COMMENTARY
Friday, August 14. 1992

 

HOW WE CAN TUNE OUT CHILDREN FROM TELEVISION VIOLENCE

 

by Myriam Miedzian

 

By the age of 18, the average American child has seen about 26,000 murders on TV. Since the advent of TV in the mid. I940s, homicide rates have doubled In the United States.

Many Americans would scoff at the suggestion that there might be some link between these statistics. But the evidence is increasingly indicating that there is.

In the U.S., Canada and South Africa, homicide rates doubled after TV was introduced. .

More than 235 studies have been carried out in the last 40 years on the effects of viewing violence on the screen, and an overwhelming majority indicate that viewing violence encourages violent behavior. Most recently, in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, psychiatrist Brandon S. Centerwall asserts that childhood exposure to TV violence is at the root of our 100 percent increase in violent crime.

He bases this on his study of homicide rates among white males in the United States and Canada, where TV was first introduced around 1945, and in South Africa where it was not introduced until 1975. In each country within 10 to 15 years after the advent of television, homicide rates had approximately doubled and then remained relatively stable.

Centerwall examined other possible causal factors such as urbanization and the availability of firearms, before drawing his conclusion. Even if his correlation between increased TV viewing and increased violent crime turns out to be too high, there is much other evidence that clearly shows that viewing violence puts children, especially boys, at higher risk for violent behavior.
Why isn't there an aggressive educational campaign making parents aware of this? For while they wouldn't dream of letting their young children see pornographic films, many parents think nothing of letting them watch graphic depictions of the vilest acts imaginable.

When I went to see the horror/slasher film, Nightmare on Elm Street 5, in which teenagers are dismembered, burned alive and drowned, I was shocked to find many children, some as young as 3 or 4, in the theater. These outings are in addition to a daily diet of TV mayhem and murder.

We cannot put the TV genie back into the bottle. But controlling the monster to protect our children is not an impossible task, especially in the era of renewed concern with family values.

In addition to a major education campaign, parents should be urged to acquire TV lock boxes which permit them to program their sets so that they can control what their children watch. Just like safety bolts and safety seats for children in cars, lock boxes should even tu. ally become mandatory with the sale of every TV set.

To complement lock boxes, why not create a Children's Public Broadcasting System dedicated to top quality TV programming that is entertaining, pro-social and appeals to children of all social classes? This might seem like an impossible dream at a time when our national debt is in the trillions.

But we must begin to recognize that we are in the midst of a domestic national security crisis far more serious than any international crisis confronting us. More than 350,000 Americans have been murdered in the last 16 years alone. In all our wars since, and including, Vietnam, about 58,000 Americans have lost their lives.

While criminal violence has in. creased in all areas and among all social classes, our inner cities have been the hardest hit. They often resemble war zones in which citizens regularly take shelter from cross-fire and live in constant fear for themselves and their children.

Social science research indicates that the frequent absence of a father in the home leaves many inner city boys especially vulnerable to the influence of endless violent male role models on the screen. Tragically, for this group, homicide is the major cause of death.

In light of this alarming data, doesn't it make sense to take approximately $500 million a year out of our $280 billion defense budget and spend it on two children's TV channels - one for younger and one for older children? The combination of parental education, lock boxes, and a CPHS would create a separate TV universe for children.

Besides being protected from violence, children would no longer be subjected to 350,000 commercials by the age of 18 (many of them promoting unhealthy foods), and often In. appropriate sexual material. American kids watch more TV than the children of any other advanced industrialized country. They are also the least physically fit and the most likely to become single teenage mothers or irresponsible fathers.

We live in an unprecedented age of advanced technology. Our children spend more time being entertained by TV, films, videos, disks, tapes, Walkmen and videogames than they spend in school or with their parents.

If we are to have a healthy society, we must recognize that we cannot continue to allow a major part of the socialization of children to remain in the hands of the entertainment business whose primary goal is not necessarily the well-being of our children or our nation, but profit maximization.

Our children deserve to be treated as a precious national resource rather than a commercial market to be exploited. Parents must be helped, not hindered, in the very difficult and demanding task of raising healthy, caring, responsible children.

 

Violence expert Myriam Miedzian Is author of "Boys Will Be Boys," about how contemporary American culture encourages violence in young males.