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House Subcommittee Examines Effects of Media Images on Children

On June 22, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet held a hearing on the “Images Kids See on the Screen.” The hearing focused, in part, on the effect media images have on childhood obesity and smoking.

Chair Ed Markey (D-MA) said, “Parents and families have an undeniable responsibility to steer their children to health choices. But it is hard for parents to compete with popular kids’ TV characters pushing sugary cereal or Ronald McDonald hawking happy meals. There is, after all, no means for parents to ‘block’ junk food ads the V-chip [an electronic tool by which parents can block television programming they find objectionable] only applies to programs, not advertising. And there is a terrible inconsistency in policies that require broadcasters to air three hours a week of educationally nutritious programming for kids and then have this programming and other children’s shows surrounded by a barrage of junk food ads.”

“It seems as a society we are much quicker to lay blame for our ills rather than acknowledging our own foibles,” said Ranking Member Fred Upton (R-MI). He continued, “We have drifted away from personal responsibility. As a parent of two teenagers, I firmly believe that the primary responsibility for the health and well-being of our children lies with parents not the media. Kids get fat from what they eat, not what they see. They stay fit by what they do or rather don’t do. Additional government regulation can NOT cure childhood obesity or keep children from smoking. Let’s not forget who’s ultimately responsible for what children watch and for how long parents. The master of the clicker must be the adult, not the child in the household.”

Dan Glickman, chairman and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), said, “The ratings system is constantly evolving to meet the changing needs of parents. Recently we have taken several steps to make the system more user-friendly and transparent for families.” Mr. Glickman detailed these steps, saying: “First, we have to make improvements to ensure parents are informed about the ‘depictions of violence’ in our motion pictures and marketing materials…Second, we added an additional warning to parents that R-rated movies are not appropriate for young children…Third, we are constantly looking at potential new factors to determine what additional information the ratings system may need to include.” Mr. Glickman went on to say, “Last month the MPAA announced that depictions of smoking will be considered as a ratings factor. Depictions that glamorize smoking or that feature pervasive smoking outside of an historic or other mitigating context may receive a higher rating, or the inclusion of smoking may be included in the rating descriptors for the movie, such as ‘glamorized smoking’ or ‘pervasive smoking.’ In the past, illegal teen smoking had been considered as a factor in the rating of films. We have now extended that ratings factor to encompass adult depictions of smoking.”

Cheryl Healton, president and chief executive officer of the American Legacy Foundation, expressed concern about smoking in the movies, saying, “The Foundation’s published research shows that in 2004, tobacco was depicted in three-quarters of youth-rated movies (G, PG, and PG-13) and 90 percent of R-rated movies. Because teens are less likely to see R-rated movies, about 60 percent of youth exposure comes from youth-rated movies. A study analyzing tobacco use in movies from 1999 through 2006 found very similar results: 75 percent of all U.S.-produced live action movies featured tobacco use, including 88 percent of R-rated movies, 75 percent of PG-13 movies, and 36 percent of PG- and G-rated movies.” In order to curb the images of smoking in the movies, Dr. Healton recommended that “[a]ny film that shows or implies tobacco should be rated ‘R’”; “[t]he producers should post a certificate in the closing credits declaring that nobody on the production receive anything of value…from anyone in exchange for using or displaying tobacco”; “[s]tudios and theaters should require a genuinely strong anti-smoking ad…to run before any film with any tobacco presence…regardless of its MPAA rating”; and “[t]here should be no tobacco brand identification or the presence of tobacco brand imagery…in the background of any movie scene.”

Donald Shifrin of the American Academy of Pediatrics said, “According to national survey data, children who watched four or more hours of television per day were significantly heavier compared to those watching fewer than two hours a day. Furthermore, having a TV in the bedroom has been reported to be a strong predictor of being overweight, even in preschool-aged children.” Dr. Shifrin added, “In addition to not getting enough exercise, children who consume media are being overwhelmed with junk food advertising and marketing. They are seeing an unhealthy, disproportionate amount of advertising for products that are high in fat, sugar, and sodium, and low in nutrition.” He went on to say, “Advances in technology will definitely exacerbate the problem. Children’s advertising protections will need to be updated for digital TV, which, if all goes according to plan, will be in place in 2009. Children watching a TV program will be able to click an on-screen link and go to a web site during the program. Interactive games and promotions on digital TV will have the ability to lure children away from regular programming, encouraging them to spend a long time in an environment that lacks clear separation between content and advertising.”

