Anti-smoking CD-ROM seen as cool to Texas middle school students

Monday, July 21, 2003

Some of the students serving detention in Austin's middle schools watch a cartoon image of a seventh-grader named Gabe. As Gabe smokes a cigarette, nicotine -- in disguise of a science fiction villain -- travels though his body and brain, attacking them.

The cartoon is one of many images included on "Unfiltered: Exposing the Truth Behind a Pack of Lies," a multimedia CD-ROM designed to prevent students in grades 6-9 from starting smoking and to help students who have already started smoking to quit.

Three University of North Texas faculty members and more than a dozen students designed the CD-ROM after receiving $355,573 from the State of Texas' Nursing, Allied Health, and Other Health-Related Education Grant Program in 2000. The Texas Legislature established the grant program with proceeds from the 1998 Texas Tobacco Lawsuit Settlement.

Michael Gibson, UNT associate professor of visual arts and one of "Unfiltered's" creators, says the detention students are not forced to watch the CD-ROM, which is on the computer hard drives in their schools' learning centers. Instead, the students "watch because it's cool," he says.

"Teachers tell us that the kids go to their science classes and talk about what they learned about nicotine," he says.

Free copies of "Unfiltered" and its accompanying teachers' manual were first sent to more than 1,600 middle and junior high schools in Texas in February 2002.

After receiving feedback from the schools' teachers and nurses about its use, Gibson and the CD-ROM's other creators, Dr. Celia Williamson, chair of the UNT Department of Rehabilitation Studies, Social Work and Addictions, and Dr. Donald Louis, project director for the department, created "Unfiltered 2.0," which has an easier navigation system. The new version of the CD-ROM, which is being sent to the schools this summer, also includes excerpts of anti-smoking commercials aimed at Latino teenagers.

Nearly 20 percent of American teenagers smoke cigarettes, according to the American Lung Association. The organization also reports that 57 percent of high school seniors who smoke at least one pack a day began to smoke daily in middle school or junior high school.

Middle school and junior high school teachers helped to create "Unfiltered" through focus groups that provided input on which messages are effective with their students. For this reason, "Unfiltered" focuses on far more than the health risks of smoking, Williamson says.

"Kids don't think about how smoking will impact their health 10 years from now. Instead, they're more concerned about hygiene -- if smoking makes them smell bad -- and relationships. They wonder if they need to smoke to fit in with others," she says.

"Unfiltered" is divided into five modules: Health Risks, Social Scene, Propaganda, Reality and Smoking Cessation. Most of the modules include video and audio of interviews with smokers.

Gibson says that in talking to teachers, he discovered that "Unfiltered" isn't just being used in health and science classes.

"The Propaganda section is being used by language arts and social studies teachers to discuss how cigarette advertising works," he says.

School nurses are also showing "Unfiltered" to students when they come for appointments, he says.

Louis explains that while teachers' days are often very structured because they have to fulfill curriculum requirements, nurses have more flexibility.

"Nurses can have different kinds of conversations with students than teachers can," he says.

Gibson says a school nurse in the Midland-Odessa area described playing "Unfiltered" when a student came to her, then leaving the student alone with the CD-ROM.

"She found that letting kids explore the CD-ROM on their own really worked," he says.

The teachers as a whole said their students were especially attentive to the Reality module of "Unfiltered," which includes real-life interviews with two women and three men who are experiencing devastating health problems from tobacco use. All five started smoking at young ages.

"There's also a section about a woman who is trying to quit smoking as a wedding present to her daughter, but her daughter receives a phone call before the wedding and learns that her mother has died," Gibson says. "A teacher at a Corpus Christi school said the kids were really gripped by the death."

Teachers said students also like Social Scene module, which focuses on how smoking interferes with students' life and personal goals, their families and their friends, Gibson says.

"There's one section in which students chastise another student who has allowed his younger sister to become hooked on cigarettes," he says. "The students really responded to that."

He says he was most surprised at students' "renegade use," of "Unfiltered" -- watching it in detention or study hall or another area outside a classroom or nurse's office.

"They tell other students about 'Unfiltered.' It's like finding out about a particular website and sharing it with others," he says.

More information about "Unfiltered" is available at www.art.unt.edu/unfiltered.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108

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