Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Parents: Pay Attention To Media Violence

May 10, 1999

What role does media violence play in violent crimes committed by youthful murderers such as those of Littleton, Colorado? These highly vulnerable youth are exposed to a steady diet of violent R- rated action movies, horror movies, and violent TV programs. They play violent video games, listen to violent lyrics and check out violent imagery on the Internet.

The best estimate from numerous studies on TV violence and behavior is that media violence accounts for 10 percent of youth violence. Why does televised and film violence have such a harmful effect? What can parents do to counteract the effects of violent video?

These questions have been studied by Leonard Eron, psychologist from the University of Michigan. Eron identifies five processes in translating what takes place on the screen to aggressive behavior:

1. Children learn from observation. They learn from observing what others do, especially if that person is a hero or role model. By watching others they learn important social skills. If a youngster is surrounded by aggressive family members and peers who solve problems with aggression they are likely to adopt the same tactics. Similarly, if a child has heavy exposure to television and film heroes solving problems aggressively, he or she will mimic those behaviors.

2. Violence can become acceptable. Repeated exposure to media violence makes aggressive actions seem normal and acceptable. Viewers become more tolerant of violence in themselves because they believe that violence is a common response to conflict, frustration and deprivation. Young people learn attitudes and beliefs about how to respond aggressively when being "disrespected" from media portrayals. The same can be said for media portrayals of aggression against women.

3. Young people can become desensitized. Continuous and habitual exposure to media violence desensitizes youth - and adults for that matter - to the normally unpleasant emotions that accompany aggression. After repeated exposures, the physiological signs of upsetting emotions disappear and the viewer becomes relatively less aroused by violence.

4. The media teaches new behavior. The abundance of media images of violence stimulates viewers to think of aggressive ways of responding that they might otherwise not consider. Tragically, some fictional aggressive acts go from screen to copycat reality. In the case of Littleton, the murderous youths produced their own violent video before acting it out in cold-blooded reality.

5. Children blur fantasy and reality. Television has its greatest impact on children ages two to five when they still have not learned to discriminate between fantasy and reality. That is also the age when the number of hours viewing television are greater than any other age. It is in these years that aggressive habits are learned easily and, once learned, are difficult to unlearn.

What can parents do? Eron offers the following guidelines to help control viewing habits:

  • Limit TV watching. Violence is pervasive in adult and children's programming. Limiting viewing will limit exposure to violence. Preschoolers should watch no more than one hour a day. Your own TV viewing habits will set a powerful example.
  • Promote a balanced set of activities. These would include homework, play with friends and TV viewing. Make a list of alternate activities such as riding a bicycle, reading a book or working on a hobby. Before your child can watch TV, he or she will have to choose and do something from the list.
  • Set a weekly viewing limit. At the beginning of the week, have your child select programs you approve from a TV schedule. The TV is to be turned off after a particular preselected show is over. Watch one episode of each show with your child so you will get a first hand knowledge of the violent content.
  • Rule out TV at certain times such as before breakfast or after school.
  • Don't locate a TV in a child's room.
  • Talk about the violence you are watching. Express your opinion about alternatives to violence. Disapprove of violence as a means of solving problems. Explain how violence is faked and how the consequences are ignored. Point out the aggressive motivations of the characters and how most people don't act in this way.
  • Encourage positive viewing. Suggest programs or films depicting helping, cooperating and caring. Television can be used as a tool for encouraging positive behavior. It can stimulate thinking and creativity, increase concern for others and bring knowledge to young viewers.
  • Discuss with teens their use of the Internet. What sites do they visit? Who do they "chat" with? Use your parental authority to prohibit an access of ugly and vicious violence and pornography. Monitor their use of the Internet.

Unfortunately, TV is sometimes used as a babysitter in single parent families or in families with two working parents. Too many parents are not present to supervise viewing habits. Some parents may be unaware of TV's negative impact on their children. Some don't care.

Educators need to incorporate media literacy into school curricula. The television and film industries must do their share in accepting responsibility for protecting children from media mayhem. So far, their efforts have been pretty feeble.

When parents, schools and churches fail to live up to their basic responsibility to teach morality and values, the sensationalistic entertainment industry fills the vacuum with crud and violence. Horrible events serve to give us notice about the kind of corrosive media that slips insidiously into our homes and spills out into society.