Pathways to Peace

Minimize Media Exposure

by Victor La Cerva, MD

Article #3 in our series
Creating Less Violence
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Victor La Cerva, MD, Mediacl Director of the Family Health Bureau of the State of New Mexico, retired, is the author of two books, a figurehead in the Men's Wellness movement and father of two lovely teenagers. Victor lectures nationally on violence prevention and shares his expertise and experiences with visitors to this segment of Pathfinders.

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Minimize Media Exposure

Minds are not vessels to be filled, but fires to be set alight. -Anonymous

Each 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 acts—none of which occurred in their immediate environment.

Based 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 actions.

If 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.

Sources and Effects of the Bad News

The 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 year.

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 shows.

Sensible Guidelines

On 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 wisely.

* 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.

Treat 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.

Look at TV and videos with your children, noting different ethnic groups, positive male and female role models, and characters who care about others.

Choose 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 Television

War Toys and Barbie Dolls

Up 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?

For 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?"

Psychologically, 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.

Toward a Peaceable Imagination

Play 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.

To 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 Publications.)

* 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!" or "Don't!"

* 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."

The 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.

Additional Resources

Literature

Carlsson-Paige, 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.

Children and TV: A Primer for Parents: A booklet published in 1994, available from Boys Town Books, Boys Town, NE; 800-282-6657.

Horton, 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.

Videos

Road 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.

National Adolescent Runaway Hotline, 800-621-4000. Assists young people and their families in a crisis, including potential suicide.

Organizations

Children's TV Resource and Education Center, 415-243-9943. Surwatch Software, 415-948-9500. Offers software designed to block objectionable material on the Internet.

Victor La Cerva, MD

©Victor La Cerva 2000  
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Editors note:

Victor's Pathfinder series offers an opportunity for visitors to understand the roots of violence and to explore the ways of understanding and addressing it at home and work. This begins with your own personal tapestry of internal issues.

Contributions and questions that arise from your personal experience are valued and welcomed.We wish you well on the path and look forward to your participation.
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