TV and Kids' Violence

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on June 17, 1996. Partner content is not updated.

Nick Workman's favorite program is The X-Men, a cartoon featuring mutant superheroes with names like Gambit, Rogue and Wolverine - the latter a misanthropic man-beast whose razor-sharp claws have a hair trigger. "I like the action," says Nick. "I like it when they use their powers.
This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on June 17, 1996. Partner content is not updated. Nick Workman's favorite program is The X-Men, a cartoon featuring mutant superheroes with names like Gambit, Rogue and Wolverine - the latter a misanthropic man-beast whose razor-sharp claws have a hair trigger. "I like the action," says Nick. "I like it when they use their powers.

TV and Kids' Violence

Nick Workman's favorite program is The X-Men, a cartoon featuring mutant superheroes with names like Gambit, Rogue and Wolverine - the latter a misanthropic man-beast whose razor-sharp claws have a hair trigger. "I like the action," says Nick. "I like it when they use their powers." He also likes The Simpsons - especially Homer, father to the animated show's dysfunctional family, "because he always says, 'D'oh!'" Now, at age 7, Nick feels he's ready to move on to more mature fare: The X-Files, the graphic sci-fi show that explores paranormal activity. Trouble is, Mom won't let him watch it. "She thinks I'll get nightmares," Nick says. In fact, Mom - aka Deborah Irvine, a 40-year-old speechwriter who works from her home in Maple Bay, B.C., an hour's drive north of Victoria - is worried about more than nightmares. Nick, she says, is well below his grade level in reading, and she suspects that his love affair with TV may be responsible. Of three sons, Nick is the only one "that we have to be very firm with and turn off the television," Irvine says. "It creates huge arguments. He'll grab onto my feet when I'm leaving the room and beg for the TV to stay on."

The scene has been part of North American family life since the television explosion of the 1950s - the child crying to stay up and watch, the parents getting angry, defensive or defeatist. But in the 1990s, the tenor of the TV debate has taken on a dark new tone. Increasingly, Canadian parents and educators are worried about the effects of the tube on kids. Much of their concern - fuelled by a recent spate of gruesome, lethal crimes committed by mere children - revolves around TV violence. And on that front, the September release of the so-called V-chip, a device that allows parents to screen out violent programming, promises to provide a new weapon in parents' battle for the minds of their children. If parents actually use it, the V-chip will permit unprecedented control of the household's most-used appliance.

But the problems of television go far beyond the powers of any quick techno-fix. They involve not only what kids are watching but the fact that they are watching at all. Even in the 100-channel universe, where TV will offer something for everybody, parents will have to confront a question that transcends violence: what is television really doing to kids? Is it doing them harm? To put it bluntly, is TV toxic?

In its nearly 60-year history, television has been blamed for a host of societal ills, and not always fairly. "If the television craze continues with the present levels of programs," Boston University president Daniel Marsh declared in Maclean's in 1951, "we are destined to have a nation of morons." Arguably, that has not happened - yet. There is a lot of fine programming on North American television. But the issue of TV's effects is not only about what is on, but also about the interaction of the medium and its viewers - how they watch it, and what they take away from it. By the time most Canadian children reach high school, they each will spend between 10,000 and 15,000 hours watching TV - more time than is spent going to school, playing sports or talking to parents. No wonder that communications guru Marshall McLuhan called television "the first curriculum" for modern youth.

But what do they learn? Violence is one part of the picture, but increasingly sociologists and media critics are concerned about other, more subtle effects. Through the cathode tube, children learn about sexual stereotypes, about the "appropriate" roles for men and women in society. And they are told over and over again what they should buy: American communications guru Neil Postman estimates that the average kid has seen about half a million TV commercials by age 18. Perhaps most important, television is the primary source of information for children - as it is for adults - providing not only a refuge from, but a window on, the real world. And it is a very narrow view, indeed.

