Children and the media
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A question of access
The enormous disparities in access to electronic
media demonstrate that we are still a long way from being the global
information village that many pundits from the northern hemisphere
like to imagine.
The Global Media Atlas, published by the
British Film Institute
in 2001, paints a picture of a world in which all forms of communication
are in the hands of conglomerates or under state control. The poorest
countries are the least well-served.
If mass media is seen as an engine of change, the
economic and cultural dominance of the North is assured. Countries
where communications technology is at its most sophisticated and
accessible include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden,
Switzerland and the United States. Those where it remains the most
remote of public facilities include the Democratic Republic of the
Congo, the Gambia, Haiti, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Nepal and Somalia.
However, global awareness of the inequality between
North and South has been made possible by a communications revolution
that allows a person in sub-Saharan Africa to describe her circumstance
to the world by satellite phone, even though she may have little
prospect of seeing her children grow to adulthood.
The delivery of television services to a society
riven by war, disease and poverty may, rightly, rate low on the
scale of a government's priorities, but the technology now exists
to make communication with the outside world more feasible than
ever before for those in the bleakest of circumstances.
Indeed, warring factions in different parts of
the world have paid special attention to mass communications - for
example, the murderous output of the notorious Radio Television
Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda; the media war conducted by the
western allies and Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War; the propaganda
battle during the Kosovan crisis; and the continuing conflict between
Israel and Palestine. The events of 11 September 2001 were played
out for the mass media, and in the 'war against terrorism' that
followed, the media has played a crucial role for all parties to
the conflict, even though the latest figures indicate that barely
one in 10 Afghans has access to a radio set.
Even in parts of the world where mass media flourishes,
access is likely to be restricted, by economic circumstances and
parental controls, for instance. Recent studies of media use by
children in the United States and India indicate that affluent,
urban dwellers have greater access, and that boys have access to
a broader range of media products than girls. Children from minority
groups within both societies are less well-served.
Where media products are at the most dense - in
the Nordic countries and North America - children have a greater
variety of products to choose from and increasingly have unlimited
access in the home, with their own personal computers, Internet
connections, electronic game sets, radios, CD players and televisions.
Since many of the games, programmes, music and
related merchandise are common across national boundaries, it could
be argued that the communications revolution has opened up shared
interests among young people. Globalization could be said to have
created a youth culture that is recognizable in every corner of
the world - cartoon characters, music styles, fast foods, fashion
brands and media celebrities.
Ironically the public service ethos - guaranteeing
universal access - which has underpinned the development of mass
media in many western countries, has opened the door to what many
now regard as a dissolution of cultural identities. Mass production
of media products for huge markets means sales at lower prices than
those produced in smaller markets. Those who dominate the global
media scene are therefore also able to define the supposedly uniting
When the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC),
the world's best known public service broadcaster, announced plans
for two new digital television channels entirely devoted to young
people, and allowing their own participation in the process, it
faced opposition from global commercial competitors, who feared
the loss of an important share of the market.
This is an indication that importance is attached
to children - especially as a potential market in western democracies.
However such competition offers little consolation to the millions
of children who have never seen a television set.
Just as they object to being treated as passive
consumers, children also recognize that their own identity is being
sold short by media promotion of alien or anodyne cultural values,
and they appreciate the irony that so much of the merchandise associated
with global media output is manufactured by children in the poorest
Children and young people's rights to participate
in society are hampered both by a lack of communication infrastructure
and by competition for market domination. These are major issues
that have to be addressed by governments, but children and their
supporters can apply pressure by demanding greater equality in the
distribution or media and opportunities for self-expression.
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