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20 Questions About Youth & the Media

Editor: Sharon R. Mazzarella
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2007
Review Published: October 2009

 REVIEW 1: Molly Swiger

The intent of 20 Questions About Youth and the Media is to introduce college students to a variety of topics found within the field of youth and media. The book is "designed with the classroom in mind," and includes questions and exercises at the end of each chapter to "facilitate classroom use and student learning" (5). The editor, Sharon R. Mazzarella, compiles twenty short chapters divided into three sections. Part 1 considers the various factions that have dictated the debate about youth and the media. Part 2 is concerned with studies on youth and the media within the empirical tradition, and the focus in Part 3 is on cultural research.

The first section, entitled "The Players," identifies some of the major entities that have dominated discussions about youth and the media. These players include corporations, government, parents, child advocacy organizations, and scholars. Chapters One and Two provide a historical view of the topic. In Chapter One, J. Alison Bryant considers how the youth media industry has evolved since the 1920s. In Chapter Two, Alison Alexander and Keisha L. Hoerrner look at government regulation, revealing that it has consisted more of legislative threats rather than action.

Chapter Three is written by the book's editor Sharon Mazzarella. "Why Is Everybody Always Pickin' on Youth? Moral Panics About Youth, Media, and Culture," demonstrates how the categories of childhood and adolescence are socially constructed. Mazzarella argues that, in the United States, young people have become defined as a special group of people, a group that is both innocent and in need of protection. This definition has brought about several public "moral panics" and Mazzarella focuses upon three: the 1950s comic-book scare, the panic over music in the 1980s, and the more recent concerns about youth and the Internet. Mazzarella points out that although these panics were not backed up by research, they still managed to cause much publicity and governmental action. Not only is this the strongest chapter in Part One, but because it does a particularly good job of placing the debate about youth and the media in within a cultural and historical context, I believe it would be more appropriately placed at the beginning of this section.

In Chapter Four, Cyndy Scheibe discusses how theories of developmental psychology can inform us about the effects of the media on children, demonstrating that our knowledge of child development can guide our understanding of how kids process media messages.

In Chapter Five, "How Do Researchers Study Young People and the Media?" Dafna Lemish clearly explains the differences between quantitative and qualitative methods, as well as the underlying assumptions guiding these two approaches. She not only does a good job of outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each methodological approach, she also shows how research methodology reflects cultural perceptions of youth. Like Chapter Three, Lemish's work seems like a foundational chapter, one that might be better placed at the beginning of Section 2.

Chapter Six, "Who's Looking out for the Kids? How Advocates Use Media Research to Promote Children's Interest," concludes Part One. Here, Katharine E. Heintz-Knowles recounts personal experience in working for Action for Children's Television, the Frameworks Institute, and the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Part 2, "The Concerns: Media Use, Content and Effects," focuses upon empirical, quantitative research. Nancy A. Jennings' "Advertising and Consumer Development: In the Driver's Seat or Being Taken for a Ride," outlines the various advertising practices within children's programming, and examines the cognitive and emotional effects of socializing children as consumers. In the end, Jennings calls for increased governmental and parental involvement, as well as more solid ethical marketing practices.

Chapters Eight and Nine consider the familiar debate over media violence. In Chapter Eight, Erica Scharrer focuses on recent research on media violence, considering the malleable definition of media violence, the amount of violence there is in the media, what its effects are, and why young audiences find it appealing. She argues that we should be less concerned about "copycat crimes" and more concerned with the media's role in desensitizing children to violence. Scharrer is also concerned with how violent television may affect children's perceptions of the "real world." Chapter Nine does well to complement Chapter Eight. Here John P. Murray looks how researchers have studied the effects of media violence over the last 50 years.

In Chapters Ten and Eleven, Michael Morgan and Nancy Signorielli write respectively about George Gerbner's Cultural Indicators Project. Morgan first discusses the theoretical assumptions of Cultural Indicators research paradigm. He then shows how this approach has documented what the media teach kids about violence, gender, occupations, and "deviant" behaviors. Signorelli, in Chapter Eleven, describes in detail what stories about children and childhood are cultivated by the media, concentrating upon prime-time television. She concludes that portrayals of childhood and adolescence within this venue ultimately devalue the young.