On a chilly night in April, 1995, a 13-year-old boy helped beat retired Montreal priest Frank Toope, 75, and wife Jocelyne, 70, to death with a baseball bat and a beer bottle; sentencing the boy to three years in detention and two years' probation last March, Judge Lucie Rondeau remarked that he showed no signs of remorse. Last April, a six-year-old boy crept into a home in Richmond, Calif., and beat one-month-old Ignacio Bermudez Jr. almost to the point of death; prosecutor Harold Jewett later said that the boy had told friends he assaulted the baby because members of the Bermudez family had "looked at him wrong." In Toronto last month, a 13-year-old accused an 11-year-old boy of raping her.

There is an ongoing and contentious debate over whether youth crime is really on the rise. But whatever the reality, the perception persists: what, parents and educators ask, is happening to kids? In the search for answers, many point to TV as, if not the culprit, then at least an accomplice. "Television violence is eroding, scrambling up, the value systems of children - oh, absolutely," declares Rose Anne Dyson, chairwoman of Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment (C-CAVE).

Violence has long been an element of the TV landscape - and of kids' programs, from The Three Stooges to the Bugs Bunny cartoons that baby boomers were raised on. And of all the effects of television, the link between depicted violence and heightened aggression is the most thoroughly researched. Some dispute the statistics - there is real contention about what defines a violent act - but the numbers are still alarming: by the age of 12, according to one study, a typical Canadian will have witnessed as many as 12,000 violent deaths on television.

Many psychologists say that TV violence can lead to heightened aggression in the short term. Other research suggests that children who watch a lot of violence can become desensitized to real-world violence, and less empathetic to the pain and suffering of others. And then there is the so-called mean-world syndrome, in which children exposed to television violence develop a view of the world as more dangerous or sinister than it actually is. Tellingly, the same effect has been reported in adults, particularly among the elderly.

Doug Hallstead, a Grade 2 teacher at Stevenson-Britannia School in Winnipeg, sees those effects every day in the schoolyard. "I haven't seen Red Rover or tag on the playground for years," says Hallstead. "The standard now is 'play-fighting,' often with kung fu moves. But there is a real lowering of empathy - their standard line is, 'I was just joking when I kicked him.' " More disturbing for Hallstead is what happens in the classroom. "If we're talking about the Second World War and we mention something violent, there are always a few boys who will go, 'Yeah, right on,' " he says. "There are kids in my class who take delight in something a previous generation of students would have responded to with shock."

But the TV-violence connection is complicated. Wendy Josephson, a psychologist at the University of Winnipeg who compiled a survey of TV violence research for Canadian Heritage, says that male children are more likely to be affected by TV violence than girls, and that children who have been abused are more sensitive to televised aggression - and tend to watch more of it. Still, a few experts doubt that televised violence has any real-world effect. Jonathan Freedman, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, claims that while heightening aggression through exposure to violent imagery is possible in a laboratory setting, the violence studies do not reflect the way kids actually watch TV - in their own living-rooms, with outside distractions.

And the links between television and individual acts of violence are problematic, at best. In October, 1993, a five-year-old boy set fire to his family's mobile home in Moraine, Ohio, killing his two-year-old sister, Jessica Matthews. The girl's mother said the boy lit the fire after watching Beavis and Butt-head, a notorious cartoon about two ne'er-do-well adolescents with a taste for pyrotechnics. The case was widely reported in the United States, and in response MTV, the music-video cable channel, moved the cartoon to a late-night time slot. What got less media attention, however, was the fact that the mobile home in which Jessica Matthews died did not even have cable.

You will see a procession of game shows, violence, audience-participation shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence and cartoons. And, endlessly, commercials - many screaming, cajoling and offending. And most of all, boredom -

U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow, May, 1961

Thirty-five years after a stunning indictment of television that came to be known as the "wasteland speech," Newton Minow - now chairman of the Carnegie Foundation, a philanthropic organization that helped fund, among other projects, Sesame Street - says little has changed. "I think in many ways, sadly, it has deteriorated," he told Maclean's. "We have a much wider choice, with the advent of cable and public television. But I think that the level of stuff thrown at kids, especially, has gone down."

Why? Minow and other U.S. critics point to the increasing commercialization of children's television during the 1980s, when the FCC deregulated the field - and when broadcasters threw out their voluntary code on advertising to children. Canadian broadcasters, in contrast, adopted a strict code on children's advertising - limiting, for instance, the number and air time of commercials. But thanks to the vagaries of the TV market, four-fifths of programs watched by English-speaking Canadian kids are American-made.

