Living in a world filled with the by-products of human technological advances, one senses the tidal wave of globalization that sweeps across the planet, carrying with it hi-tech products, new lifestyles and a consumer culture to far corners of the globe. Reflecting these rapid changes, as well as actively promoting them, are the various forms of media - print media (books, newspapers and magazines), audio media (the music industry), the audio-visual media (television, video and cinema) and, more recently, the computer driven media (the 'internet'), which paves the way for an 'information superhighway'.
Of these, television remains perhaps the most potent invention of our century. Having penetrated virtually every home in the western world, it occupies a central niche in the social, cultural and political life of the industrially developed nations. In the coming century it promises to become the most accessible and widespread medium for the rest of the world too, and its impact will be felt on a much wider population. In India the last decade has seen TV antennae proliferate in urban as well as rural homes. The virtual explosion of TV channels and programming during the nineties has begun to spawn rapid and far-reaching changes in individual, social and national behaviour, bearing testimony to the power of the medium.
What impact do the media have on our consciousness? In particular how does exposure to the mass media, especially television, affect the behaviour and growth of children? In what ways can we respond to the contemporary situation of rapidly increasing media exposure of our children? These are questions that must be raised and actively discussed in our schools. This article - drawing upon a panel discussion held during the Conference of Teachers of Krishnamurti Schools in India during November '97 - attempts to sketch out the place that media (particularly electronic media) have come to occupy in our lives, and indicate some of the issues that have been thrown up by the burgeoning media exposure of Indian children. Though the various mass media are often treated here collectively, the focus is largely on the impact of television.
Perspectives from the West
In order to gauge the impact of mass media on a generation growing up immersed in its products, one could begin by looking to the experience and evidence from the West. There are clear indications here that indiscriminate consumption of media products could have devastating psychological effects on young people. Authors like Jerry Mander (in his 'Four Arguments for The Elimination of Television') have gone so far as to denounce TV as an unmitigated evil that deserves to be eliminated. Even if one does not fully subscribe to this consciousness, TV viewing affects thinking and behaviour at levels that we may be quite unaware of. This phenomenon, which we are increasingly having to grapple with in India, has been of concern to educators in the West for at least two decades.
Television: the 'first curriculum'
The primacy of television in the lives of young people in NorthAmerica prompted educator Neil Postman to declare (in his 'Teaching as a Conserving Activity') that television is, in fact, the 'first curriculum' for students, whereas school, with its print-oriented curriculum, has long been relegated to second place. The mass media, television in particular, indeed seem to offer a dynamic and persuasive audio-visual curriculum whose content includes knowledge about people, places, politics, events, history, economics and crime. They present new role modes with regard to behaviours such as fashion, eating, drinking, travelling and relating with others. And they shape attitudes and values about such things as relationships, beauty, sexuality, the use of power, violence, education and employment. Postman argues convincingly that the primary task of schools today has become that of mitigating and moderating the adverse effects of the' first curriculum' .
Its role in our lives today
What are we up against? At one level the media may be simply viewed as human modes of communication that are intended to provide news, views, information, entertainment and advertisement of available products. However, it has long been recognized that the media represent much more than this. In today's world virtually all that we know, or think we know, about the world beyond our immediate experience seems to come to us through the media. If the media simply reflected rea!ity, there would be little concern. But, in fact, it is now understood that each medium of communication shapes or 'codifies' reality in different ways. All media present carefully crafted constructions of the world. Any message in any medium cannot be considered to be neutral or value free. All the mass media with which we come into contact contain selective messages about values, beliefs, and behaviours. And what is most significant is that these messages are inevitably shaped by economic considerations.
Programmes for children
There are, of course, programmes on television intended specifically for children. But even here, if current trends are any indication, those responsible for this programming have no compunction in creating scenarios (within, say the 'cartoon' genre) where a staple diet of fast paced action and violence is served up to attract wider audiences of young viewers. Video games that may be hooked onto the TV or computer screen - with war games, street fighters, action heroes and villains as typical subjects - tend to surpass the level of action and gory violence that cartoons have initiated children into. For somewhat older children, the themes shift to more sophisticated action, family relationships, school romances, as well as 'partying', drugs, cars and sex. Altogether, the mass media tends to promote a specific kind of popular culture among the young, with messages that are no less potent than those in adult programmes.
