Many serious observers of the mass media have long identified television as somehow "dangerous" to children. This concern goes back to the very beginning of the medium--borrowing from even earlier fears about the movies--and has always been a major preoccupation of media scholars. In recent years, while many positive contributions of television to children's development are recognized, the concern about its negative side has become, if anything, even more intense. Added to television--and literally absorbing TV as one dimension of itself--is on-line computer technology, capable of receiving a full range of television channels along with a host of additional, and even more disturbing communication packages.
Responses of adults vary widely. Some media scholars, despite their professional involvement with the medium, refuse to have a television set in their homes. The American Academy of Pediatricians, as was noted above, advised parents not to allow children under two years old to watch television at all, and to strictly limit viewing by older children and teenagers. In a powerful presentation to the (US) National Press Club, broadcast on CSpan 2, October 18, 1999, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a military training officer and coauthor of the book, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movies and Video Game Violence (Grossman & DeGaetano 1999), called TV violence "an addictive, toxic product." He was of the opinion that television is the biggest factor promoting violence in America, and that if there were no television there would be 10,000 fewer homicides per year in the United States.
Turning to video games, he noted that they give children military-quality training in how to kill. The video game, "Doom," for example is used by the U.S. Marines in essentially the same form it is sold to children; and he claims it played a role in three recent mass shootings by teenagers who were addicted to playing it. The military use it to train adults under very controlled circumstances; while children learn murder from it without supervision or safeguards (CSpan 1999).
At the other end of the spectrum, sailing under false colors of "freedom of speech," is the entertainment industry, which is driven by the profit motive and the rising threshold of boredom of its audience to load its channels with correspondingly progressive increases in violent and erotic programming.
Concerned parents, teachers, and clergy--not to mention pediatricians and child psychologists--are milling about between these two extremes, not knowing what to do. The "V-chip" has been touted as some kind of magic solution. In fact, it could make matters worse, for some children, since it must work in conjunction with a rating system. Any rating system provides sign-posts that not only tell parents what their children should not watch but at the same time tell children about the more objectionable material, which it would be "more fun" to watch, if only they can gain access to a set not equipped with the V-chip! Furthermore, as has been mentioned, producers almost inevitably would use the presence of the V-chip in receivers to push all responsibility for child-safe programming onto parents while themselves producing even more objectionable "adult" programming.
Although not discussed in our text, the downward spiral of greater and greater stimulation and shock that the industry feels it has to use to keep the interest of its audiences includes not only an increasing resort to violence, horror, and eroticism, but also an increasing tendency to ridicule religion and every kind of moral standard, along with any sort of legitimate authority.
Self-regulation by the industry concerning all these areas of possible excess would be the ideal, if the industry could be persuaded to practice it with any degree of consistency. Angela J. Campbell has surveyed the current status and past successes and failures of media self-regulation in the United States, with reference to U.S. law (Campbell 1999). She concluded that "self-regulation rarely lives up to its claims..." (p. 357).
Most knowledgeable authorities rightly tend to oppose censorship. A majority do so on the grounds that it would introduce a threat to freedom of information greater than the evil it purports to remedy. Even those who have no ethical opposition to censorship have to concede that it does not work--there are simply too many possible ways for children to access the vast number of media channels available.
The best approach to a solution that has been brought forward is media literacy education, which is gradually gaining support worldwide, after a slow and fitful beginning. It is designed to help people--adults as well as children--learn how to use the mass media in a constructive, rather than a self-destructive way. As our research knowledge of the interaction between children and the media grows, effective approaches to educating children for healthy media use can be expected to improve accordingly.
But media literacy education, like any other form of education, is never going to be more than partially effective. It is unlikely to reach all children--at least not without drastic changes in educational institutions around the world--but even many of those who undergo it are unlikely to remember it or be able to use it effectively in their lives. Others will reject constructive approaches to media use because of their own greater attraction to the harmful media contents--much as people start to smoke and continue to smoke although they are fully aware of the damage it does to them and to those around them. It also should be borne in mind that, like "passive smokers" harmed by a tobacco-polluted environment they did not create, even those who never watch television are indirectly influenced by it through their neighbors who do watch it and through the subtle changes in society and culture it has initiated and encouraged.
Although not a substitute for media literacy education, boycotts of sponsors and similar campaigns against objectionable shows, accompanied by other efforts to persuade media management to clean up its act, are useful but partial solutions. They require the collection of correct information about the media and diligence in using it, but at the same time a sense of proportion that appreciates the value of true freedom of expression and of the media, as well as respect for the legitimate social and ideological diversity of a pluralistic democracy. They also require a prudential realization of the dangers misdirected campaigns might pose to precisely the values they are intended to preserve.
References to Afterword
Campbell, Angela J. 1999. "Self-Regulation and the Media." Federal Communication Law Journal. Vol. 51, no. 3 (May), pp. 711-772.
CSpan 2. 1999. Program featuring a presentation by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, aired October 18.
Grossman, Dave, and Gloria DeGaetano. 1999. Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A call to action against TV,, movie, and video game violence. New York: Crown Publishers.
--W. E. Biernatzki, SJ,
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|Title Annotation:||Children and Television|
|Publication:||Communication Research Trends|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1999|