 2014

Children ages 2 to 18 watch television an average of three hours per day, and some children's television shows can average 20 acts of physical violence per hour. By the time they are 18, children will have seen about 16,000 murders and 200,000 other acts of violence portrayed on television, according to statistics compiled by the LIVESTRONG healthy living organization.

This level of exposure to violence in the media can cause aggressiveness, antisocial behavior, desensitization to violence and other harmful effects in children, according to the national for-profit Center for Media Literacy.

As part of a broader effort to curb emotional, physical and sexual violence in its community, St. Joseph's Area Health Services of Park Rapids, Minn., population 3,681, is teaching children media-discernment skills, so they will be aware of the amount of violence in the television shows and movies they watch, the magazines they read and the video games they play. The goal of the "Media Smarts" course is to make children aware of the potential harm of consuming this violent content, so they will make good choices in their media use.

"Media surrounds children 24-7 — and it's part of a culture of violence," said RaeAnn Mayer, community health manager for St. Joseph's, a 25-bed critical access hospital that is part of Englewood, Colo.-based Catholic Health Initiatives. She said CHI and St. Joseph's "want to be upstream of the violence issue, through prevention" efforts.

The Media Smarts program from St. Joseph's Area Health Services of Park Rapids, Minn., encourages children to choose nonviolent shows. Research has linked the viewing of violent television shows by children to later aggressive behavior.

"We know that violence is everywhere. Unfortunately, no community is exempt from the tragedies — big and small — of violence," said Cleo Hartung, who as St. Joseph's violence prevention coordinator, works with the community to prevent child abuse, bullying and other types of violence and to promote healthy father-child relationships.

A community health needs assessment revealed that children are exposed to violence including emotional and physical bullying at school and at home and fighting in the home. Ample national research has established a correlation between exposure to violence in the media and aggressive or violent behaviors.

Hartung has been presenting the Media Smarts course at Park Rapids' Century Middle School since fall 2011. Each course consists of 10 weekly after-school sessions of an hour and a half duration. The children, who are fifth and sixth graders, opt to take part in Media Smarts. So far, about 32 children have completed the course.

Media moderation
A study of 1,580 middle school children by University of California, Los Angeles researchers, published in Injury Prevention in August 2013, found that sixth grade students who received information about violence in the media from a teacher — including teachers trained in the Center for Media Literacy's curriculum — were less likely than students in a control group to increase their media consumption over time, to push or shove other people or to threaten to hurt others.

Based on curriculum from the Malibu, Calif.-based Center for Media Literacy, Media Smarts participants watch and discuss clips from popular shows and movies including The Simpsons, Harry Potter, Monster House, Stand by Me and The Goonies. Hartung monitors to ensure clips are appropriate for the children to view. She covers the Center for Media Literacy's five key questions about media violence (see sidebar), the effects of violence, statistics on media violence and choices the children can make to reduce their exposure to violence.

"We reflect on the violence we're seeing and then decide, 'What do I want to do with this information?'" said Hartung. The course leads to conversations about bullying they may see at school and violence in television programs. "And, there's often an 'aha moment,'" when children make the connection between brutality in news and entertainment programs, movies and games and uncivil, even hurtful, behavior they may witness. Should a child confide that he or she is personally experiencing bullying or violence, Hartung said she would connect the boy or girl to an "interventionist" at school, or in the community, who can assist in resolving the problems and ensuring the child's safety.

Sixth grade student Crystal Dupont, of Century Middle School, is taking the Media Smarts course. She said she hadn't recognized the amount of violence in media before, but now that she's alert to it, she plans to cut back on the violent content she takes in and to advise her friends to do the same. "I think they should make movies less violent so people don't copy what they see," she said.

Children who complete the course go on a shopping trip with Hartung to pick out a nonviolent video game, which the program purchases for them.

Parental involvement
St. Joseph's is presenting the course using a portion of a $58,000 annual, renewable grant from CHI's Violence Prevention Grants program that also funds a youth mentoring program, an initiative to educate new fathers on parenthood, a child abuse prevention program and a home visit program for struggling parents.

Since launching the program in 2008, CHI has given $3 million-plus to programs that address domestic violence, gang violence, child abuse, sexual abuse and other types of violence in the communities CHI facilities serve.

While the number of people who have taken part in Media Smarts in Park Rapids is small so far, Mayer and Hartung are looking for opportunities to expand the program's reach. They may offer the course at churches, for instance, to reach adults. "I'm surprised how many children are allowed to play M-rated games and the quantity of time they're allowed to spend playing them," Hartung said. Mayer noted, "Parents aren't attuned to the ratings on games."

Mayer said, "This is part of our mission and vision to create a healthier community, and it speaks directly to our concern for the vulnerable — these children are vulnerable" to violence.

Media Smarts teaches kids to contextualize

During the Media Smarts course, participants learn five key questions to ask when analyzing violent media content:

Who created this message?

What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?

How might different people understand this message differently?

What values, lifestyles and points of view are represented in, or omitted from, this message?

Why is this message being sent?

Source: Center for Media Literacy


Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2014 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.