Despite legislation that protects minors from violent media content in films, TV programs, and video games, such material is accessible to and widely used by children and adolescents. Therefore, in addition to prohibiting access, an important goal for interventions is to promote children's and adolescents' media competency; that is, to teach them how to monitor and regulate their media usage, particularly with regard to violent content. In this article, we describe a media competency training program for 7th and 8th graders in Germany that is directed at two main goals:
- Restricted viewing, referring to the overall reduction of media exposure and to the substitution of violent with nonviolent media content.
- Critical viewing in terms of promoting an understanding of the concept of media violence, its effect on users, and the mechanisms by which violence is presented as acceptable, successful, and detached from negative consequences.
The program we developed consists of five weekly sessions, each lasting two school periods, accompanied by two parent evenings at the start and the end of the program. The curriculum addresses three main areas.
Goals regarding media usage
Monitoring personal media usage habits
Students keep a diary for a week where all media usage is recorded at the end of each day in terms of duration and program content, followed up by a discussion in class. The aim is to increase awareness of the prominence of media violence in adolescents' everyday routines which is a first step towards recognizing problematic use. It is critically important not to condemn media usage altogether but to help participants to draw a line between unproblematic entertainment and risky contents with unintentional and unwanted negative (aggression-increasing) effects.
Reducing exposure to media in general and to violent media stimuli in particular and encouraging alternative activities
Students are instructed to have a "media free weekend" during which no TV, films or video games should be used. Specific strategies are discussed that help them to stay away from their favorite media altogether for two days but also to change habitual exposure patterns in the long run. It is essential to present the media free weekend in a positive way as an experiment designed to help adolescents to become aware of their dependency on media usage and of the availability of alternative leisure activities.
Goals regarding the understanding of media violence and its effects
Learning to identify violent media content
Students discuss a range of examples of violent media content with a focus on atypical forms of violence, such as fantasy and cartoon violence that are less obvious than scenes of realistic or actual violence and therefore provide good teaching examples. They also learn to identify particular features of the presentation of violence.
Extending knowledge about the effects of media violence
This part of the curriculum deals with promoting an understanding of the effects of media violence exposure on users' aggression-related thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The underlying mechanisms, such as making aggressive thoughts more easily accessible, are not only explained but also illustrated in short demonstrations.
Active rehearsal of the acquired knowledge
In the final part of the intervention, students engage in a process of rehearsing what they have learned about the effects of media violence and the self-regulation of media use. In small groups, they enact one of a range of pertinent situations (e.g., a controversy between children and parents about limiting hours spent playing on the computer). The scenes are filmed, subsequently edited, and presented by the participants to their parents at a parent evening.
Goals regarding parental involvement
The training includes two parent evenings at the beginning and the end of the five-week intervention period. The first parent meeting is directed at the following aims:
Supporting the child during the media free weekend and in reducing exposure on a daily basis
Parents' support is of critical importance for the media free weekend, particularly in terms of offering attractive alternative activities. Strategies for implementing new consumption rules are suggested (e.g., by handing out TV programs for the coming week and instructing parents to mark, with the children, the programs that can be watched).
Informing parents about detrimental effects of media violence
The aggression-enhancing effects of media violence exposure (outcomes and mechanisms, potential risks of passive co-viewing) are explained. Parents are encouraged to engage in active monitoring behavior and to talk to their children about media violence consumption within the family.
Providing guidelines for sensible media diets as well as effective monitoring strategiesReasonable media diets according to the age of the students are recommended along with information about age classification systems and software for blocking access to unsuitable media content.At the second parent evening, students present the film scenes they produced. Because all film scenes relate to the issue of media violence exposure and its potentially harmful effects, the presentation provides a starting point for discourse between children and parents about the problematic aspects of media violence.
Anderson, C. A., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E., Huesmann, L. R., Johnson, J. D., Linz, D., Malamuth, N. M., & Wartella, E. (2003). The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 81-110.