are not vessels to be filled, but fires to be set alight. -Anonymous
year, children average more hours in front of TVs and videos than
they do in front of blackboards. According to current rates of media
viewing, by the time today's children finish high school, they will
have been exposed to not only 16,000 murders but hundreds of thousands
of violent actsnone of which occurred in their immediate environment.
on a floor-to-ceiling collection of research papers, the American
Academy of Pediatrics announced in a 1985 policy statement:"Repeated
exposure to televised violence promotes a proclivity to violence
and a passive response to its practice." Indeed, the large majority
of evidence indicates that, contrary to popular opinion, media violence
does not spark the cathartic release of aggressive energies, but
rather promotes similarly violent attitudes, sentiments, and
family peace is what we are after, we need to be highly vigilant
of the media images our children are internalizing. Just as we would
think twice about feeding their growing bodies a diet of Twinkies
and Cokes, so must we guard their psyches against a steady diet
of violent cartoon programming, R-rated knock-"m-dead videos,
shoot-em-up movies, and beat-" em-up video games. Even without
these, our children are inundated with media messages that are incongruent
with the values we seek to nurture in them.
and Effects of the Bad News
agencies of mass communication that we refer to as "the media" include
newspapers, magazines, catalogs, junk mail, product packaging, radio,
900 telephone numbers, telemarketing, recorded music, billboards,
bumper stickers, message T-shirts, movies, television, cable, movie
videos, music videos, MTV, computer games, the Internet, virtual
reality experiences, and CD-ROM games. The list is growing by the
damaging effects are too. Media viewing, with respect to our nation's
youth, has been shown to:
Increase feelings of isolation. While absorbed in the media, children
are unable to strengthen their personal relationships through reading,
playing, helping neighbors and friends, engaging in intergenerational
contact, or simply being.
Encourage ism-type thinking (as in racism and so forth) as well
as abusive humor. * Foster dissatisfaction by reminding children
of all that is "missing" from their lives, informing them that they
are not good enough, and modeling a consume-the-world perspective.
Reinforce a rapacious "power over" approach to human interactions.
Promote quick solutions to complex problems.
Intensify perceptions of what is wrong in the world rather than
what is right, and discourage children from believing they can make
a difference in the world or in their lives.
Facilitate identification with violent heroes and heroines, to the
exclusion of the pain and suffering they cause. By all accounts,
more media attention is given to perpetrators than to their victims.
Limit the imagination and serve as an ongoing source of"brain drain."
Increase the fear of stranger violence, without portraying the more
prevalent reality of family violence.
Give the impression that seeing images on screen is as good as experiencing
them in real life. This is especially true of animal and nature
the bright side, the media offer entertainment and educational opportunities.
In addition, the "electronic babysitter" serves as part of a parental
support system, providing busy mothers and fathers with windows
of free time. Given the media's adverse effects and potential benefits,
what constitutes a responsible approach to viewing? Here are some
guidelines that may prove helpful:
Minimize your children's involvement with media-related activities,
and spend the recovered hours doing other things with them. Remember,
the learning potential in real-life experience far exceeds that
available through "edutainment's" simulations.
Inaugurate media-free nights reserved for turning off everything
connected to a screen and tuning in to your children. These nights
are guaranteed to inspire astounding interactions.
Discourage channel surfing. Tell your children to stick with a TV
program if it holds their interest, and then turn it off. Be clear
about the whats and whys of off-limit programs. Better yet, choose
each program with your children, after agreeing on the number and
quality of shows they may watch each week.
Veto double-dipping. Rule out all requests to play a game (draw,
do homework) and watch TV at the same time.
Invite your children to talk about any TV, film, or video content
that is upsetting. Emphasize the differences between make-believe
and real life, how violence hurts, and other ways of solving problems.
Discuss advertising and promotional manipulation with your children.
Help them see that marketed toys are never as sturdy, exciting,
or large as they are when portrayed on screen. Look at catalogs
and magazine ads together, and talk about how items are sold. Get
in the habit of pressing"remote mute" during TV commercials.
Go beyond mainstream media mush. Stock up on high-quality videos,
documentaries, games, and CD-ROMs the entire family can enjoy. Choose
Store the TV and computer out of the main family room, or keep them
on stands that can be wheeled out of the room. Don't let an electronic
device become the centerpiece of family entertainment.
Voice your opinions to local cable, TV, and radio stations. Let
the program directors know the material you like and the areas in
need of improvement.
Television and Video with TLC
Talk about TV shows and videos with
your children, particularly those that upset them; emphasize the
differences between make-believe and real life, how violence hurts,
and the other ways there are of solving problems.
at TV and videos with your children, noting different ethnic groups,
positive male and female role models, and characters who care about
TV programs and videos with your children, including the number
and quality of shows and movies they may watch.
Adapted from Action for Children's
Toys and Barbie Dolls
until the late 1970s, children who played"good guys-bad guys" delighted
in the noisy sound effects, explosions, fast action, and other dramatic
elements of the game. Their enjoyment bred neither glorification
of this type of play nor a desire to magnify it into a real-world
preoccupation. Similarly, children playing house dabbled in the
intricacies of caring for dolls, cooking elaborate "pretend meals,"
and other nurturing endeavors. The warm, happy feelings these activities
aroused did not translate into a need to look like or act like the
play objects. Nor did the aggressive play or doll play reinforce
limited sex roles and stereotypes unless parents allowed it to.