Mary Sophos, senior vice president and chief government affairs officer for the Grocery Manufacturers/Food Products Association, said, “Reducing childhood obesity and encouraging healthy lifestyles is a priority for the food and beverage industry. The solution requires a comprehensive approach to incorporating sound nutrition, increased physical activity, consumer education, and community support. Collaborations and partnerships with stakeholders across the spectrum of government, academia, the public health community, the private sector, schools, nonprofits, and parents are critical if we are to succeed. The industry is providing a wider range of nutritious product choices and is marketing these choices in ways that promote healthy lifestyles.” Ms. Sophos added, “Food and beverage advertisers accounting for over two-thirds of all TV advertising to children under 12 have announced their commitment to devote the majority of their messages to healthy choices and lifestyles. The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative is designed to shift the mix of advertising messages to children to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles.”

“The key to identifying potentially unsuitable content in advance is the ratings system developed by the cable, broadcast, and motion picture industries in conjunction with the deployment of the V-chips in television sets,” said Kyle McSlarrow, president and chief executive officer of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. He continued, “Almost all cable programming (other than news, religious, and sports) is rated to identify the age-appropriateness of the programming and, where appropriate, specific types of material (e.g., language, sexually-oriented material, depictions of violence) that is included in the programming…In addition, TV ratings are visually displayed on the TV screen at the beginning of rated programs. They are also included in electronic program guide information so that cable customers can make viewing decisions for the family or use blocking technology to ensure that unsuitable programming cannot be watched.” Mr. McSlarrow highlighted changes made by cable programmers as part of its “Take Control. It’s Easy” campaign: “First the size of the ratings icon that is displayed on the TV screen at the beginning of rated shows has been enlarged to make it more visible. Second, a ratings icon is being inserted on the screen after each commercial break to remind viewers of a program’s rating throughout the duration of the program.”

Adam Thierer, senior fellow at the Progress and Freedom Foundation, said, “Parents need to be prepared to deal with media on multiple platforms, screens, and devices. While this can be a formidable challenge, luckily, there has never been a time when parents have not had more tools and methods at their disposal to help them determine and enforce what is acceptable in their homes and in the lives of their children. And that conclusion is equally applicable to all major media platforms, or all the screens our children might view.” Mr. Thierer added, “Also, it is vital that we not overlook the importance of household media rules in this discussion. Oftentimes, debates about inappropriate content get caught up with disputes about technical controls, ratings, or even regulations that we forget that parents often view these things merely as backup plans…I identify four categories of household media rules that surveys show almost all parents use some combination of to control their children’s media consumption. These household media rules include: ‘where’ rules…’when and how much’ rules…’under what conditions’ rules…and ‘what’ rules.” Mr. Thierer said, “[C]ertainly most of us are familiar with widely used household media rules like, ‘No watching TV or playing games until your homework is done,’ or ‘You can’t watch that movie until you complete your chores.’ Such household media rules can actually be more effective in controlling children’s media habits than technical controls. But debates about parental controls and media policies treat these household media rules almost as an afterthought, if they are mentioned at all. It’s time we start talking about them.”

Jon Rand, general manager of KAYU, KCYU, and KFFX television stations, also testifying on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters, said, “Adopting legislation directly regulating programming content on television especially at a time when consumers have unprecedented control over the video programming that enters their homes would be overreaching and unnecessary to accomplish the government’s goal of supporting parental choices. Indeed, it would impermissibly substitute the government’s judgment for that of parents, while also interfering with the right of adults to watch what they want. This is a real concern because approximately 68 percent of the country’s 110 million television viewing households do not include children under the age of 18 at all. Thus, for the majority of households in the country, restrictions on content, including violent content, would do nothing but impinge on the viewing choices of adults. In fact, adults over the age of 55 spend more time watching television than any other age group, and both children ages 2-11 and teens ages 12-17 spend less time watching television than any other age/gender group, except men ages 18-24.”

Patti Miller, vice president of Children Now, also testified.

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