'Media world' versus native culture
Let us step back and briefly contrast this increasingly homogenized 'media world' created through television programming and advertising with the 'world-views' of more traditional or native cultures. The former tends to draw together the many strands of 'modern' and 'commercial' influences into the kind of preferred 'global' life-style that is urban, western and materialist in its orientation. The latter, on the other hand, represent a diversity of life-styles that have evolved over millennia in response to mythical understandings, religious beliefs, and the unique conditions of local environments. Rooted as they are in deeply held stories of natural and human creation, traditional or native cultures - however, static or anachronistic they may appear from a modem standpoint - often have an inherent sense of measure, of restraint, and a regard for the sacredness of life. The collective richness, beauty and sanity that lies at their core is today under serious threat from the sweeping wave of globalisation. This is as true of India today as anywhere else.
Impact on Indian children
In India we clearly see a society in rapid transition, with older beliefs and values being swept away along with the social codes which supported them. There are, no doubt, several economic, political and sociological factors that contribute to the changing Indian scenario, but the impact of the 'media world' on children and young people is becoming an important catalyst in the process. Its impact on children may be seen at many levels.
Outlined below are some effects that are now commonly visible in the Indian situation (Most of these observations are based on the behaviour of children in our own schools; some of these are echoed in the more systematic study based on a sample survey in 'The Impact of Television Advertising on Children' by N. Unnikrishnan and S. Bajpai):
The experience of longer hours of watching television - with its heightened audio-visual stimulation and rapidly shifting images - is clearly affecting the attention span of children and their readiness to undertake tasks that require a sustained application of mind and body. Hyperactivity among young children is more evident and the boredom threshold has dropped for many children.
This is a common experience reported by teachers and parents of many children from urban homes.
The media creates in the child's mind - through active absorption, and assimilation of media messages- a need for quick gratification. Children begin to desire particular kinds of toys or other consumer products, including clothes, foods, soaps and cosmetics, as well as particular kinds of music. For older children, identification with certain 'brand name' products and their associated advertising pitches also creates a desire for a particular kind of life-style.
'Nike' shoes, Benneton T-shirts and designer jeans add upto a 'cool', 'adventurous' image for the better-off teenagers. These are among the most fancied clothing products.
The media provides new kinds of role models for children to emulate and new professions to aspire towards. People with a high gloss appeal who are prominently featured in the media, such as music stars, veejays, actors or actresses, fashion designers, models and TV personalities, draw ready admiration from the young. Their careers seem worth aspiring for. Success stories of young children becoming singing stars or schoolgirls becoming supermodels are new inspirations for today's generation. When children watch and later talk about particular programmes, films, products and their advertisements, or when they sing particular songs or even jingles, or dance in the latest styles, they together create a more intensely shared peer world that draws upon common media tastes. This generates strong peer pressures for conformity at the peril of feeling excluded.
A Std. 7 girl who hasn't heard of, say, the 'Spice Girls' or the 'Backstreet Boys' is likely to find herself at a social disadvantage among her peers who sit around listening to recorded music and sharing their knowledge of the 'pop music world'.
Among the several distinct 'media worlds' that cater to varied viewers in India - the 'westward-looking StarTV world', the more home-grown 'Doordarshan world', the Hindi filmbased 'Zee TV world' and the 'regional language film-based world', to name a few - children begin to identify with a particular kind of 'media world' and superficial hierarchies are established in their minds; they look down upon or look up to those belonging to another 'world' .
A boy from a Hindi-speaking background who has watched, among other films, many Hindi movies with his family, will not even count these while reporting on the films he has seen during the vacation to hisfriends who see only English films on StarTV.
With TV channels importing or cloning western programmes with violent imagery and accompanying strong language, children are increasingly imitating and absorbing the aggressive behaviour and foul language that they are exposed to.
This may be seen in the type of mock fights young children today engage in, and the kind of verbal as well as physical response that a quarrel on the games field is apt to draw out from 10 years olds.
With the media increasingly projecting the romantic and sexual side of human relationships and offering disconnected information on sex, a greater sexual awareness among children is becoming evident, as also an earlier stimulation of sexuality among pre-adolescents. Some begin to seek relationships with the opposite sex in order to explore or express their attractions. For some it becomes an important 'status symbol' to have a special 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend'. This creates new forms of peer pressure among even the younger school-going children.
