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September 19, 2006

Senate Passes Bill to Study the Effects of Screens on Cognitive Abilities Among Children

Last Wednesday, the United States Senate passed a bill calling for the study of computers, television and video games and its content on the cognitive development of children. The bill, which has been titled the Children and Media Research Advancement Act, is sponsored by those media effects legislators, the senators Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton.

While the bill raises some potentially good points--particularly that the very form of these screen media could cause substantial alterations to the way in which children develop--the rhetoric of the senators and the bill itself appear to be coated in this anti-media stance that these two often take.

I've never hidden my personal issues with Lieberman's political tactics, particularly surrounding his use of various social arguments to advocate various forms of censorship, as I mentioned in an entry about his recent defeat in the Connecticut senatorial primary.

The two senators have made various appearances in Henry Jenkins' posts as well, such as his entry on Four Ways to Kill MySpace, which focuses on proposed legislation to restrict children's access to MySpace in public libraries or schools. In that post, Henry writes:

This isn't a liberal/conservative, red-state/blue-state kind of issue, people. What's at stake here is a fundamental question of free association and expression which should concern every American citizen. For this bill to have passed by such a large margin of votes, it has to have had the support of a significant number of Liberal Democrats who want to take the Joseph Lieberman-Hillary Clinton route -- trying to appease their social and cultural conservative constituents by going after what they see as low-hanging fruit. They can take away the rights of young people to assemble in cyberspace because young people aren't likely to vote in the next election.

In his recent post on the pro wrestling war over media effects, Henry writes:

Joseph Lieberman rose to political fame largely on the basis of a series of tactical alliances with cultural conservatives. For example, Lieberman serves on the advisory board of L. Brent Bozell III's Parents Television Council; stood alongside Pat Buchanon, Orrin Hatch, and Colin Powell to support an anti-Hollywood petition written by the conservative think tank, Empower America; and has worked closely with David Walsh's Institute for Media and the Family in condemning the video game industry. Leiberman himself described William Bennett as " my brother in arms, because we are engaged together in fighting the culture wars." He explained, "For the better part of two years, we have formed an unofficial, bipartisan partnership to coax, cajole, shout and shame the people who run the electronic media." As former WWF superstar Mick Foley notes, "whenever anyone accuses the PTC of being ultraconservative, he [Bozell] throws Joe Lieberman in their face."

In fact, for me, Lieberman's prior relationship with the PTC and similar political moves by Sen. Clinton provide important context for the current campaign.

They are joined in this bill by Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, who are establishing research through the Centers for Desease Control and Prevention, as well as the National Academy of Sciences.

In Wendy Melillo's Adweek article last week about this issu, Lieberman is quoted as saying, "No one is looking out, in a systematic way, for the cumulative
impact of today's newer electronic media on our children. The questions about the effects--positive or negative--of media on our children's health, education and development are too important to go unasked and unanswered."

Although Lieberman says "positive or negative," his choice of language clearly connotes a strong emphasis on the negative, by saying that "no one is looking out" for "our children's health, education and development."

And Clinton was quoted from a July forum on the issue as saying that "we are conducting a massive experiment on our kids, and parents have not gotten their consent."

Melillo looks at how this connects with concerns over food companies and other groups marketing to children are using interactive ads through the Internet to target children, as well as Web sites with various activities that many feel are pushing viral marketing too far, when children may not be savvy enough or have sufficient media literacy to understand how they are being sought out by advertisers (or manipulated, if you are out to put a heavy negative spin on these new media projects).

While this congressional initiative may not be directly related to many of the topics we cover on a regular basis here on the C3 blog, these policy issues--especially when framed around media effects to cognitive abilities or human behavior--can have very real implications on media content. I've written recently about the public debate regarding WWE and media effects, as well as claims of links between lower cognitive abilities and watching soap operas and talk shows among the elderly.

Again, my problem is not with the idea that we need to understand more about how new educational structures should be put in place to allow for the great changes in children's lives that screen media have brought about but rather the negative connotation the study is already supposing, with its relegation to the CDC and the implication that children are being "experimented" on.

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