Technology - Sex, Potato Chips, and Media Literacy

By Van Horn, Royal | Phi Delta Kappan, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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Technology - Sex, Potato Chips, and Media Literacy


Van Horn, Royal, Phi Delta Kappan


NOW THAT I have your attention, what on earth does sex have to do with potato chips? Simple answer: sex is often used to sell things. Imagine a television commercial with Britney Spears nibbling a handful of Lay's(r) potato chips. You and I might realize that eating high-fat foods is not synonymous with bodies like Britney's, but many children and youths probably don't.

When I first decided to write a column on media literacy, I thought that I would simply be offering a definition, discussing how media literacy could be incorporated into the school curriculum, and suggesting resources that might be useful. After a little research, however, I developed a sense of urgency. We needed media literacy 20 years ago, we desperately need it today, and we need to move fast. In the words of UNESCO, "We must prepare young people for living in a world of powerful images, words, and sounds."1

If the admonition from UNESCO doesn't convince you of the urgent need for media literacy, consider this from the American Academy of Pediatricians:

Media Matters is a national public education campaign of the American Academy of Pediatrics. It was launched in 1997 to help pediatricians, parents, and children become more aware of the influence that media (television, movies, computer and video games, Internet, advertising, popular music, etc.) have on child and adolescent health. Issues of concern include the use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs; aggression and violence; sex and sexual exploitation; obesity and poor nutrition. Media Matters advocates for media education, or learning how to analyze the media through critical thinking and viewing, as a way to mitigate these problems.2

Note the last few words: "mitigate these problems." To document its concern, the academy has issued a number of "policy statements" that summarize the research and offer specific suggestions on such topics as "Children, Adolescents, and Television," "Sexuality, Contraception, and the Media," "Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children," "Media Education," "Media Violence," "Impact of Music Lyrics and Music Videos on Children and Youth," and "Children, Adolescents, and Advertising." Here is a short excerpt from the academy's policy statement on music videos.

Music video formats are popular among children and adolescents. When music lyrics are illustrated in music videos, their potential impact is magnified. Teenagers who may not "hear" or understand rock lyrics cannot avoid the often disturbing images that characterize a growing number of videos. In addition, music videos are self-reinforcing: if viewers hear a song after having seen the video version, they immediately "flash back" to the visual imagery in the video. Music videos may represent a relatively new art form, but it is one that often contains an excess of sexism, violence, substance abuse, suicides, and inappropriate sexual behavior.

With 70% of American households receiving cable television, most teenagers have access to Music Television (MTV) and VH-1 and watch an average of a half hour to two hours of music videos daily. Content analyses indicate that up to 75% of concept music videos (those involving a theme instead of a concert performance) contain sexually suggestive material. More than half contain violence, which often includes acts committed against women. Women are frequently portrayed in a condescending manner. Alcohol and tobacco use are also glamorized in many music videos that teenagers view. As with music lyrics, teenagers' ability to comprehend and interpret music videos may vary widely and may represent an important variable in their potential impact.

A handful of experimental studies indicate that music videos may have a significant behavioral impact by desensitizing viewers to violence and by making teenagers more likely to approve of premarital sex.

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