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Children's Voice Article, July/August 2003

Taming the TV Beast

By Kesha and Mark Hoerrner

When the media began airing reports about Eric Harris's and Dylon Klebold's fascination with the violent video game Doom, suddenly there seemed to be an answer to why the two teens had taken guns into Columbine High School and shot fellow students and a teacher. Once again, anecdotal evidence suggested that viewing violence in electronic media caused children to engage in violent behaviors.

Such anecdotal evidence has been surfacing since the advent of television. In the 1950s, several children were injured jumping off their roofs in an attempt to fly like Superman. In 1977, lawyers for Florida teenager Ronnie Zamora argued unsuccessfully that his killing of an elderly neighbor was the result of insanity caused by "television intoxication" and his obsession with violent TV programs, such as the detective drama Kojak.

The anecdotal evidence of these tragic cases is backed up by decades of scientific studies that show overwhelmingly that violent content on television, in movies, and now in video games is harmful to children. As former Army Ranger Dave Grossman writes in Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill, the research points to a definitive link between the violence children watch and the violent acts in which they engage. Television may not be the only cause, but it is one of the causes of violent behavior.

Couple Grossman's statement with statistics from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that show children spend three to five hours a day watching television, and it becomes obvious these young viewers have numerous violent acts to model. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association (APA), children see an average of 10,000 violent acts per year on television. AAP and APA studies also show that at-risk children tend to spend more than the average time watching television, and they tend to watch more violent programming.

This is a complex phenomenon, but it has clear ramifications for those who work with at-risk children.

The Effects of Movie and TV Violence

Psychologist Albert Bandura published an article in Life magazine in 1963 that described what was at the time a shocking notion of child development. Bandura said that children learned how to behave by modeling the actions of others, particularly adults. His social learning theory sounds like stating the obvious today, but it was revolutionary in 1963 because it was so distinct from Freud's psychoanalytic theory of development or Piaget's cognition theory.

"Humans begin imitating other individuals at a very early age, and young children learn many motor and social skills by observing the behavior of others," Bandura wrote.

Bandura's experiments involved children viewing a special movie of an adult interacting with a Bobo doll, a plastic doll filled with air that bounced back each time it was hit. Bandura learned that when the children watched the adult in the movie punch and kick the Bobo doll, they were more likely to imitate, or model, that behavior during their playtime activities. This was the first scientific study linking violent television content with antisocial behavior.

It would not be the last, however. Since Bandura, more than 3,000 studies have explored the link between TV violence and violent behavior. Most recently, the March 2003 issue of Developmental Psychology noted that children who watch a lot of violence on television are more likely to exhibit aggressive behavior as adults--including spouse abuse and criminal offenses--no matter how they act in childhood. Though some older studies leave open the question of which comes first--the preference for violent television or the violent behavior--this longitudinal study involved interviews with subjects from ages 6 to 9, and again in their early 20s, following children into adulthood to gauge long-term effects. [For more on this study, see "Bulletin Board," page 38.]

Antisocial behavior isn't the only negative effect that television violence can have on children. Researchers consistently point to two other effects--fear and desensitization. Joanne Cantor, professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the leading researcher in TV violence and fear. Her book, Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them, summarizes her decades of research in this area. Her conclusion: Many adults suffer from the trauma inflicted on them by something scary they saw on television or in a movie as a child. Most of the long-term effects are mild, but some people have suffered acute trauma because of what they saw.

Cantor began her research quite simply, asking college students what they remembered seeing as a child that scared them and what, if any, impact it still had on them. Roughly 95% of her students reported they were still traumatized as adults by something they saw in a movie or on television during their youth. "For example, many of [the students] who saw the movie Jaws never swim in the ocean," she says. "Many who saw the clown doll in Poltergeist have an irrational fear of clowns. The fear element in children is so unpredictable."

At what risk are children who have experienced abuse and neglect? "It multiplies the effect," Cantor says. "Both television and films can be very negative for the abused or neglected child who already has trouble trusting people."

These children are also at greater risk for suffering the effects of desensitization because they have encountered real-life violence. According to researchers Victor Strasburger and Barbara Wilson in Children, Adolescents, and the Media, more children may suffer the effects of desensitization than they do the other two negative effects of violent programming, fear and violent behavior. Desensitization is the least visible effect, however, because it simply limits the child's ability to be shocked by violence and to show empathy for victims.

Preeminent violence researcher George Gerbner explained to TV journalist Mike Wallace how desensitization causes more violence to be portrayed, especially in movies. Appearing on the History Channel's The 20th Century to discuss television violence, Gerbner noted that the body counts in sequel movies must increase to keep the audience's attention. That's why there was more violence and more dead bodies in Die Hard 2 than the original Die Hard. Content analysis of the Death Wish and Rambo movies show the same trend, as do initial observations of the more recent Matrix and X-Men sequels.

