Thursday, June 28, 2012

Using Television Programs and Media to Promote Positivity in Children’s Psychology

Today I'm posting a guest blog from Libby Enstrom, who is a contributor to a website called Psychology Degree Net .   The website aims to look at plethora of fields psychologists are contributing to today. Originally conceived as a way to create an objective collection of resources for people interested in psychology it has since grown into something much wider, today the project looks at areas of study ranging from neuropsychology to cultural psychology. Go take a look!

Using Television Programs and Media to Promote Positivity in Children’s Psychology

Young adults are, and always have been, impressionable and highly susceptible to outside influence, something covered extensively in all academic programs ranging from online courses for psychology to Harvard’s prestigious program. Many experts posit that the media has the greatest effect on young people today, particularly the film industry, which annually generates more than $10 billion in the United States alone. In many cases, films have been criticized for reinforcing negative, unhealthy behaviors in teens,  but experts also note that the opposite is possible, as well.

Films with adult themes – such as violence, profanity, drug-related content and sexuality – often receive an R-rating, which, in theory, legally prohibits unaccompanied minors from viewing them in theaters.
However, according to child development experts, certain unhealthy attitudes and behaviors have not been restricted by the MPAA rating system. A New York Times editorial titled, ‘Avatars Don’t Smoke’, noted that anti-tobacco advocates have tried in vain to secure an R-rating for films depicting adults and/or children enjoying cigarettes. Psych Central News made the same argument for on-film alcohol consumption in 2012. Even unhealthy eating has been targeted; Tom Henderson of Parent Dish recently postulated that movies subliminally influence food choices, citing a list of six fast food, soft drink and candy companies that comprise 45% of product placements in American films.

Of course, individual behaviors vary between young adults. “Not all children react in the same way to a violent video game, a scary movie or a television show that depicts high-risk behaviours,” wrote Jan D’arcy in the Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. “Media influences on young people’s emotional health, attitudes and behaviours is a complicated matter.”

Jacqueline Burt, of CafeMom’s, The Stir, recently wrote that this influence makes sense, considering America’s collective love affair with Hollywood stars. She cited a Fox News study that noted the depiction of alcohol consumption in films poses a greater risk to teen drinking habits than having parents that regularly consume alcohol or keep an easily accessible liquor cabinet. “According to conventional parenting wisdom…our influence is supposed to trump that of the media and/or our kids' peers, assuming we actually manage to exert a positive influence,” she wrote. “Maybe kids who are unduly influenced by some random star drinking whiskey from the bottle on the big screen are not, in fact, being sufficiently influenced by their parents.” She adds that if parents wish to prevent their teens from drinking, or engaging in other negative behaviors, they should not only practice abstinence/moderation themselves but also address the issue when it comes up during family movie night.

However, The F.I.L.M. Project argues that movies can also effectively expose young people to positive values. Children are continually exposed to films throughout their lives and the amalgam of experiences creates a normalized attitude within the young person that is completely independent of reality.

When young adults are exposed to films that go against stereotypes, promote non-violence and foster cultural appreciation, their attitudes and behaviors often reflect these positive messages. Of course, negative mindsets can also result if parents do not monitor the movies their children watch. “It is critically important for parents, teachers and other adults working closely with young people to understand that youth do not passively experience media,” states the project’’s ‘Teaching with Movies’ guide. “It is important that youth are able to find and assert an identity apart from negative or stereotypical media influence.”

The film industry is a permanent fixture in modern society and the effects that movies have on young people, both positive and negative, are well documented. The ultimate decision to allow a child to watch a questionable film, or forbid them from doing so, ultimately rests with his or her parents. For this reason, many experts agree that the type of teen behaviors that are reinforced by film-watching can in part be determined by mom and dad.

