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Message overload

Left with no brakes on the information superhighway, young people can swerve dangerously close to disaster. Jitendra Nagpal looks at the phenomenon

education Updated: Oct 14, 2009 10:21 IST
Jitendra Nagpal

What impact do the media have on our consciousness? In particular, how does exposure to the mass media, especially television, affect the behaviour and growth of children? How can we handle this?

Living in a world of technological advances, one senses the tidal wave of globalisation that carries with it hi-tech products, new lifestyles and a consumer culture to every part of the planet. Reflecting these rapid changes, as well as actively promoting them, are the media — print (books, newspapers and magazines), audio (the music industry), the audio-visual (television, video and cinema) and, more recently, the cyber media (the Internet). The result is an ‘information superhighway’ where the traffic of images and impressions moves at breakneck speed, leaving young minds swamped.

Today, virtually all that we know, or think we know, about the world beyond our immediate experience seems to come to us through the media. If the media simply reflected reality, there would be little concern. But, in fact, it is now understood that each medium of communication shapes or ‘codifies’ reality in different ways.

All media present carefully crafted reconstructions of our world. No medium can be considered neutral; all contain selective messages about values, beliefs and behaviours.

Outlined below are some effects that are now commonly visible in the Indian situation.

Short attention span:

The long hours of watching television, with its heightened audio-visual stimulation, is clearly affecting the attention span of children. They seem less willing to undertake tasks that require a sustained application of mind and body.

Hyperactivity among young children is more evident and the boredom threshold has dropped for many, making them easily irritable and difficult to manage.

Distorted thinking:

The media create in the child’s mind a need for quick gratification. Children begin to crave particular kinds of toys or other consumer products, including clothes, foods, soaps and cosmetics, as well as particular kinds of music. For older children, the ad blitz leads to a desire for certain ‘brand name’ and a particular kind of lifestyle.

Superficial role models:

The media provide new kinds of role models for children to emulate and new professions to aspire to. Children admire people with a high gloss appeal such as pop stars and movie stars, fashion and TV personalities, and those are the careers they covet the most. Stories of young children becoming singing sensations or schoolgirls becoming supermodels are the new inspirations for Gen Y.

Peer pressure:

When children watch and later talk about particular programmes, films, products and their advertisements, or when they sing particular songs or even jingles, or dance in the latest styles, they together create a more intensely shared peer world that draws upon common media tastes. Every child then feels a stronger need to conform or s/he faces exclusion and ridicule.

Imitation of violence:

With TV channels importing or cloning Western programmes with violent imagery and accompanying strong language, children are increasingly imitating and absorbing the aggressive behaviour and foul language they are exposed to.

Skewed sexual development:

With the media increasingly projecting romance and sex and offering disconnected information on sex, a greater sexual awareness among children is becoming evident, as also an earlier stimulation of sexuality among pre-teens. Some begin to seek relationships with the opposite sex in order to explore their attractions, for others it becomes a ‘status symbol’ to have a boyfriend or girlfriend.

This creates new forms of peer pressure even in middle school years.

To counter the effects of mass media, parents must see that children’s access to media is monitored. In schools, the power of specific media, e.g. the Internet, may also be harnessed in a more purposeful manner. Unless we act, our children will remain susceptible to the tide of messages they cannot control.

The author is a senior consultant psychiatrist with Moolchand Medcity & Vimhans, New Delhi. Send him an email at

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