Television Content

Movies aren't the only place where children come face to face with shocking violence shown in an unrealistic format. In the mid-1990s, the University of California at Los Angeles a National Television Violence Survey, a three-year content analysis of prime-time programming. Among the results:
  • 61% of television programs contain some violence, and only 4% of these programs feature an antiviolence theme;

  • 44% of the violent interactions on TV involve perpetrators who have some attractive qualities worthy of emulation;

  • 43% of violent scenes involve humor either directed at the violence or used by characters involved with violence;

  • nearly 75% of violent scenes on television feature no immediate punishment for or condemnation of violence;

  • 40% of programs feature "bad" characters who are never or rarely punished for their aggressive actions.
Bradley Greenberg, a leading media researcher and professor of communication and telecommunication at Michigan State University, says children look to television as a surrogate parent: "Television tends to dull interpersonal skills. It doesn't advance social interaction, and it tends to reinforce aggressive interpersonal behavior. Television is still the primary conflict resolution device for children-and not in socially constructive ways."

Greenberg believes that, left to their own devices, children will continually see violent resolutions to problems on television and model this behavior as the norm, the same way a child living with an abusive parent will often model abusive behavior as the correct way to solve problems.

Thus, social workers, foster parents, and other caregivers may face a considerable burden in addition to the struggles of providing care for children already in troubled situations. As Cantor illustrated, children from less-than-perfect home environments can face a multiplied effect when it comes to differentiating between the fantasy and reality of television, witnessing acts of violence on television that may awaken suppressed trauma events or in dealing with fear at its simplest level. Many children in foster care, according to officials with the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, have experienced some sort of trauma or aggression and are actively seeking an escape and an identity figure. In many cases, this identity figure comes from within a book, comic book, movie, or television show.

When at-risk children watch television, Strasburger and Wilson note they are not watching child-oriented shows. Although quality television shows exist that teach prosocial behaviors such as sharing and giving, the researchers argue that most children watch more adult-oriented programming than children's shows.

Not Just for Children Anymore

Recent developments in television programming, especially in animated shows, have blurred the line between child- and adult-oriented programs. Cartoons, originally produced to run with feature films in the 1930s, and developed for television in the 1960s for a children's market, have evolved into a whole new genre called anime, a Japanese term for animated stories.

Anime is quite distinct from the Hanna-Barbera cartoons parents remember from the 1960s and 1970s. The animation style of such shows as Pokémon and Dragonball Z, anime is often more violent, more graphic, and more realistic than traditional Hollywood animation. Anime has also influenced the look and content of such recent popular TV cartoons as Batman: The Animated Series and Samurai Jack.

Animation has also changed in the movies. Parents used to think if a movie was animated, it was directed specifically to children. When director Ralph Bakshi developed the movie Wizards in 1977, an animated film followed by Heavy Metal in 1981, a new kind of cartoon came into being. Both films contained numerous acts of violence, very graphic scenes, sexual innuendo, and, in some cases, nudity. Both were rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a clear departure from the automatic G rating that animated movies normally received. Hollywood was sending a clear signal that cartoons weren't just for kids anymore.

In 1996, two out-of-work graphic artists, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, created an animated feature called Spirit of Christmas that raced around the Internet at lightning speed. The popularity caught the eye of cable's Comedy Central channel, which turned it into South Park, a show about four preteen boys who rail against authority, glorify the disgusting, and exalt sophomoric humor. The show begat a 1999 R-rated movie version filled with violence, sexual content, adult language, and derogatory, stereotypical content about minorities.

Taking Control of the Remote

The news about television content, however, isn't all negative. In addition to positive programming, especially on public television, today's parents and caregivers have a number of tools to help them in making television viewing choices for their kids.

"Those who watch over children these days have a lot of options with the latest inventions for television," Greenberg says. "With the advent of TiVo and satellite-based television controls, parents can filter out commercials and even lock out all but the channels specifically chosen by the parent." TiVo is a brand of digital video recorders that allow the user greater control in videotaping and viewing television content.

Parents, teachers, and social work professionals can also use VHS and DVD units to create a specific library of acceptable viewing material. Videos have fewer commercials, the content can be prescreened, and they can be viewed repeatedly. "What we need to keep in perspective is that not all television is bad," Greenberg says. "Children often have learning styles that allow them to get more out of one hour of educational quality television than four hours of classroom lecture."

Determining what is and what isn't quality television is a highly subjective art. Greenberg contends that the person in charge of setting standards for the child is the one who can determine a personal ratings system. He believes the current ratings system, used by several networks, is a farce. (See "The TV Rating System," above.) "Because the ratings system was voluntary and proposed by the networks themselves as a way to stave off the FCC, it's a dismal failure," he says.

He and others argue that television producers rate their own programs, creating inconsistency among programs, networks, and genres. "The ratings are different from the movie ratings accepted by the MPAA," he says. "They differ from network to network, and they don't really give the viewer any kind of content analysis." Still, some parents are using the ratings system, as Greenberg's own research shows.

Parents and caregivers who have purchased new televisions in the last couple of years have an additional tool at their disposal--the V-chip, a computer chip placed in all new TVs, 13" or larger. Mandated by Congress in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the V-chip allows the user to block shows with certain television ratings from appearing on the screen. Parents simply program the V-chip to block certain ratings, allowing them to maintain some control over their children's viewing even in unsupervised situations. Parents can block and unblock ratings to accommodate their own viewing preferences.

Blocking shows, limiting content choices, and steering children toward quality programs are all effective avenues to limit television's harmful effects on children. Cantor suggests one more--get them away from the television. "A sensitive parent will get them involved with something else," she argues.

Mark Hoerrner is a journalist for an Atlanta area newspaper and a freelance writer in Kennesaw, Georgia. His wife, Keisha Hoerrner, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Communication at Kennesaw State University.

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