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Last Updated: Friday, 30 January, 2004, 11:52 GMT
Media studies: The next generation
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online Magazine

As the number of media studies students rises again, children as young as three could soon be taking lessons in "media literacy". What will they be learning?

Media studies, the butt of many a joke about declining standards in academia, is more popular than ever in the lecture halls across the country according to new figures.

Last year saw a rise of 15.8% in the number of students on such courses. In future however, children as young as three may be learning in the most basic way the sort of skills that are taught on such courses.

Media literacy is the buzzword. Already part of the national curriculum in England for older children, the government also wants primary school pupils to have a greater understanding of the hidden depths of TV, films and other media.

More than ever before, children are immersed in a media-saturated world and exposed to television in particular.

A third of children under the age of four have a TV in their bedroom, as do more than half of under-16-year-olds. On average, children spend two-and-a-half hours a day watching the box.

Screen shot from 24
Apple makes an appearance in the US series 24
With this trend comes growing concerns about how they are affected by what they see. Product placement - whereby companies pay to have their brands appear within a programme - is just one of practices children ought to know more about, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said this week.

Children need help to "get the most" from their screen hours and "be protected from... some of the worst excesses of the screen," she told a media literacy seminar.

Advertisers have been accused of using increasingly cunning means of getting their message across, as pressure grows in some quarters for a ban on junk food ads.

While pledging to halt advertising to under 12s last year, Coca Cola set up a deal to sponsor the UK Top 40 which is used on the BBC's Top of the Pops and Radio 1. But the broadcaster has now said it will not mention the brand.

Pushing the boundaries

Although product placement is banned for programme makers in Britain, on commercial TV as well as the BBC, it is increasingly used in movies and finds its way on to the small screen here through imported programmes such as Friends, which, for example, has used Oreo cookies to good effect.

Both Heinz and Lego have made UK programmes which, while not using their brand names, focused heavily on products associated with them.

Food adverts make up half of all commercials in children's programmes
Of this, 75% was for fast or convenience food (source for both facts: Food Commission)
But only 14% of parents said TV ads were among top 5 influences on children (source: Advertising Education Forum)

A parliamentary investigation into tobacco promotion shed light on the particularly wily minds of some marketers. For example, one memo asked if the logo of a Formula One racing team could be "slightly corrupt[ed]" to include a symbol from a well-known cigarette brand.

With the rise of "hard disk" videos, such as the Sky+ box, which help viewers skip through commercial breaks, some experts say advertisers will need to be increasingly creative about ways to get their message across.

Under the government's new plans, children will be taught to decode the increasingly complex media.

A guide recently drawn up by the British Film Institute sets out priorities for teaching three to 11-year-olds.

It reads: "It is important to encourage children to distinguish between different form s of moving image media such as documentary, news, propaganda, advertisements and corporate promotion, and to recognise that the sources and motivation of a text can make a difference to the truth or accuracy of what it says."

Confidence building

Despite this, the BFI's Cary Bazalgette rejects the term "media studies" in favour of "media literacy". Its aims are no different from reading classes, she says.

Kids watching TV
Children with multi-channel TV watch four hours more a week
"That's about building up children's confidence as readers. We're saying to teachers you can now build that up with media forms children are already familiar with.

"You cannot be literate in the 21st Century unless you are literate in all the media that are used to communicate."

Hugh Burkitt, who runs the Marketing Society, backs the idea of helping children decode the media, but rejects the belief that children are prey to devious marketers.

"I don't think advertisers need to be wily or manipulative to reach children. I don't see anything particularly new. I'm very sceptical that product placement is as effective as people give credit for. It's not powerful enough."

Any primary school children out there might soon choose to take him up on that view.

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

Media Literacy is THE key skill for the 21st Century. We, in the US, are far behind our colleagues in Great Britain. Many of us in the US look to your guidance and appreciate the many fine efforts to produce some of the finest curricula in the world.
Frank Baker, USA

The best way to protect your children is not to allow them to watch the bilge that is television. Nowadays there are so many videos and DVDs for sale that you can police what they are subjected to and avoid on screen advertising.
Barbara, UK

For God's sake, the last thing we should want is to be wasting more of our children's time with completely pointless subjects like this. With the decline in academic subjects to make way for the "creative" curriculum, we should be doing exactly the opposite to this.
James, UK

I think this is an excellent idea. Children should be taught the different modes of communication that they are exposed to in a modern society, which they are at present, passive receivers.
Ian G, UK

I agree with Tessa Jowell. Children should be taught from a young age how to "read" the media. They need to learn to deal with the information that they are bombarded with through television, radio, magazines etc. I do believe younger children in particular are very susceptible to targeted advertising and product placement.
Jolanda Keur, UK

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