on its young viewers is "desensitization." Almost endlessly bombarded by widespread TV violence, many psychologists suggest that:
... The TV child develops a thick-skinned detachment, a cynical outlook. Constantly exposed to the bloody punch or push, the noise, and rough language of TV, children learn to accept violence (Moody 91).
Obviously, all this data paints a grim portrait for parents and guardians. Yet, it is very important for them to understand that they have it in their power to make positive changes within their households. As with most changes, it is the first steps that are usually the most difficult to take. Once forward momentum is established, however, things begin to fall into place. Knowing that their children look to them for guidance can be motivational in helping parents to establish reformatory goals within their homes. As Pamela Tuchscherer states:
... As parents and teachers, we need to recognize that we teach social behaviors. To encourage this we should accept our role and arrange the environment to promote social learning. By modeling and reinforcing prosocial behavior, providing joint decision-making opportunities and encouraging alternative solutions to conflicts, we provide children with a greater opportunity to accept positive values (136).
An early start is the best bet for success. Establishing a controlled TV regimen for a child during the preschool years is advantageous to a concerned parent. "Controlling viewing is easier to do during [these] years than during the school years" (Katz 113).
Leading by example is also essential to a positive television-viewing environment. A study by Dean George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania "observed that the fathers who were heavy TV viewers had children who were likely to watch more action shows and spend less time reading." This is yet another example of the importance of "parents monitoring what's on TV," not only for their children, but for themselves as well (Singer 141). According to Kate Moody:
... The parents who are happy with their family's use of TV often share one characteristic: they have learned one way or another how to say "no." Too often, parents who have become uneasy about kids’ viewing let them do it anyway, because it seems to be easier than dealing with the friction that may result from setting limits. ... In the long run it is easier and wiser to bear the hassles of regulating TV viewing than to carry the guilt involved with knowing that you should have but didn't. If, through permissiveness, [the parents] let [their] children develop a bad habit, [they are], in part, responsible (139).
Furthermore, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Harvard professor, and child psychiatrist Robert Coles believes that, "children are constantly trying to figure out what is the right way to live [and] what is the wrong way to live." He also points out that "parents have a great deal of moral leverage over their children. If parents really want to teach the children certain values, they can resist the magnetic force of media" (Tuchscherer 59).
Taking into consideration that it is nearly impossible to completely hide from violent television, however, a parent is advised that family viewing can be a useful device in developing critical viewing skills for their children. Peggy Charren of Action for Children's Television suggests:
... That by including ... children in family viewing and making it a participatory experience [parents] can express [their] feelings about what offends [them] as well as why [they] like a particular program. In retrospect, [their] children can share their thoughts with [their parents] as well (Tuchscherer 73).
It is important that parents discuss with children the violence depicted on the television. By pointing out that the actors on TV are trained to completely miss each other during a fight and that special effects are necessary to make conflict appear genuine, parents are helping their children to differentiate between reality and fantasy. Also, it is important for a child to understand not only the short-term effect violence can have on its participants, but also the long-term suffering that it can inflict as well. As Norman S. Morris put it:
... if we are to teach children to deal with violence, an integral part of their lives, it can be done very effectively through television. That will mean the television violence will have to be reconstituted to make it relevant; such violence must clearly be motivational, carefully emphasizing not the body blows but the painful consequences of violence with all its attendant suffering caused to the victims of violence (121-122).
Critical viewing of this sort helps children to learn that the violence on television is often "overplayed" and seems "non-threatening or exciting because the consequences are not usually shown." Families who view the programs together can discuss "alternate problem solving methods [which] can be effective in expanding awareness" (Tuchscherer 94). This is not only true of physical abuse, but should also include verbal abuse. Because there is a large amount of verbal insults and "put downs" contained in TV programming, children need to understand that this type of abuse can be just as damaging to other people as physical violence. And, because this type of aggression is often portrayed in a humorous setting, "parents can help children realize that we laugh at characters insulting each other on TV precisely because they're getting away with saying things we wouldn't say in real life" (Singer 143-144).
Although the majority of television programming is filled with explicit depictions of sex and violence, TV still can be used in a constructive manner. There are a number of shows and movies that can introduce a child to new and exciting perspectives toward his own life and the world around him. "When parents choose to turn on the TV to watch a specific program for a specific reason, they are using TV constructively as a learning tool" (Moody 149-150). In the same vein, the video cassette recorder (VCR) can also be utilized as an ally in thwarting violent programming. Parents can "look for videos of wholesome, nonviolent programs for preschoolers, and encourage their use as an engaging alternative to violent television programs" (Katz 113).
Another important thing to point out is that not all children's activities need be limited to the space in front of the television set. According to Moody:
... Parents who expand direct experience by limiting vicarious experience and by focusing on a few basic guidelines usually find that the TV becomes a friend, not a foe. A list of such guidelines are as follows:
- Establish structure
- Encourage physical exercise of all kinds
- Encourage play
- Select toys which foster creativity - Be a model and teacher for the childs’ imaginative behavior - Encourage social relationships
- Provide nutrition at home
- Increase the child's direct experience with the real world, and
- Read aloud (134-139).
Children will quickly learn that their own imaginations can be just as entertaining as the shows they see on television. By nurturing this natural-born ability found in all of us, parents can help their children see the world in a new, and hopefully positive, light.
Family viewing, critical analysis, and established guidelines can all be very effective indeed in dealing with the negative influence of violent TV. But sometimes, even for the most mature child, the violence presented on the television is best avoided altogether. Dr. Radecki, Chairman of the National Coalition on Television Violence, emphasizes that:
If there is a program which shows violence or is inappropriate, go all
the way and turn it off. Even if you or your children have critical viewing skills, it has been shown that the viewing of violence still has long-term effects. ... The best solution to critical viewing of violent television is not to watch at all (Tuchscherer 95-96).
Perhaps Dr. Radecki proposes an extreme solution to the problem. Regardless, it ultimately is up to parents and guardians to make the decisions that relate to household viewing.
... Without a doubt, television is the most powerful communications force ever created by man. Whether that force is positive, negative, or neutral depends on what you do with it. Television has the capacity to serve us or harm us. Whether we make the effort to harness its positive influence on our children is strictly up to us (Morris 2).
By educating themselves, parents will in turn be able to provide their children with a better understanding of the negative effects that nearly always follow in the footsteps of violence. This type of direct involvement in children's activities can help to create a two-way bridge of communication between parent and child. A special bond develops when all involved are comfortable with each other and willing to share thoughts and feelings about everyday living. Children will, with positive guidance from their parents, find doors open to new and exciting experiences, which in turn may encourage them to spend more time away from the television. It is said that the television is the mirror of the nation. If so, perhaps the time has come to look away from the mirror and at each other instead.