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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 'global culture'.

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 countries.

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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