Archive for Monday, April 12, 1999


April 12, 1999


The great TV debate is still being argued.

A few years ago, it seemed there was an article every month or so about the effects of watching television on children. Though there don't seem to be such frequent stories today, the research is accumulating on this subject.

The typical American child will witness at least 20,000 graphic murders and 80,000 injurious assaults on television by age 12. Parents would be horrified to think about an actual murder or assault taking place in the living room, but for a child, the violence on the two-dimensional screen might as well be taking place there.

Children younger than 8 are especially vulnerable to the violent imagery, because they have more trouble understanding the "make-believe" nature of such violence and the context of TV drama. Most young children should and do have an active fantasy life (reading stories in books, making up stories as a game, etc.), and they can't distinguish the fantasy from reality.

Many years ago, I took a 4 year old to her first big-screen movie. I thought "Lady and the Tramp" was perfect for her age, but soon discovered that she was distraught and crying during the parts where Tramp was on the street begging for food. As we left the theater, I wondered if I had given her a wonderful "first-time" movie experience or just a new trauma in her life.

Researchers at the Harvard Medical School have studied the effects of TV violence and are advising parents to keep children from watching movies or shows about things that we would be horrified to have them see off the screen. Two professors at the University of Chicago conducted a 22-year study with 875 boys and girls and found that the amount of television the children watched at age 8 predicted the levels of violence they would use as adults by age 30. These and other studies show the effects of early and large amounts of televised violence can be spouse abuse, crimes and child abuse in later life.

The following advice is given for parents:

  • Have a zero-tolerance policy for in-coming screen violence. If you wouldn't allow the behavior in real life, don't allow a two-dimensional version of it in your living room.
  • Know your children. Children's age and stage of development make a difference in how they interpret violent images. If younger than 8 years, youngsters should never see sensational violence. As children develop verbal skills, they can learn to understand, discuss and appreciate sensitive portrayals of media violence.
  • Slow it down. By providing more slow-moving programs and videos for children, we are reducing their exposure to violent content. Quick-pacing usually means more violent content.
  • Refuse to buy or condone violent video games. If you can wait to buy a video game until a child is 11 or 12, chances are the child won't become mesmerized by video games and won't become interested in violent ones.
  • Discuss. Describe how the filmmaker uses effects, music, and camera angles to heighten the drama. Listen to what your child says about violence. How is he or she interpreting it?
  • Decrease screen time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents limit their children's viewing to one or two hours per day. If the TV is overused, other childhood tasks may be neglected, such as reading, creative play, hobbies, problem-solving, etc.

TV is not the enemy, and researchers recognize that it is here to stay. However, their findings clearly point to the need for parental supervision and oversight.

-- Sydney Karr is executive director of The Lawrence Partnership for Children and Youth.

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