The last two chapters in Part 2 are more optimistic in tone. In Chapter Twelve, Deborah L. Linebarrger and Deborah K. Wainwright recount some of the scholarship on educational television, concluding that not only can programs designed to be educational prepare children for school, but can also enhance their achievement later on. In Chapter Thirteen, W. James Potter and Sahara Byrne document research on the effects of media literacy.

The final section, "The 'Kids': Youth, Culture, and Media," considers qualitative and cultural research on the youth and the media. Rather than focusing on the effects the media have upon the youth, the chapters in this section explore the various roles media has in the lives of young people. In Chapter Fourteen, Susannah R. Stern and Tylro J. Willis examine how young people use computer technology. Focusing on IMs, blogs, and social networking spaces, the authors contemplate why these venues are particularly appealing to young people. Especially interesting is the ways the Internet is utilized for identity expression and development. JoEllen Fisherkeller expands this theme in a very strong chapter entitled, "How Do Kids' Self-Identities Relate to Media Experiences in Everyday Life?" Fisherkeller notes that self-identities are dynamic, and vary among individuals and within different social and cultural groups. She shows how young people select, interact with, and apply "media toward their ongoing identity work" (229). Fisherkeller acknowledges that young people negotiate their self-identities, yet she also warns that the limiting formulas dictated by the market may severely limit the integrity of the identities kids construct online.

In Chapter Sixteen, Christine M. Bacjem considers the ways in which communication technologies are an important part of family life. While technologies such as email and cellular phones may help connect family members, familial value systems are apt to be continuously tested through the media, and because of the ubiquity of portable devices, may also limit shared experiences.

In "How Are Girls' Studies Scholars (and Girls Themselves) Shaking up the Way We Think about Girls and Media?" Mazzarella rightly points out that many of our ideas about the youth and the media has come from male researchers who have studies male kids. She advocates the need to listen to girls themselves, rather than adult interpretations of girls. By examining Web sites created by girls, and viewing home pages as spaces for "self-expression, community building, and identity play" (260), Mazzarella contends that adolescent girls should be conceptualized as active agents rather than passive victims of the media.

Chapters Eighteen and Nineteen are concerned with the consumerization of childhood. In Chapter Eighteen, Matthew P. McAllister traces the historical evolution of licensing and media tie-ins with children's culture. Stephen Kline, in "When It Comes to Consumer Socialization, Are Children Victims, Empowered Consumers or Consumers-in Training?" utilizes a historical perspective, demonstrating both the malleable definition of childhood as well as the evolving construction of the child as consumer. Ultimately, Kline demonstrates that children, from birth, are "consumers-in-training." Parents, media, peers, and schools all have a role in this socialization.

In the last chapter in the book, "Do We All Live in a Shared World Culture?" Katalin Lustyik convincingly argues that youth culture must be discussed within the context of "media globalization, cultural imperialism, national culture and identity." While acknowledging that globally, youth audiences can and do actively negotiate, appropriate, and resist media messages, media conglomerates dominate the media landscape, thus limiting the power of youth audiences.

Overall, 20 Questions About Youth and the Media offers an accessible look at some of the most pressing issues involving youth and the media. The introductory nature of the book results in a broad, rather than deep, consideration of this topic. This lack of depth, however, need not be a weakness. Because the chapters are so compelling, and offer such a variety of perspectives, the book is likely to encourage students to seek independently additional knowledge on a particular topic. That said, I should note that the book's chapters are overwhelmingly from an American perspective (only one chapter considers globalization). Furthermore, I would have liked to see more on how cultural understandings of race and class have dictated the debates surrounding youth and the media.

Nevertheless, 20 Questions could be a useful class resource. While perhaps the book is too broad for a special topics course, I believe it would be an excellent supplement to a mass communication theory course. Not only do the chapters demonstrate a variety of theoretical perspectives very well, but it covers a subject area that seems to be particularly salient to students.

Molly Swiger:
Molly Swiger is an Associate Professor in the Communication Arts and Sciences Department at Baldwin-Wallace College.  <mswiger@bw.edu>

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