When Elvis Presley first appeared on the "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the early nineteen fifties, censors for that program were concerned about the so-called "King of Rock-n-Roll's" habitual (and sexually provocative, some said) hip-grinding during his musical performances. Believing that the American viewing audience of the time was not yet ready to have such "explicit" behavior broadcast into their homes via their television sets, the censors took the precaution of having Mr. Presley filmed from the waist up only.
This type of censorship, perhaps prudent in the early days of television, tends to seem a bit excessive today. In a country rife with violence, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, and overall social decay, the gyrating pelvic movements of a rock idol are the least of anyone's concerns. Yet, the conservative steps taken by the censors at that time prove an important fact: since the dawning of the television era there has been a concern as to how the images being shown on the screen can affect its viewers. In the last thirty years, that concern has focused mainly on violent programming and its effect on children.
Three decades' worth of both governmentally and privately funded studies
have shown a direct link between the violence witnessed on TV and future delinquent behavior by its young viewers. Even with this proof, however, many parents who claim to be interested in the welfare of their children continue to allow these same children to spend countless hours every week in front of the television. A large number of these parents feel it is not their responsibility, but, instead, the federal government's, to ensure that only appropriate programs are being presented on the TV. And, indeed, there have been recent efforts by Attorney General Janet Reno to put pressure on the major networks to "tone down" the content of present programming. Her efforts have so far been received by the network heads in much the same way reform endeavors have been met in the past - in a presumably positive yet cautious fashion. These latest hearings on Capitol Hill, if anything, have once again drawn mass public attention in the direction of this important subject.
Yet, even with these types of government-backed and -supported attempts
at reform, television remains a for-profit business. If violence sells - and so often it does - then the networks are going to continue to broadcast it for profit's sake. This grim reality then puts the ball back in the parent's court. With the knowledge that the violence being broadcast on television can have a negative effect on their children's social behavior, parents must take the initiative to clean the airwaves in their own homes.
A look at the various statistics and figures may, perhaps, provide a better understanding of the current state of violent television. By age five, the average child in the United States has viewed over 200 hours of violent images. By age fourteen, this same child will have been witness to 13,000 killings of human beings "usually without pain, funeral, or grieving relatives" (Moody 10). In the late 1960's, a governmentally-funded study was begun to investigate whether or not there was a "causal relationship" between television violence and subsequent aggressive behavior among children. In 1972, the Surgeon General published the five volumes of findings that resulted from this study. The experts chosen to develop these findings reported a definite relationship between TV violence and aggression in children. Based on "50 laboratory studies, field studies, and other experiments involving 10,000 children and adolescents from every conceivable background." It
was reported that "TV violence makes children more willing to harm others, more aggressive in their play, and more likely to select aggression as the preferred response to conflict situations." Furthermore:
... It [was] clearly demonstrated that children will imitate aggressive acts they watch in film presentations [and] that repeated viewing of aggressive behavior builds up the probability of aggressive behavior as a conditioned response (Moody 80-81).
Also published in 1972 was the outcome of a ten-year study that had been conducted by Monroe Lefkowitz and his colleagues at the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene. The purpose of the study was to determine the relationship between violent programming on the TV and aggressive behavior in children as it applies to gender. For boys, it was found that:
... The preference for violent programs at age eight was significantly related to aggressive and delinquent behavior at age eighteen. For girls, this relationship was in the same direction but was less strong (Brown 294).
These studies, particularly the Surgeon General's report, fell under great scrutiny and pressure from the television industry. Through political muscle, threats, and blackmail, the major television networks were able to keep the investigative findings, for the most part, away from the public eye. This is not to say, however, that the industry itself was (or is) ignorant to the effects violent programming can have on young viewers. After reviewing the studies, the network heads acknowledged that:
... This new evidence in support of the proposition that the viewing of violent portrayals increases the likelihood of a viewer behaving aggressively... enhance[s] the justification for monitoring violent programming (Pearl 110).
Yet, despite this admittance, the networks were only willing to institute minor reforms. As they saw it, violence "not only fit the needs of the medium as a craft but served it as a business as well in helping to amass the largest possible audience" (Pearl 110). As a result, violent programming continued to fill the screens of televisions across America - more often than not, with a young audience.
