Archive for Monday, December 20, 1999

TV NOT ONLY TARGET FOR YOUTH VIOLENCE

December 20, 1999

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— Our family long ago decided to handle television's junkiness by not owning one. We eventually relented, but my kids have essentially grown up without watching TV. I'd say they've read more books, played more sports, gotten better grades and become more interesting people as a result.

But I don't think this explains why they're not violent criminals. It would be so clean, so simple, if this were the explanation: Violent media equals violent acts. Do away with the one, you've taken care of the other.

Goodness knows there's plenty to fret about: The addiction of American children to the tube is one of those facts that lurk in the shadows of our consciences, depressing and awful. "New Study Finds Kids Spend Equivalent of Full Workweek Using Media," said a press release announcing results of a Kaiser Family Foundation study last month.

"Children today live in bedrooms that are fully equipped media centers, spending hours watching television and listening to music by themselves with little parental supervision and almost no rules ..." began The Washington Post story on that study.

And, oh, the junk available to kids during those long hours with the TV or at the movies. "I'm OK, You're Dead!" was the headline on a study released in September by the nonprofit Center for Media and Public Affairs, which found that "scenes of serious violence hammer TV viewers and moviegoers every four minutes."

On and on go the studies, telling us how many violent acts the average child will see before leaving kindergarten, how much more time a kid graduating from high school has spent with television than with teachers, and how gross it all is. "Profane language is used once every six minutes on prime-time network TV shows, every two minutes on premium cable shows, and every three minutes in major motion pictures," said another Center for Media and Public Affairs study, released last week.

No wonder we wring our hands. No wonder politicians like Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat, and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a Republican, champion legislation to clean up our "entertainment."

We'd be fools to be cavalier about the effects of what kids see. The American Academy of Pediatrics says media violence increases kids' aggressiveness and anti-social behavior, increases their fear of becoming victims, makes them less sensitive to violence and to victims of violence, and increases their appetite for seeing violence. It's only responsible to seek solutions, examine what kids are seeing and what it means to them, and talk about it at home and in our communities and in media literacy courses in school.

What doesn't make sense is to conclude that violent media cause violent action. I got an e-mail recently from the Free Congress Foundation, a think tank that says its "main focus is on the Culture War." Noting that Littleton's Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris "admitted that they were influenced by Marilyn Manson's music," the e-mail attached "our report about how popular music contributes to youth violence."

This is the kind of leap that troubles criminologists like Joanne Savage, a professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University. She notes that studies proclaiming a connection between media and action are measuring aggression, not violence. This, Savage told a Freedom Forum gathering here, "calls into question" the notion that "television violence causes violence." A kid behaving more aggressively is not necessarily a kid ready to stab someone. Moreover, the effects, while significant, are small -- raising such questions as, are only aggressive people affected? Are only neglected kids affected?

Savage said that she'd be willing to speculate that, sure, If we got rid of all television and movies, "our violent crime rate would come down -- because our culture would become less accepting of violent crime" and the poor wouldn't have wealth so constantly flaunted before them. To accomplish this, she added mildly, "We would need an incredible amount of censorship."

The fact is, said Savage, we can confidently identify factors that contribute to juvenile crime, such as lack of social bonds, the opportunity for criminal behavior and hanging out with delinquents. Compared to these, and to poverty and the presence of guns, "Media violence probably plays a minor role. I would suggest -- as I think most criminologists would -- that instead of giving so much attention" to media violence, we spend more time on "the more proximate causes of crime."

Ah, but that means figuring out what to do about poverty, the lack of loving and responsible adults in troubled kids' lives, and the scarcity of worthwhile activities for them.

The tube is so much easier a target.

-- Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is overholserg@washpost.com.

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