Disarming the TV

Medically Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD
4 min read

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.

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.

"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.

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."