Thanks so much to Libby for contributing this fascinating post. I remember my initial response to the mega-movie Avatar - I felt such great excitment that a critique of violent colonisation of indigenous people and the raping of the environment was presented as an action sci-fi movie! This reaction was the complete opposite to my response to the hugely popular The Devil Wears Prada - where the beautiful Anne Hathaway gets drunk and does the whole 'no, no, no, yes' scene when the sleazy guy wants to get her into bed. What the hell kind of message is this for young women - or young men?

This then brought to mind the excellent documentary by Professor Sut Jhally Ph.D. called "Dreamworlds 3: Desire, Sex & Power in Music Video"an extrardinary and horrifying look at the world of music videos and the 'pornographic gaze.' To quote from the website blurb: Illustrated with hundreds of up-to-date images, Dreamworlds 3 offers a unique and powerful tool for understanding both the continuing influence of music videos and how pop culture more generally filters the identities of young men and women through a dangerously narrow set of myths about sexuality and gender. In doing so, it inspires viewers to reflect critically on images that they might otherwise take for granted. 
I can guarantee that every teenage girl who watches this documentary will become activated to resist this incidious sexism - and every parent will think seriously about banning MTV!! It's powerful - do be prepared. I've watched it several times within a training context and every single time it moves me to nauseous tears. Find it. Watch it. Spread the word.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The truth in fiction vs the fictions in so-called 'truths'

There are novels that stay in our heads forever, no matter how long it is since their first reading. These are the books that have in some way spoken to the unnerving tacit fear that resides at the very heart of our understanding about who we are, who we love, and the world as a whole. And for me, they are also the novels of great prescience, anger and power, voicing real concerns about what is really going on behind the constant venal spin of so-called ‘truths’.

George Orwell’s terrifying, paranoid masterpiece 1984, for instance, was written after he had seen the decimation of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. In his wonderful essay ‘Why I Write’[1] he says: Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.  No one who has read this book can fail to see the comparisons to our lives today — with its themes of nationalism, sexual repression, censorship, surveillance, the dumbing down of the masses, and the theft of culture and free thought. What makes the book a classic is that it speaks to us as clearly as it spoke to someone who first read it back in 1949 (and every decade since.) And what makes the previous sentence so depressing is that very little has really changed — and some would actually argue it has grown much worse.

He did it again with Animal Farm, his 1945 allegorical novel about the corrupting influence of power and greed. Again, we do not have to look too far to see plenty of examples of this theme made real today.

Margaret Atwood’s Booker Prize nominee The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is also such a book, which (at the time of my first reading) spoke to me directly of the plight of women in Afghanistan during the Taleban’s misogynist reign. To another reader it could just as easily have been describing her own soulless, subjugated marriage. It is a terrifying world for women Atwood has invoked — and yet the awful fact is that women are still placed in equally dangerous, controlled and compromising positions somewhere in today’s world — every single minute of every single day.

But the novel that has lately been uppermost in my mind is Doris Lessing’s 1974 dystopian novel The Memoirs of a Survivor. It is the disturbing story of a woman coming to understand that society as she knows it has completely collapsed and will never be the same again. That while she and her other fellow city-dwellers have gone on blindly ignoring the warning signs, a creeping mass of displaced, angry young people are pillaging their way through the countryside and will soon overtake them. This is a story about social breakdown on a massive and unstoppable scale. ‘Public services cut off, air poisoned, looted buildings standing empty... Normality continues it’s crazy, straight-faced ritual of government announcements, newspapers, appearances maintained...[2] Any of this ring a bell?

I think the thing about this book that really stays with me is the utter disbelief and perplexity the central character feels. ‘How can this be happening?’ she thinks. It can’t be real. And yet her world is lurching cloth-eared and blindfolded towards disaster, with people’s lack of attention and laziness — their distracted lack of focus and inability to think and act — the real key to their own downfall and demise.

