Saturday, April 28, 2001

Teach kids skills to avoid stupid stunts

        You can't legislate against stupidity.

        Not against stupid kids. Or stupid parents. Or stupid TV shows.

        What four Independence teens did last week, trying to copy a Reebok commercial and daredevil stunts as seen on MTV's Jackass, was plain stupid.

        So was the knee-jerk reaction by elected officials.

        Kenton County Attorney Garry Edmondson talked about holding MTV responsible for the teen's injuries and asking Insight Cable to drop MTV.

        Now it turns out the kids apparently were copying a Reebok shoe commercial, in which Houston Rockets guard Steve Francis leaps over an oncoming car in a computer-generated trick. The advertisement (pulled Thursday by Reebok) never aired on MTV; it appeared only on Survivor: The Australian Outback, America's top-rated TV show.

        Should we ask cable systems to block CBS, too?

        As much as I detest Jackass, which has resulted in two copycat injuries in Connecticut, I know it won't go away. It's just one drop in the mass media tidal wave engulfing our culture, and shaping our behavior, particularly that of young impressionable viewers.

        We don't need more laws or cable blackouts. We need a commitment to teach media literacy in schools. We must help children understand the blitz of entertainment and marketing that sweeps over them daily.

        If you truly are what you eat, then consider that the average American family consumes eight hours and eight minutes of TV each day, Nielsen Media Research says.

        Children (age 2-11) watch TV 3 hours and 19 minutes daily. Teens (12-17) watch 3 hours and 10 minutes.

        The “typical teen” also is exposed to 3,000 advertising messages a day, according to PBS' Frontline “Merchants of Cool” documentary about advertisers' manipulation of teens.

        What we have done to help them process information coming faster than a blink of an eye? (Watch a TV commercial and try counting to four before the picture changes. You can't.)

        TV sitcoms teach kids that any problem can be solved in 30 minutes. With a laugh track.

        Jerry Springer shows them the only way to resolve differences is to yell, scream, kick, fight, finger-point or throw chairs.

        Buffy the Vampire Slayer, like most dramas in TV's 50-year history, relies on a big fight scene in the last act to resolve conflict.

        Dawson's Creek and Boston Public portray teens having sex — sometimes with their teachers. The Kaiser Family Foundation says 75 percent of prime-time network shows included sexual content in 1999-2000.

        The TV Parental Guidelines rating system has allowed programming to become more adult, now that networks have the excuse, “Well, we warned you!”

        Computer-generated special effects, once only seen in big-budget action films, now permeate TV movies, prime-time shows — and the commercials between them.

        Images swirl past so swiftly we often can't comprehend the message. They're such a part of everyday life that we never pause to ask: “Is that really possible?” Or: “How did they do that?”

        No wonder some kid thinks he can jump over a car. I wouldn't be surprised if some kids think Mountain Dew cans fly through space or Gap dancers can stop in midair.

        A Carnegie Foundation study declared a decade ago: “Next to parents, television is perhaps a child's most persistent, and most influential teacher.”

        So why don't we teach kids critical viewing skills? It can be done on so many levels:

        • Encourage kids to suggest alternative endings to their favorite sitcoms or dramas. Discuss ways to resolve conflict with violent confrontations.

        • Stress the difference between fantasy and reality.

        • Explain that the primary business of television is to attract people to advertisements, not programs. Point out that commercials are cleverly crafted to create a demand for products.

        • Ask children to tell how they think their favorite commercials — or scene from Spy Kids — were made. Let's talk about how our favorite Super Bowl commercials were made next year.

        • Ask teens to describe the safety precautions Jackass star Johnny Knoxville considered before putting on a “fire suit” and setting himself ablaze. (Since MTV loves to air “behind-the-scenes” specials promoting movies, why don't they show how they film Jackass stunts and commercials?)

        • Talk about teen life portrayed on MTV, theatrical films, music videos, Dawson's Creek and popular network shows. Do they really know anyone like MTV's Tom Green or Mr. Knoxville? Or are they media fabrications to draw an audience for sponsors? Do teens know more people like the kids on Gilmore Girls and 7th Heaven?

        Let's bring TV into the classrooms — and take it out of their bedrooms. Parents have a big responsibility here, too.

        A 1998 Kaiser study reported that 65 percent of children ages 8 and older — from second grade up — have a TV in their bedroom. How many kids also have a computer with Internet access in their bedroom?

        Lost in this rush to blame Jackass for some kids' foolish stunt was any discussion of parental responsibility. Did the parents have any clue about what their kids were doing? Did they hear the boys talk about videotaping themselves skateboarding into a pond or bicycling into a bush?

        Parents must be parents. They must watch what their kids watch. If they don't like it, they can turn off the TV — or ask their cable company for parental control devices to block out offensive channels. Insight and Time Warner Cable offer them.

        The alternative isn't pretty. More kids will think they can jump over cars. Politicians may demand the cable company delete offensive channels or programs. It might be one of your favorite shows — or something seen on America's No. 1 TV series.

       Contact John Kiesewetter at 768-8519; fax: 768-8330; E-mail:; Cincinnati.Com keyword: Kiesewetter


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