So why are the dynamics different now?
one thing, children of the nineties have less time to play, more
media exposure, and hence a stronger tendency to imitate what they
see on screen. For another, most of the consumer toys and dolls
heavily promoted through children's programming are unlike the playthings
used decades ago. The nature and purpose of these items have changed:
they are now designed to mimic the characters and props featured
on TV shows, in movies, and in videos. Marketing strategies have
also changed, placing a strong emphasis on having the right toys
and having lots of them. Children, in turn, have shifted from wondering,
"How creative can I be with this toy?" to asking "Can I get another,
slightly different one?"
there is a significant difference between using a banana as a gun
and firing a plastic AK-47 look alike. The banana can become a healing
wand or a disappearing rod, whereas the imitation automatic rifle
can do only one thing. Entire product lines have been developed
to elicit an unending lust for yet another weapon, character, or
prop to enhance our children's play. Wearing character pajamas,
sleeping on character-imprinted sheets, and toting notebooks and
a lunch box similarly bedecked promotes an ongoing sense of being
part of the action. Whether a toy is inspired by G. I Joe, Power
Rangers, My Little Pony, or Barbie, its raison d'etre is to get
children to want to buy more. Such toys tend to be highly sex specific,
reinforcing stereotypes of the male as aggressive and the female
as passive, cheery, and looking pretty.
a Peaceable Imagination
is a vital aspect of development. It invites children to exercise
their creativity, combining old forms of expression in new ways;
find solutions to real or imagined difficulties; and try on new
roles, envision unforeseen outcomes, and adopt fresh points of view.
This back-and-forth exchange between fantasy and reality helps children
make sense of their experiences and begin to comprehend their capacities.
War play, however, introduces a self-limiting and destruction-oriented
understanding of who a child is and what he or she can do. Interestingly,
the children most likely to engage in such play are those who feel
threatened in some way, either by divorce, parental illness, or
a stay in the hospital.
keep play positive and help your children develop a peaceable imagination,
try these tips:
Avoid buying single-use toys, giving them as gifts, or allowing
them in your home. Tell other parents why you see these toys as
destructive. To step up your protest, place warning labels on toys
in department stores. Ready-made stickers are available with inscriptions
that read: "Think before you buy. This is a war toy. Playing with
it increases anger and violence in children. Is this what you really
want for your child?" (These stickers are available from Heartsongs
If prohibition is not your style, try limitation. Negotiate a mutually
acceptable number of characters to add to your children's toy collection.
Encourage them to purchase these items with their own earnings.
After each new product enters the household, be sure to point out
how much better it looked on TV. To guard against impulse buying,
establish clear expectations about when a toy will be purchased.
Always be willing to talk about the values behind your decisions.
Cross traditional gender-role lines by buying dolls for boys and
tools for girls.
Prioritize toys with creative potential, such as art supplies, large
and small building blocks, Legos, Tinkertoys, cardboard boxes and
tubes, egg cartons, clay, kitchen utensils, gardening implements,
and woodworking tools.
Minimize war play by reducing the number of toys and situations
that lead to out-of-control behavior. Respond to the warning signs
of escalation, and honor your own tolerance levels for loudness,
roughness, pace, and toys flying through the air. When intervening,
forgo shame and blame tactics in lieu of teaching your children
to distinguish between play and aggression. Let your children know
that play turns to aggression the moment anyone has stopped having
fun. And be sure everyone present respects calls of"No!""Stop!"
Observe your children at play. Notice the questions they seem to
be tackling and the difficulties they are experiencing. Better yet,
without directing the action, join in the fun, ask questions, and
offer nonjudgmental comments.
When play turns to war or detached passivity, step gently into the
scene in progress and redirect your children's energy. Tell them,
"Wow! So many people are injured. We need a hospital to care for
them." Or "All that action must make an army hungry. Let's cook
them a meal and figure out how to get supplies in here." Or "Your
doll needs new furniture. Let's build her something."
day-to-day choices we make regarding media exposure are vitally
important. Part of our job as parents is to prevent as much negative
fallout as possible. Another part is to let our children know why
we are shaping their worlds in this way. As we set our sights on
creating a more peaceful future, we have no better place to begin
than with the imagination and intelligence of our young.
Nancy, and Diane Levin. Who's Calling the Shots? How to Respond
Effectively to Children's Fascination with War Play and War Toys.
Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1993.
and TV: A Primer for Parents: A
booklet published in 1994, available from Boys Town Books, Boys
Town, NE; 800-282-6657.
Joan, and Jenni Zimmer. Media Violence and Children: A Guide for
Parents. Washington, DC 20036-1426.
Kid's First Directory. Contains reviews by adults and children of
the best in children's videos. Available from the Coalition for
Quality Children's Videos, 505-989-8076.
Construction Ahead, Fire and Rescue, and Cleared for Takeoff. Live-action
videos for children, available from Fred Levine Productions, Department
NY3C, PO Box 2284, South Burlington, VT 05407; 800-843-3686.
Adolescent Runaway Hotline, 800-621-4000. Assists young people and
their families in a crisis, including potential suicide.
TV Resource and Education Center, 415-243-9943. Surwatch Software,
415-948-9500. Offers software designed to block objectionable material
on the Internet.
La Cerva, MD
La Cerva 2000