Seeking pro-social new media solutions

'A federal judge has ruled that an Indianapolis city ordinance banning minors from playing violent and sexually explicit video games without parental permission can take effect immediately. . . Businesses would be fined US$200 per day for a violation; three violations...
December 1, 2000

‘A federal judge has ruled that an Indianapolis city ordinance banning minors from playing violent and sexually explicit video games without parental permission can take effect immediately. . . Businesses would be fined US$200 per day for a violation; three violations in a year could lead to the revocation of a business’s amusement location license.’ Associated Press, October 12, 2000

There’s an old saying we are all familiar with: ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.’ In fact, maybe we’re too familiar with it. So familiar, perhaps, that the meaning has been lost. It was less than five years ago that the U.S. children’s television industry railed against the Federal Communication Commission’s mandate of three hours per week of educational TV, a rule brought on by years of the marketplace’s irresponsible behavior. Is our collective memory so short that we are about to see the exact same mistakes made with television repeated with interactive technologies?

Media’s impact on children has been a convenient social and political whipping post for longer than most of us can remember. Beginning with radio and movies and moving on through television, video games and the Internet, politicians, policy makers and pundits have almost exclusively focused on warning the public about the dangers of new technology and have labeled media producers as amoral money-grubbers. And maybe some of us were. But at this stage, that’s kind of beyond the point. The final outcome of all those years complaining has been some government regulation of children’s television and a couple of incendiary press releases, but no substantial library of pro-social product that has been transformational with the very children the laws sought to protect. Instead of inspiring a new generation of socially responsible and entertaining content, misunderstanding and distrust are still dividing those who should be working together.

The problem is not insurmountable. And for a specific segment of the audience, our industry has solved it. Think about the preschool market. In the U.S. there is now no distributor or producer of preschool media that doesn’t call itself educational. Why? Because with the inspiration of Sesame Street’s gold standard, followed by the seemingly easy-to-emulate success of Barney & Friends, our industry realized that you could actually make more money by producing projects that were good for kids. The marketplace determined the rules, but kids and parents won. Does it matter what the motives are? The fact is, preschoolers have fun, safe and quality shows to choose from across the broadcast, cable and newer media spectrums.

How did this come about? And how do we encourage the same process for six- to eight-year-olds? Nine to 12s? Ask any producer of financially successful educational media, and they’ll tell you that the more you know about your target audience from both a developmental and a marketplace perspective, the better chance you have at creating something kids will independently choose to play with. The problem facing those producing in newer and still emerging media formats is that the research doesn’t yet have enough facts to be truly helpful. Wouldn’t it be better to use the research rather than expensive trial and error to discover whether an instructional design like the one underlying MathBlasters could inform the next generation of PlayStation games?

As an industry, we can all benefit from putting our efforts into truly understanding the relationship between kids and interactive media, and knowing what we don’t know is the big first step in driving the kind of research that’s needed. The current research generally suggests that where interactive video games have been designed to teach specific skills, they can be highly effective learning tools. But there hasn’t been enough research on games that are already in the marketplace to determine what their effect is on other cognitive skills. And what about the Instant Messaging craze? Can the web enable awkward teens to find the social ease that eludes them in the real world? Will those social skills transfer off-line? Is on-line communication the great convenor or will it lead to an isolated and withdrawn populace communicating across flickering screens? All great dramatic fodder and frankly my dear, we don’t have a clue.

But even without all the answers, I disagree that interactive technologies are some sort of ‘fool’s gold.’ This is not the time for a moratorium on new media use, it’s time to put our money on the table to motivate the research, production and distribution of interactive games, toys and projects that succeed because they seamlessly blend entertainment and education. This is our chance to create a marketplace that succeeds financially because it succeeds educationally. After all, what could be better than having kids and their gatekeepers like your products?

Alice Cahn is managing director for Interactive Media for Children at The Markle Foundation, a company promoting the development of communications industries addressing public needs and working to realize the potential in emerging media and how it can be used to improve peoples’ lives.

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