Parents, Children, and TV

Today, when it comes to “the bottom line,” the first rule of marketing and television programming is that “sex sells.” Coming in a very close second is “if it bleeds, it leads.” Thirdly, taking advantage of the lure of sex and violence TV programming, commercials relentlessly push “products” onto emotionally vulnerable children using its huge, manipulative power. In addition, many television programs aimed at children provide messages that distort the seriousness of life’s risks and imply potentially dangerous ideas regarding solutions to deal with life’s problems.

In fact, television watched habitually, indiscriminately, and without guidance by children affects how they view themselves, their world, and other people. Yet, despite obvious children’s rights abuses by the media, aggressive focus placed upon the media’s moral irresponsibility is not addressing the most immediate viable countering to the pervasiveness of media influence on our kids – It all starts at home. Regardless of today’s media environment, we, as parents, should provide guidance for the amount and quality of television that our children view.

In helping us as parents to provide television viewing guidance, the Washington D.C. based non-profit organization, TV-Turnoff Network, compiles a list of “facts and figures about [American children’s] TV habit.” This list of statistics is from reputable and up-to-date sources that reveal several startling facts. For instance, American children watch an average of twenty hours of television a week in homes where the TV is on for more than seven hours every day. That is more than 1,000 hours of television viewing by a child during the course of a year where contrastingly a child spends 900 hours at school. Moreover, a child watching approximately 18,000 hours of television by the time he or she finishes high school will have done so typically without parental involvement, television limits or rules, and without completing homework.

In addition, in a recent study released by the Kaiser Family Foundation, over two-thirds of all TV shows now contain sexual content averaging more than five scenes with sexual references per hour. Furthermore, a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee staff report cites that a child sees 200,000 acts of violence on television by the time a child reaches the age of eighteen including 16,000 simulated murders. Finally, during the course of a year, children watch 20,000 commercials where 92 percent of the toy advertising dollars spent is on TV commercials and, by the persistent, ubiquitous bombardment of these commercials, children are developing a “brand loyalty” by age two.

Furthermore, it is helpful to understand how media corporations are able to get away with rampant unfettered sex, violence, and misleading commercials. The bottom line: Money rules all. Notable is that, due to media deregulation policies of the U.S. government in the 1980’s, the trend of media business consolidation allows for a few conglomerates to wield extraordinary power over the ideas and information they broadcast without accountability to the American public and to the essentially powerless Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government regulator of all American media. As Oscar winning moviemaker Michael Moore1 asserts, “Corporations believe in eliminating diversity and having only a few companies control the media” (191).

Elaborating on this media corporate philosophy, James Steyer, national child advocate, head of a children’s media company, and a constitutional law and civil liberties instructor at Stanford University, professes, “Market forces and the short-term profit goals of a few giant media corporations – not quality issues or kids’ needs – dominate the media world” (11). This all applies to the world of children’s television where the miniscule number of mammoth corporate structures controls program content, therefore the increasingly lower standards of the media. Consider the proud remark by contemporary media baron Rupert Murdoch of 20th Century Fox and News Corp, he said, “All [television networks] are run to make profits. I don’t run anything for respectability” (Shawcross). Murdoch’s attitude regarding network programming is all-too-common and begins to explain the perpetuation of such questionable standards in the media.

Television is apart of our lives. Without moderation and discriminate adaptation of television into our lives come potential hazards, especially for children. A rising mountain of research shows that too much exposure to television can have many different negative outcomes. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Too much television – particularly at ages critical for language development and manipulative play – can impinge negatively on young minds in several different ways including [. . .] lowered academic performance, especially reading scores. Moreover, the ‘two-minute mind’ easily becomes impatient with any material requiring depth of processing” (Healy). As television lures children to developing a short attention span, the content of what is on television is of equal importance.

As previously stated, some of the most prominent content of concern on TV is the two-thirds of television programs that include sexual references. Sex is the main plot device of more and more television shows. Much of the argument is that most TV shows with “sexual content” do not target (young) kids. The fact is that children of all ages watch mostly adult-oriented programs on television and, in large part, unsupervised. Furthermore, parents today tend to be overly concerned with not being cool; therefore, parents adopt a greater tolerance for crude language and sexually expressive behavior.

However, per today’s consensus, sex on television is going too far. The media’s relentless emphasis on sex formulates children’s expectations and behaviors; TV shows tell children “everybody’s doing it.” In fact, teens commonly say that their top two sources of sexual pressure are television shows and music. Furthermore, during early adolescence and going through rapid emotional changes, children have less contact with adults and turn to various media, especially television, for role models. Kyla Boyse, R.N., of the University of Michigan, explains, “Young people [will] have sex because TV shows and movies make it seem more normal for their age group.”

Moreover, it is common knowledge among psychologists that sex is an area of life that is laden with risk, and “most adolescents do not have well-developed risk assessment skills” (Ponton 1). Spurred-on by TV, teenagers are not only having sex earlier “but they are taking greater risks in this area” (Ponton 3). Due in large measure to the media’s influence, a ninth-grade girl reported, “Sex [. . .] is meaningless, just for fun – like going out and having a soda” (Steyer 55).

Comparably, as sex on TV is a marketable commodity, television violence also sells. Both are equally volatile television issues. Even so, the amount of journalistic fare regarding sexual content in the media is only a boulder as compared to the mountain of written material regarding violence in the media, the Mount Everest of television content controversy. After all is said and done, arguments are about non-resolute finger pointing, “spiritual emptiness,” and our natural need to exercise vicariously our innate rage. Indeed, by identifying with a violent television protagonist, comic-book creator Gerard Jones argues, “Children engage the rage they’ve stifled, come to fear it less, and become more capable of [managing] it against life’s challenges.”

