Teens Learn to Think Before They Act

Julee Newberger
July 19, 1999

Remember a highly-publicized case from a few years back in which a stop sign was stolen from a busy intersection in Tampa, Florida? Three young men were killed in a car crash as a result of the prank, and three other teens went to prison for first-degree manslaughter.

The story is now part of Choices and Consequences, an anti-violence curriculum created by the Court TV television network that encourages teens to think about the choices they make and the consequences of their actions. According to a 1999 study, the curriculum is working to increase kids' ability to empathize with others and decrease aggressive behavior.

"We know that many influences contribute to the prevalence of violence among adolescents," says Joel Federman, co-author of the study and co-director of the Center for Communication and Social Policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "This study shows that educational efforts can have the opposite effect, reducing aggression among teens."

In the study, 513 middle school students from three schools in Southern California used the three-week curriculum, which involved watching videos, engaging in classroom activities and doing daily homework assignments. Researchers found that children's legal knowledge improved, as did their empathy, choice-making and risk-perception skills. Kids also reported in engaging in less anti-social behavior.

Deborah Lofton, an Oxnard, California teacher who used the curriculum, says the fact that the videos used real-life court cases involving teenagers made the curriculum relevant to the students. "Knowing that the people involved were currently living out the consequences of their actions helped the students connect with the life-lessons in the curriculum," Lofton says.

"This is an instance where media can be part of the solution," says David Walsh, Ph.D., of the National Institute for Media and the Family. Walsh will be assisting with the development of a new set of curricula that Court TV will distribute in conjunction with partners AT&T and Time Warner. Walsh says the program is consistent with the mission of his organization, which is to maximize the benefits of media while minimizing its harm on children. "The underlying assumption," Walsh says, "is that media can be a very effective teacher."

Keeping Kids Out of the Courts
Court TV created the curriculum in response to the National Television Violence Study, which was released by the Center for Communication and Social Policy in 1996. That study found that the negative consequences of violence are not often portrayed in violent programming, and perpetrators go unpunished in 73 percent of all violent scenes.

Additional research shows that adolescents are at greater risk of being involved in violence, either as perpetrators or victims, than any other age group. According to Henry Schleiff, CEO of Court TV, the network wanted to address the problem of adolescent violence—and TV violence—with education. Says Schleiff, "Our goal is keeping our nation's youth out of our nation's courts."

The question is, will the program keep kids out of the courts in the long run?

Walsh says it's hard to say. Court TV will pursue additional studies to measure the program's long-term effectiveness. In the meantime, researchers are confident about their methodology. The UCSB team used a control and an experimental group in the study. "Any effect that we got was due to the program and nothing else," says Daniel Linz, Ph.D., co-author of the UCSB study.

The curriculum, which was created in conjunction with the National Middle School Association, also includes resource guides for parents, teachers and students, a comprehensive area on the Web site, community-based teen forums and a series of special programs. Starting on September 9, at 7:00pm ET, Court TV will air a monthly program that will aid teachers to fully utilize the materials in their schools.

For more information on Choices and Consequences curriculum, visit Court TV.