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Is TV Really So Bad for Kids?

Is TV Really So Bad for Kids?

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"It certainly isn't true that every child who watches a lot of violence will become a school shooter," says Joanne Cantor, PhD, professor emerita of communication arts at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and author of Mommy, I'm Scared: How TV and Movies Frighten Children and What We Can Do to Protect Them. "Only a very tiny fraction of kids actually commit criminal violence. But even among those children who don't, they may become more hostile, more desensitized, and more frightened."

Here's how the AAP puts it: "Watching a lot of violence on television can lead to hostility, fear, anxiety, depression, nightmares, sleep disturbances, and posttraumatic stress disorder. It is best not to let your child watch violent programs and cartoons."

As for sexual content on TV -- whether in dramatic programs, music videos, or commercials -- experts caution that TV often doesn't depict the negative outcomes of sexual behavior, such as unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, and that children may imitate what they see in order to feel older.

"Kids don't learn that much about sex from their parents, and there's not a lot of very good sex education in the schools," says Cantor. "So what they learn about sex from TV comes in a vacuum."

By watching television, adds Cantor, children often learn that sex is very casual, that it has no negative consequences, and that it's "cool" to have sex.

For many parents, the hectic pace and non-stop demands of day-to-day living have made monitoring their family's television habits a low priority. Even some of the tools available to help them -- from the TV ratings system to the V-chip -- are widely underutilized.

"Many parents simply don't understand the ratings," says developmental psychologist Douglas Gentile, PhD, director of research at the National Institute on Media and the Family. Not only is there an alphabet soup of rating codes that can be difficult to decipher, but, adds Gentile, "Every network rates its own programs, and very often, the ratings are more lenient than the parents themselves would be."

The V-chip (for viewer-controlled) appears to be underused as well. Since January 2000, all new television sets with 13-inch or larger screens include a device that allows parents to block programs they don't want their children to watch.

But a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53% of parents who had bought TVs since early 2000 knew nothing about the V-chip; only 17% of parents whose TV was equipped with the chip used the device to filter out undesirable programs.

"To me, the 'V' in V-chip stands for 'vanished,'" says Brody. "I hear nothing about it. There appears to be a much lower level of advocacy regarding TV violence than there was two or three years ago."

Cantor concurs, noting that although the V-chip is a step in the right direction, "it has lots of strikes against it. Because publicity for it has been very poor, many parents don't realize that they have a V-chip in their TV set, or they're not informed on how to use it. The V-chip is not that easy to program, and many parents get frustrated trying to use it."

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