Lara Dutta

Doing our part: Mass media’s response to adolescents

“Infotainment” is a buzzword of our times. Information combined with entertainment floods adolescent minds, and there are few ways to filter it before it gets absorbed. Violence, sex, social prejudice and offensive language are all products of the mass media these days. To what extent can we guide youth to recognize what is true or valuable in what they see and read, while protecting them from objectionable images and ideas?

While estimates vary by region and culture, studies show that the average child in the developed world watches TV or a computer screen for about four to six hours per day. The entertainment industry and the Internet offer a seemingly endless array of activities. With the globe at their fingertips, teenagers easily forget about the real world around them and spend their leisure time watching movies, playing video games and participating in online chat rooms and forums.

Schools and colleges have recognized the potential of electronic media and made curricula more interactive. Education today is no longer restricted to textbooks and classrooms; children are encouraged to surf the net, use digital media in their presentations and expand their computer knowledge. Schools and parents are also aware of the worrying trend of “cyber-bullying”, whereby a child is tormented or threatened through interactive and digital technologies such as instant messages, email and mobile phones. The limitless nature of new technology can be harmful to vulnerable youth.

Parents and children often clash over using the Internet, watching TV or movies and listening to music. Parents want to protect their children from negative influences and may feel they know what is best for them, while adolescents struggle for independence. Family decisions and open lines of communication between parents, teachers and children can ensure that young people are given the proper guidance as they engage in this vast network of information and experience. Such support and protection can moderate children’s exposure to inappropriate content and prevent them from being taken advantage of by opportunistic adults.

The power of the media over adolescents can be neither ignored nor denied. It has given the stars of films, music and sports a disproportionate influence on the lives of adolescents, who admire these figures and often emulate them. A film or musical artist with mass appeal and the ability to reach out should therefore aim to offer entertainment that is also educational – without being preachy or boring. For every three or four “light” movies churned out by the Mumbai film industry, for example, one movie that conveys a special message can do a world of good. We have seen this with films like Taare Zameen Par, the story of an 8-year-old boy who feels depressed and humiliated as he struggles in school until a new art teacher determines that he is dyslexic, helps him improve his learning skills and changes his life for the better.

A movie or song can inspire a generation to think in global, humanitarian ways. The single “We Are the World”, for example, was recorded by USA for Africa in the 1980s to benefit famine relief in Ethiopia. Twenty-five years after its release, the title was re-recorded in February 2010 following Haiti’s devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Dozens of artists came together to perform the legendary piece, with the aim of raising money to help the Haitian people. The entertainment industry and the Internet can be powerful partners in involving young people in helping regions deal with disasters and addressing social ills such as gender discrimination and the spread of HIV.

Being an adolescent is hard. I know; I’ve been there. It is a life stage during which one is still growing and becoming self-aware. Adolescents search for inspiration, acceptance and guidance as they blossom into adulthood. Celebrities with the power to affect their impressionable minds therefore have a moral responsibility to impart positive messages. I am committed to using any influence I may have to do just that as a Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). In the words of USA for Africa’s famous song, “We are the ones who make a brighter day so let’s start giving.”

Lara Dutta was appointed as a UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador in 2001. She was crowned Miss Universe in May 2000 in Cyprus. Formerly Miss India, Ms. Dutta was a print and fashion model. She has since joined the Indian film industry as an actress. She has a degree in economics with a minor in communications.

Panels

The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.

Essays

Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.