Luckily, I stumbled upon a related story that looks at helmet usage amongst… Fictional characters. The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, looks at safety practices depicted in movies over time. This may seem like a silly waste of time (or the project of your dreams, if you're a grad student), but we know that children tend to imitate what they see in movies (and that is why my eventual kids will never see the “Jackass” movies). Given that by age 18 the average child has spent two years in front of a screen, we might want to know a little more about the kinds of influences they may be getting from mass media.
The researchers started by identifying the 25 top-grossing G-rated (general audience) and PG-rated (parental guidance suggested) US movies for each year between 2003 and 2007. Of those 125 movies, they excluded movies that were animated, not set in present day, fantasy, documentary or not in English. That left them with 67 movies. The researchers then analyzed the safety practices in all the scenes that included characters with speaking roles either walking, driving or riding in a car, driving or riding in a boat, or riding a bike (for a grand total of 958 scenes).
The results show that in movies, just over half (56%) of motor-vehicle passengers wear seat belts, just over a third of pedestrians (35%) use crosswalks, three quarters of boaters (75%) wear personal flotation devices (or lifejackets), and a quarter (25%) of cyclists wear helmets.
Compared with similar studies carried out in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, there is a significant overall improvement in the depictions of safety practices. However, about half of the scenes still show unsafe practices. What’s more, movie characters rarely suffer the consequences of unsafe behavior. How many times did you see someone get up after falling off a cliff and think “Come on!”. The depictions of unsafe behavior combined with the absence of consequences for these behaviors may lead children to minimize dangers in real life, so parents, make sure you point it out when you see characters acting unsafe!
Now the study excluded quite a few movies for simplicity’s sake, and ended up with a fairly small sample, so it would be premature to generalize these results to all movies out there. I would be especially interested in finding out how animated movies fare, since they definitely cater to a younger crowd (Simba sure learned the consequences of *his* unsafe behavior). A later post, perhaps, if such a study exists!
Reference: Injury-prevention practices as depicted in G- and PG-rated movies, 2003-2007. (2010) Tongren JE et al. Pediatrics 125(2):290-4.