Although the federal government and the networks should bear some of the burden to regulate violent television, complete blame should not be placed solely on their shoulders. After all, in this capitalistic economy, it is fairly common knowledge that proper moral decisions are rarely considered when it comes to making a dollar. Whatever makes the most money will almost always take precedence over other, less-profitable alternatives. With this in mind, parents must consider the responsibility of monitoring what their kids watch as theirs. Of course, this is often times easier said than done.
In this ever-changing society, many American adults find themselves existing in stressful and demanding lifestyles. Often, both parents in the household are required to work in order to meet financial burdens. Worse yet, many grown-ups are finding themselves as single parents, responsible for the wellbeing of not only themselves, but their children as well. Because this type of lifestyle can be hectic, spare time and solitude are at a premium. In order to find time for themselves, or simply to get their children "out of their hair," parents will often encourage their children to "go watch TV." Unfortunately, "many grown-ups assume, and assume incorrectly, that kids see the same way they do" (Morris 14). Parents who allow their children heavy television viewing time are robbing their children of time that could be better spent developing social adaptation and moral maturation. According to Larry Rosenkoetter, Professor of Psychology at Bethany College in Kansas:
... of the kindergartners he studied, those who watched the most television were less advanced in knowing right from wrong. "My suspicion is not that television teaches right from wrong, but that it is the lack of gaining other skills, such as lack of interaction with parents and the lack of give and take of peer play, which influences this behavior" (Tuchscherer 13-14).
Parents are often under the incorrect assumption that television can both serve as an outlet for childhood aggression and encourage creativity. What parents should realize, however, is that children are very absorbent to their surrounding environment. In his fictional novel, Majestic, author Whitley Strieber offers an interesting example of the impressionable nature of children:
... Do you know the word empath? It is the invention of a writer, but it is a true word, a fine word. An empath is somebody who so completely identifies with the nature of another that they assume that nature. If you met a perfect empath, or a whole city of or nation of perfect empaths, and you introduced them to a vicious psychopath, the empaths would become monsters. Because they lack experience, children are empaths. They are blank and clean (6).
With constant exposure to violent television, however, "blank and clean" can very easily become "soiled and messy" for most young viewers. While watching the television, children's "mind[s] are being filled with the thoughts and images presented on TV. These images are imprinted in [their] memory" (Tuchscherer 11). Even infants are not immune to the brainwashing effect television has:
... experiments by McCall et al. (1977) indicate that children as young as two years were facile at imitating televised behaviors, and some imitation was observed in even younger children (Pearl 130).
Fortunately, there are a variety of child-oriented shows available to
Programs such as Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood are often
credited as beneficial viewing for youngsters. A problem arises, however, when these same youngsters have outgrown this type of programming. This usually occurs at age four and, as a result, the children move on to other channels where programming is directed more towards adult viewers.
... Most of what these children see is produced in a commercial television system where impersonal sex and violence prevail: "This medium which can teach numbers and letters also teaches how to execute a karate kick or use a handgun" (Moody 5). Quite simply, children who are constantly exposed to these types of images will use them as a blueprint for living.
Many parents will argue that they allow their children to view violent programs and have had no problems whatsoever with aggressive behavior from them. This may be true in some cases, but parents should be warned that although their child may not be showing signs of increased aggression after prolonged television viewing, many of the violent "solutions" they are witnessing on TV could be stored for future use. It is very possible that the child "could ... subsequently retrieve and perform these behaviors, when the appropriate cues are present" (Pearl 131).
All children are learning as they grow, and exposing youngsters to a large amount of violence and aggression in others while they themselves are trying to understand their own aggressive tendencies can be detrimental indeed. "Such exposure provides [children] with confirmation ... that the same impulses are uppermost in other people and could subvert [their] own struggle to overcome them" (Moody 85).
Because "many youngsters don't grasp the cause-effect relations that lead to fights [on TV] ... they come to believe that violence is a nice, quick way of resolving problems" (Singer 141). There have been many criminal cases involving juveniles in which the accused testified that they were simply imitating crimes they had seen on television. These criminal acts range from robbery to rape to actual murder: "without television in the U.S. today, data suggest there would be 10,000 fewer homicides each year, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults" (Myra 12).
Perhaps the most serious long-term effect that prolonged viewing of violent TV can have
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