Monday, January 24, 2011

Not-so-subliminal messages

For this week’s post, I had originally intended to kick-off the (Vancouver) cycling season with a post about helmets. So I reviewed the recent evidence to see if I could find an interesting paper. Unfortunately, I ran into a problem of the “boring” kind: the evidence out there is pretty much what you think it is: helmets are good, they prevent injuries. While that’s relevant, it doesn’t make for a great post, because, well, you already know this.

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!
Definitely not the crosswalk!

Reference: Injury-prevention practices as depicted in G- and PG-rated movies, 2003-2007. (2010) Tongren JE et al. Pediatrics 125(2):290-4.

3 Responses to “Not-so-subliminal messages”

Fawn said...

The cartoons of our younger years were definitely not very realistic about unsafe behaviours (think Wile E. Coyote, for example). I wonder, though, whether animation has an effect on the viewers' perception of realism, particularly among the young target group. Or is Wile E.'s behaviour so obviously and utterly ridiculous that it can safely be excluded from the equation of influencing safe behaviuours? (Wow, that was a terrible sentence.)

Further to the topic of realism, it has always annoyed me that TV/movie characters never seem to close the door after themselves when entering a house.

Anonymous said...

I dunno - for this type of study (qualitative?) the n hits my threshold for meaningful. I admit to being surprised at the breakdown results - would have expected more helmet-depictions and more seatbelt-depictions. More boaters wearing flotation devices than I expected but I can't recall the last movie with a boating scene.

For typically-developing children, I suspect an ability to disregard more of the behavior in animated movies - than they might in movies with actors. Thus, we all understood the fallacies of Wiley's multiple death-inducing events in one episode.

You did well to segue into this article, SC! Very interesting!

@ Fawn: You bring a good point about realism affecting how much something influences us. Wile E. coyote may be utterly ridiculous, but I bet equally-animated Dora is taken more seriously. I guess it's all on a continuum. Thanks for the comment!

@ Barbara: This type of study is considered quantitative, because they are counting stuff (instances of security practices). I too was surprised that boating safety was depicted more often than seat belts, but like you, I can't recall a specific boating scene. I'm glad you liked the post! Thanks for the comment!

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