It seems to me that the biggest problem in this crumbling social democracy of ours is the kind of mind-set Lessing described so chillingly... the old ‘she’ll be right/I’m relaxed about that’ attitude. I fear we will, too late, realise that our lack of social responsibility, compassion and courage has led us to a frightening Orwellian future. So please: 'Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.[3]'

[2] ‘In the Disintergrating City’ Rosemary Dinnage (July 17, 1975) The New York Review of Books.
[3] Margaret Mead

Sunday, June 10, 2012

So what’s the story with all this violence and bad language?

I’ve been pondering on the seeming contradiction between Mandy the wimp (who rescues spiders from the bath, mice from the cat, catches and releases blowflies, can’t even listen to violence on TV and films) and Mandy the writer (who writes pretty damn graphically about both sexual and physical violence, and isn’t averse to adding the odd ‘fuck’ here and there.) How is it I can do this – and why do I go to these dark places at all?

I think it boils down to authenticity and truth telling. I write because I have identified something that I feel needs further exploration, and I want my readers to engage in the particular issue I’m addressing as well. Not that I expect people to think and feel the same way I do, but because I want to open a discussion on the ethics of each situation... present a point of view that isn’t always canvassed in so-called ‘mainstream’ media, then leave it to the reader to think about and rule on.

It seems to me that we are all at risk of gross desensitisation to violence, given the diet we are fed on TV and film in particular. Violence (or crime) on TV, for instance, has become so prevalent on our screens that the underlying horror of these situations is often buried beneath the stylised slickness of the production. We accept that every week, in an increasing majority of programmes, we are privy to dead bodies, acts of cruelty and a general meanness of spirit that feeds into our everyday lives. I’m not asking for a return to The Waltons (well, actually that would be nice!) or Pollyanna, but a little more compassion and kindness depicted in creative content sure as hell wouldn’t go amiss!

So, why then, you may ask, do I write about violence in my books at all? My hope is that by creating characters that the reader really cares about (and truthfully depicting violence in all its sheer awfulness) we get to see the real horror and damage wrought by violence, rather than the Hollywood hype (i.e. poor old Coyote may be able to rise from the dead time after time when Roadrunner nukes him but real people can’t!) I believe young people need to understand that there are long term consequences for both victim and perpetrator – that there is nothing sexy about a dead body, a gun battle, domestic violence or rape; that they are all gross violations and the perpetrators, far from being admired (or glorified, as is happening more and more often these days), deserve our condemnation. 

The writers of that ghastly programme Dexter work hard to make you care about a serial killer; so too the writers of the latest crop of programmes about motor cycle gangs etc. In the CSI genres the bodies are chopped up, pontificated over and totally dehumanised, while in the shoot-‘em-ups the heroes always dodge the bullet (this, my friends is not the case in real life). Violence hurts people and can destroy whole lives, families, communities, nations... if we’re going to address this creeping desensitisation we have to reveal the real consequences of these types of violent acts. I believe it’s my job to make my readers want to vomit at the thought of my characters suffering violent death or injury, if I am ever going to help shift the mindset of the next media-washed generation to a more peaceful place.

I guess all this is by way of saying that if you’re horrified by the violence in my books, well, so am I! That’s why I write it: to debunk those dangerous media myths.

As for bad language... I’m sorry, but really, in comparison to all the terrible things going on in the world, does it matter? As a writer, it’s my job to create a convincing character on the page – one who you can believe would think and sound exactly as a real person would. If I write an 18 year old boy in today’s world, then chances are his vocabulary is going to contain the odd shit and fuck! Get over it! Expressive language never killed anyone – lies, deceit, lack of respect for others, greed, brutality, power and control are the killers we should be outing with such moral enthusiasm! If we’re going to be hyper-vigilant about the content of our books for young people then target these!
Herein ends the rant!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Best Friends R Books review of The Nature of Ash

Do check out this great review of The Nature of Ash, with thanks to Zac.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Q&A with the Book Council