A few Std. 6 boys - 11 years olds - are attracted to the same girl who they imagine exudes 'sensual good looks'. They experience intense rivalry and pangs of jealousy. Strong attraction leads one of them to proceed from writing notes to trying to make physical contact, and venturing far beyond in his imaginative fantasies.
Moreover, gossip among boys and even girls today is far more wide-ranging and loaded with sexual innuendoes as well as half-digested notions of sexual perversities. An acceleration in the feeling of a 'generation gap' arises as students' aspirations, and their adopted manners and style, diverge at an earlier age from their parental norms or teachers' expectations. If life-style messages drawn from the media have become deep-rooted, antagonisms may flare up as teenagers feel restricted in the expression of their tastes, styles and desires.
A boy whose parents restrict his desire to buy what they consider as wasteful cosmetic products may rebel and steal money to get what he wants. A girl and boy whose freedom to pursue a special relationship is restrained by their teachers, turn antagonistic labelling teachers as 'killjoys' who do not understand 'our feelings'.
Media education: a necessity for our times
As has happened in the West to a great extent, the media boom threatens to supplant both family and school as primary sources of information and values. We already see family interactions and relationships undergoing sharp changes in India. The behaviour and attitudes of children at school is also changing in an unprecedented manner. There is thus an urgent necessity to find an adequate educational response, within our homes and schools, to the challenge of new conditioning factors that have come into play through the increasing media exposure of our students.
This calls for a shedding of attitudes that are indulgent, passive, resigned or even antagonistic towards the mass media. Parents and teachers are not powerless in the face of this apparently all-encompassing wave in our lives. Several levels of actions are possible for mitigating or counter-balancing the effects of the mass media. We cannot wish away the media themselves - they are a pervasive feature of today's world - and there may be no point in treating all media offerings as insidious and dangerous. Instead discussion among parents, teachers and students should aim at developing a more informed perspective on mass media and critical tools that enable us to understand and use the media in a more measured and conscious manner. Such an orientation towards the media requires the development of what one may call 'media education'.
A few initial directions of action are suggested here.
At Home: It is the primary responsibility of parents to see that children's access to media is regulated and monitored. Parents need to be aware of the impact of television and other media on their child, and see that the exposure is only in such measured doses that he or she is capable of absorbing without sustaining psychological distortion.
More specifically, parents could do the following:
- Promote selective viewing of television programmes; regulate and remain aware of what is watched; discourage channelsurfing and using television as a 'filler' . Encourage active viewing of selected programmes as a family, accompanied or followed by discussions and critical appraisal.
- Encourage a variety of interests and alternatives to television, such as storytelling, reading books, art and craft, playing indoor games, outdoor sports, visiting people, family conversations, attentive observations during nature walks or a city stroll. Aim at a natural reduction of time spent either in front of the television or immersed in some other form of mass media.
At School: As suggested by Neil Postman, school is the arena where the effects of mass media can and must be neutralized. Moreover, in schools the power of specific media may also be harnessed in a more purposive manner. In developing their curricula and modes ofinstruction, schools need to include the media environment itself as an object of critical study, while also using recorded audio-visual programmes and other modern media as a means of communicating subject matter in a vivid manner to students.
More specifically, schools could do the following:
- Develop a course in 'media education' which aims to create an active understanding of the emergence and workings of various media and provides critical tools that would help students discern the 'underlying messages' they are subjected to in different kinds of media products (such as advertisements, soap operas, rock music, teen magazines etc.).
- Identify suitable good quality programmes on television and help parents and children to make infonned choices of what to view, encouraging the use of television in a measured and worthwhile manner. Also caution parents and children about programmes that are clearly unsuitable for students.
- Create libraries of good films and programmes that have learning potential and are relevant to children. Use these programmes consciously for active learning of subject matter or exposure to human and global issues, and, as far as possible, not as mere entertainment or 'fillers'.
Unless we begin to move, at home and at school, in some such direction, our children will remain susceptible to being swept along by a tide of images and subliminal messages that they have little control over. The pervasive power of media in the modern world thus calls for a kind of 'media education' that may develop an intelligence which is capable of using the media for definite purposes without falling prey to its limiting and distorting influences. This may then leave our students and us more open to the deeper intimations of life within and around us, through which we may begin to truly educate ourselves about life as a whole.
from THE PISA CANTOS
THE ant's a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order,
or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what
can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity,
Paquin pull down!
The green casque has outdone