Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 11, 1996

On Faculty: Boosting Awareness

Mike Field
Staff Writer

     There's a new advocate for child safety available on tape at
your neighborhood video store, brought to you, in part, by the
School of Public Health. 

     Although not a member of the school's faculty, you may well
know him. He's 6 ft. tall, handsome in a Jurassic sort of way,
smiles continuously and is familiar, it seems, to every child on
the planet. One hint: he's also purple.

     As any parent of preschoolers will tell you, there is only
one purple force in television today. Barney rules--at least
among 1-to-6-year-olds, for whom he has been the No. 1 viewing
choice almost since the day his half-hour public television
program premiered in 1988. 

     Last year, experts from the School of Public Health teamed
up with The Lyons Group, producers of Barney and Friends, to
create a video designed specifically to teach safety techniques
to Barney's target-age audience. Through songs and skits about
such issues as traffic, fire, head injuries and drowning, Barney
helps convey the basics of safe behavior to his audience. The
Barney Safety video, on the market for almost a year now, has
been consistently ranked in the top 20 videos in the children's
non-theatrical category as compiled by VideoScan data services.
It is currently ranked No. 11.

     To hear Alan Langlieb talk about it, Barney is only the
beginning. Langlieb, one of the originators of the project and an
instructor in the Department of Health Policy and Management in
the School of Public Health, envisions a day when children of all
ages will have a steady and reliable source of useful information
about the various health issues confronting them on the
sometimes-perilous journey to adulthood.

     In order to realize this goal, Langlieb last year helped
establish and now directs The Boosters Project, a public health
promotion effort funded by SmithKline Beecham and The Chesapeake
Health Plan Foundation. The Barney Safety video was the project's
first attempt at melding public health expertise with established
entertainment outlets to produce a new combination of message and
medium. A physician by training, Langlieb developed Boosters with
colleague Louis Francescutti and others during their preventive
medicine residency.

     "The goal of Boosters specifically is to begin to unravel
the gap between what research shows and what popular culture
assumes," says Langlieb. "Our mission is to transmit health
information more systematically and more understandably. Research
produces facts that are all too often packaged for other
researchers. We want to deliver this information to the biggest
audience possible."

     In particular, The Boosters Project aims to address the
"information awareness gap" between what people think are
significant health risks and what research shows to be the
greatest hazards to the most people. This process of education
began with the Barney Safety video itself.

     "For several years the creators of Barney had received
letters from parents asking for a video promoting safety,"
Lang-lieb says. "Many of those letters in particular were
concerned about issues of child abduction. Abduction is such a
scary issue for parents. It plays upon their heartstrings. But
given the fact that there are finite resources--in this case,
total playing time on the tape--we made an effort to demonstrate
to the producers what issues facing children were the greatest
cause of injury and death, as identified by Hopkins injury expert
Stephen Teret."

     In the video, Barney uses song and example to urge his
viewers never to chase toys or pets into the street, always to
wear safety belts in the car, to avoid the stove, the iron and
other hot things, and to practice a number of other behaviors
that promote  child safety. "Injury is the leading cause of death
among children," Langlieb says. "The Barney video concentrates on
promoting safe behavior meant to prevent injury."

     Nor is the disjunction between perceived and real dangers to
children an isolated occurrence. Even public health experts seem
to hold widely divergent views on what dangers pose the greatest
threats, as evidenced in an informal survey Langlieb and
associate Elaine Eggleston circulated among some Public Health
colleagues earlier this year.

     "The poll was aimed at helping Boosters understand what
experts feel are the leading health issues facing children," he
says. "What was startling--but not necessarily surprising--was
the range of responses we received. It suggests that there is a
variation between what experts seem to think, what parents
believe and what the statistics indicate. Part of the aim of this
project is to build a nexus between the three."

     Langlieb envisions a series of projects aimed at promoting
health empowerment through health information and resources for
different age groups. Thus, as kids get older, the messages they
learn from Barney could be augmented by new messages from Disney
or MTV or their home computer. 

    "We have to begin very early through age-appropriate teaching
and then stay with each generation, so they will receive the
message of health promotion repeatedly and from as many different
outlets as possible," Langlieb says. "Part of the confusion
surrounding health issues has to do with the sheer volume of
information we as members of this society receive, often on a
daily basis. Should you exercise daily? Avoid fat and
cholesterol? We receive so much information on these subjects but
lack the foundation to process it. We want Boosters to act as
translators to help young individuals understand what facts are
known and what they can do with that information."

     Langlieb declines to specify what The Boosters Project's
next effort will entail, other than he "hopes it will be every
bit as big" as the best-selling Barney video. But a shelf in his
Barney memorabilia-cluttered office may provide a clue. 

     Next to a framed photo of Langlieb with the big purple
dinosaur is a second shot of him with another cultural icon. This
one is bearded, wears glasses and has an avuncular arm around
Langlieb's shoulder. They must have something good in mind,
because both Langlieb and Steven Spielberg are smiling broadly.

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