However, over the last thirty years more than a thousand studies by reputable medical and public health groups conclude that media violence does affect children. In fact, these extensive well-documented studies warn that unfiltered viewing of TV violence by children can have lifelong harmful effects; the more kids watch television unguided, the more likely they will fear the world around them, believe that violence is an acceptable way to deal with conflict, and become desensitized toward violence in the real world. According to education professors Nancy Carlsson-Page and Diane Levin, the overwhelming television message with its underlining of a lack of consequences is that “violence is fun, violence is exciting, violence doesn’t hurt,” and people can use violence “to solve problems with others.”

Violence on television is, in fact, a contributing factor to youth violence in our society. Notable is a report by the surgeon general’s office attesting that the number of violent acts committed by high school seniors has climbed nearly 50 percent, and arrest rates for aggravated assaults by young people have jumped nearly 70 percent since 1983. Strikingly, this is about the same time that President Reagan’s deregulation policies allowed increasingly violent programming on children’s television. Among recent reports of violence committed by children are school shootings.

Thanks to impetuous television news images and sensationalism, many Americans remember the terrible 1999 high school shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The reason that this tragedy is so often referenced with regard to media violence is because of the killers’ many references to movies, music, and video games in a home video they made just before they went to school that morning. The killers, Columbine seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, even discussed who would be the best director to immortalize them in a movie as they excitingly pitted against one another mogul movie directors Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg2, exclaiming, “[They] will be fighting over this story.”

American children used to live in a much simpler and safer television environment. When today’s parents were in elementary school during the 1960’s and ’70’s, there were three major television networks and the non-commercial Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Computers were carefully guarded government machines that used giant reel-to-reel tape drives and filled a room the size of a movie theater. Now at the start of the 21st century, we live in a world inundated and perversely warped by a complex landscape, or mediascape, which surrounds and persistently pervades us day and night. A young child can easily spend more time in the television world than in the real one and, not surprisingly, far less time with his or her parents.

As child development expert T. Berry Brazelton, M.D. warns, “[television is] the biggest competitor for our children’s hearts and minds” (Steyer 4). As parents, we are careful to teach children not to talk to strangers or wander the streets by themselves. Moreover, most of us as concerned parents make sure that we know where our children are physically and with whom. Yet, we let our children wander alone, virtually unsupervised into a potentially dangerous place. In this way, we, even as concerned parents, in effect allow our children to spend three hours a day with another adult who exposes them to sex, violence, and exorbitant enticements of needing to buy needless things.

Enticing children to need things are the twenty-thousand commercials that kids watch during the course of a year. Many of these commercials target KIDS: Keepers of Infinite DollarS – the way that corporate America views children. With working parents in mind, media conglomerates armed with research results, marketing strategists, and “cool hunters” target children in their respective age groups. In the conference room, these marketing professionals conjure up merchandise, commercials, and TV shows as part of a gigantic marketing scheme where, aiming at the bull’s-eye of big profits, child marketers often use crafty terms such as “the gimme factor,” “pester power,” and “shut-up toys.”

As Kathryn Montgomery, head of the Center for Media Education, observes, “Saturday morning television is nothing more than program-length toy advertisements.” As children get older, television commercial messages and luring images create a youth culture where, increasingly, defining values are in materialistic terms. Furthermore, these commercial messages profoundly influence children about what their body image and sexual roles should be. In short, “stay tuned for your regular scheduled programming” . . . of you.

Sex, violence, incessant commercial advertising, media corporate irresponsibility and government’s regulatory impotence, this is today’s television reality. However, the TV is right there, right now, in our family rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms calling for its regular staring-at session. Although we as parents may reasonably feel overwhelmed and undermined by the influence of television upon our children, the bottom line for us comes down to taking whatever steps we can to control television’s impact on our children. In practical terms for parents in today’s real world, these steps primarily are realistic levels of awareness and involvement with our children’s television “activities.” For reference, a vast wealth of information based on research from organizations exist, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and their “Smart Guide to Kid’s TV” (Chen), that list many suggestions for our involvement as parents with our children’s television activities. Key recommendations include the following:

* Parents should set limits of TV viewing (for the entire family).

* Parents should preview and understand the content of the TV shows watched by their kids.

* Parents should actively participate by watching programs with their children, observing their reactions and answering questions children ask.

* Parents can stimulate children’s critical thinking development by asking their children to express their ideas and opinions about what they are watching on TV.

Furthermore, a recently developed program called “media literacy” is available to the public where essentially we as parents can work with teachers specifically to help our children to analyze, evaluate, and critically process the television our children watch.

This may not be easy, but who ever said parenting was easy? In this world of lurid media, parents’ guiding their children within the TV world from the real world is the first line of defense for kids and their developmental health. Furthermore, even as most TV is designed purely as market-minded entertainment, including sports, cartoons, and commercials, committing to our responsibility as parents in sharing television with our children may provide a springboard for learning as well as lead to positive family experiences. At the very least, child-development expert T. Barry Brazelton advises, “[The] bottom line is that you should share [television] experiences with your kids and be ready to talk with them about what they are experiencing. That’s the best thing a parent can do” (Steyer 197).

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