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Disarming the TV

Health Hazard continued...

"Censorship just gives TV the lure of the forbidden fruit," says Cantor, author of Mommy I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them. "By the age of 12, watching scary or violent TV shows -- and showing you can handle it -- becomes a rite of passage."

Instead of cutting the cord, Cantor and many other media experts urge parents to watch with their children. "Parents need to be more aware of what their kids are watching," says Jeff McIntyre, a spokesman for the American Psychological Association. "And the whole family needs to ask, 'What's the message of this show? And do we agree with it?' " In this way, parents can teach kids how to analyze the images that will bombard them for the rest of their lives.

Woody Woodpecker

Cantor and a colleague set out to test whether this kind of teaching works by performing a study reported in the winter 2000 issue of the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media.

The researchers divided 351 elementary school kids into three groups. One group watched a cartoon in which Woody Woodpecker repeatedly attacks a "tree medic" who has accidentally disturbed his nap. A second group viewed the same cartoon and was asked to think about the feelings of the victim. A third "control" group didn't view the cartoon at all.

Next, researchers asked the children about their attitudes toward fighting. Girls' answers were the same in all the groups, suggesting that their views were unaffected by the cartoon. Boys who thought about the victim's feelings responded about the same as boys who hadn't watched the cartoon. But boys who watched Woody Woodpecker without being asked to think about the consequences of violence were significantly more likely to approve of pushing and hitting. The results show that parents could easily influence the effects of a violent program, the researchers concluded.

Margaret Wilkinson, PhD, a Santa Barbara, Calif., psychologist, says she works hard to put this principle into practice with her own 9-year-old, Annalisa. "When we watch a show and a character behaves badly, I always ask, 'Does this happen at school, with any of your friends -- and if so, how did you handle it?' "

If she can't be in the room for the entire program, says Wilkinson, she at least checks in from time to time. "When the volume on the TV goes up, I get in there fast. The noise level is a cue that there's something controversial going on."

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