Thanks to the Book Council for this short interview

NZ Book Council Blog

Q&A with Mandy Hager about her new book for young adults, The Nature of Ash


The latest release from Wellington author and educator Mandy Hager is a novel for young adults called The Nature of Ash. Set in NZ 20-odd years in the future, corporations control resources, leaving the local population disconnected from the land and powerless. Main character Ash (Ashley) McCarthy is an 18-year-old living in a student hostel and the novel opens with Ash and his friends embarking on a night of heavy drinking, to settle their fears over the torpedoing of an Australian ship in NZ territorial waters after a prolonged dispute. Ash receives the terrible news that his father has died in a bomb blast. Everything changes for Ash as he must deal with his father's death, look after his handicapped brother and leave town as the threat from offshore gets seriously worrying. We ask Mandy Hager a few probing questions about the book, its characters and what she's working on next.

1. Young adult readers appreciate fiction that honestly engages with the chaos and complexities of war. Why do you think they have such an interest, even a thirst for writing that taps into this territory?

 I think young people are looking about them and redefining the world with fresh eyes at this age. They are starting to see the power structures and inequalities, the imposed controls and frightening complications of the adult world and realising that they somehow have to carve out a place for themselves in this big mess we’re leaving to them! In some ways reading about this kind of thing is a safe version of an initiation ceremony – putting themselves into the shoes of beleaguered characters in dangerous situations and thinking about how they would cope, without having to go through the actual trauma. Here’s hoping our young people only ever have to experience the brutality and pointless destruction of war through fiction.

2. Ashley, like many ordinary people caught up in war, must struggle to survive in a web of action that is outside his control. What interests you about exploring ideas of individual and collective freedom and choice in the context of war?

I’m very interested in the fine line between freedom fighter vs. ‘terrorist’, and the way we marginalise, dehumanise and demonise groups that are different from our own, in order to label them ‘the enemy’ and, therefore, justify the use of force. I want to provide an alternative narrative to the racist and xenophobic ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality, and to encourage a greater questioning of the decisions made on our behalf. I’ve been thinking about Aristotle’s political philosophies, and how we could hold up ethical right action and thinking as the role model for advancement in human hierarchies, rather than the ridiculous situation we’re in today where those with the most money (and self-interest) end up in control, perpetrating policies that keep this imbalance in place.

3. Main character Ash’s brother Mikey has Down syndrome. Their relationship is central in the book and encourages readers to confront prejudices that can surround disability. In what ways does Mikey challenge and inspire Ash?

I was very keen to make sure that Mikey had equal agency in the book – to make him a real person with real thoughts and feelings (including all the complications of adolescent hormones!) and who also plays an important part in Ash’s journey as well. What Mikey offers Ash is unconditional love, a capacity for simple joyfulness, an intuitive reading of people and situations, and a lesson in how those deemed ‘outsiders’ have a unique perspective to contribute – how they have a valuable role to play in all our lives. He’s the personification of compassion (while still being an annoying little brother in a very ordinary way!) – Ash comes to realise that Mikey’s so-called disability is much more gift than curse.

4. Would you describe The Nature of Ash as a dystopia?

I guess if dystopia means ‘a state in which the conditions of life are extremely bad as from deprivation or oppression or terror’ (as per the Free Online Dictionary definition) then, yes, that’s what it is. But that’s a scary admission, as everything depicted in the book is already going on somewhere in the world today. The underlying political situation described in the book is the ‘logical’ outcome of the ideology we are currently following in this country, with the relinquishing of vital assets, resources and sovereignty (coupled with peak oil and climate change) destined to widen the gap between rich and poor (the 99%) and disenfranchising vast swathes of the population. Also things like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will walk all over our sovereignty and hand over power to transnational corporations. The actual opening scenario in the book is based on a discussion with an academic who has experience in international security affairs, including intelligence analysis and unconventional warfare – this is how he sees that things could realistically play out. Scary times.

5. What are you working on next?

I’ve just started work on a novel about suicide, family secrets, and Vincent Van Gogh!

Go in the draw to win two copies of The Nature of Ash, courtesy of Random House, by heading to the Book Council's Facebook page and telling them why you want to read The Nature of Ash.