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Disarming the TV


WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Sept. 22, 2000 -- Here's how television became the enemy for Peter and Addie Weverka of San Francisco. Their kids, Henry and Sofia, 5 and 6 years old, started clamoring to watch everything from World Federation Wrestling to Howard Stern. Then they got rowdy and started fighting over the remote. After a while, they lost interest in their homework and their chores. So Addie said, "That's it!" and took a pair of scissors to the power cord.

But going cold turkey proved painful for the Weverka family. After a few weeks of severe basketball withdrawal, Peter Weverka hooked up the television again, and the kids were soon ensconced in front of a horror film.

The Weverkas were right to be concerned: A growing body of evidence suggests that watching TV violence makes children more fearful and aggressive. But avoiding the small screen altogether is almost impossible in America. Instead, many psychologists are now recommending what the Weverkas later learned to do: watch television with your kids, and use the tube as a teaching tool.

Other health experts, and even politicians, are now joining the debate. In a summit on public health in July 2000, the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the American Psychological Association warned Congress that TV violence deeply influences children.

More recently, the issue has cropped up in the presidential campaign. After the U.S. Federal Trade Commission released a report on Sept. 11 concluding that most video violence, including TV programs, is marketed to kids, Democratic candidate Al Gore responded by threatening to prosecute the entertainment industry for false advertising. Republican candidate George W. Bush said he would work with parents to help them control what their kids see and hear.

Health Hazard

The average American child watches over 200,000 violent acts on video by age 18, the medical organizations said. "Repeated exposure to TV violence is as much of a health hazard as smoking," says AMA spokesman J. Edward Hill, MD.

A joint statement by the medical groups says that "over 1,000 studies" show violent programs contribute to violent behavior. For example, a national survey of Israeli middle schools published in 1997 in the journal Communication found that when Israeli television started broadcasting World Wrestling Federation matches, children injured each other by imitating the wrestlers. The injuries continued until the program was broadcast less often and teachers gave the students special counseling. Other programs, says Harvard University pediatrician Michael Rich, MD, teach kids to resolve conflicts with violence.

Clearly, part of the solution is to tightly control the time kids spend in front of the tube and the types of programs they can watch. But a total ban is likely to backfire, says University of Wisconsin communications professor Joanne Cantor, PhD.

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