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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