There are exceptions to the rule - the success of the youth-oriented YTV in Canada and of Nickelodeon in the United States - but for a variety of reasons, broadcasters cannot demand top advertising dollars for children's shows. From a research standpoint, kids are notoriously hard to keep track of, and advertisers cannot tell whether they are watching a show or just sitting in the room. The result is that ad rates for kids' programs are about one-fifth those for adult shows. As one industry executive puts it: "Broadcasters can make more money running infomercials."

When they do get made, Canadian children's TV productions - like Fred Penner's Place (CBC) and The Big Comfy Couch (YTV) - raise few concerns about violence or suitability for kids. "Children's television produced here is absolutely stellar," says Kealy Wilkinson, national director of the Alliance for Children and Television. The problem, Wilkinson says, is that there is simply not enough quality Canadian programming for children on the air.

The realities of children's TV in Canada are highlighted by the case of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. The U.S.-produced show, which is exported around the world, follows the exploits of a group of squeaky-clean teens who transform into karate-kicking superheroes to battle evil forces from outer space. In 1994, the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council ruled that the show, which ran in Canada on YTV and CanWest Global, violated the broadcasters' code on violence. YTV pulled Power Rangers and, after running an edited version briefly, Global followed suit in July, 1995. But the show is still broadcast in Canada - thanks to Fox Network stations in the United States. On top of that, Power Rangers has given birth to such knockoffs as VR Troopers and Masked Rider, both of which air on Canadian TV.

Some critics point to a link between violent entertainment for children and commercial imperatives. "There are so many other cultural commodities that go along with television programs," says C-CAVE's Dyson, "that the half-hour shows become commercials in themselves." There is practically no American-made children's program - from The X-Men to Barney & Friends - that does not have related merchandise. The all-time winner is Power Rangers, whose figurines and accessories are now a billion-dollar business.

When Lukasz Zalewski was a kid - he is 15 now - the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were all the rage. Power Rangers "is newer, because the Ninja Turtles were all guys, but the Rangers have girls," says Zalewski, a high-school student in Pickering, Ont. "Every show tries to trigger certain groups - they show things and they know that the little kids are going to bother parents to buy it for them." TV, he says, manipulates little kids. "But I guess teenagers, too," Zalewski adds, "because if you're watching MuchMusic, they have all these stereo systems on - all this cool stuff teenagers want."

Amid the feel-good news shows, the cartoons, Sesame Street and Barney on other channels, MuchMusic offers something different: an interview with the lead singer from the rock group Marilyn Manson. An androgynous figure dressed all in black, he opines that "there's no real difference between artists and killers," and describes how the group's latest album, Smells Like Children, is "about abuse of all sorts." What is remarkable is not the interview - run-of-the-mill anti-establishment rock stuff - but its airtime: 9 o'clock, Saturday morning.

Every generation of adults has viewed youth culture and its medium of choice - radio dramas in the 1940s, horror comic books in the 1950s, rock music in the 1960s - with suspicion. And although parents often say their concern is violence, their worries about television go much deeper. "Simply to go on what is relatively simplistic cause and effect about violence is to miss the bigger point," says Alan Mirabelli, executive director of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa. "Violence has been a way of articulating a disease with the medium. But we've never gone beyond it."

Too often, television offers little more than stereotypes, especially of women, like the curvaceous babes of Baywatch. In a recent study, E. Graham McKinley, a lecturer at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., looked at the ways 40 girls, from sixth grade to college age, talked about the hit high-school soap Beverly Hills 90210. The show revolves around six beautiful teens living in a beautiful neighborhood. The show does occasionally look at socially relevant issues - drug abuse, AIDS , physical disability. But McKinley found that no matter what the ostensible issue, the women in the study talked about a limited range of topics: "Hairstyles, makeup, eyebrows, clothing and boyfriends," says McKinley. "The show established a community of viewers, who shared expertise on how women look." From a feminist perspective, she adds, the results are disturbing: "Do we want our young women to take a deep, abiding pleasure in the idea that you are what you wear?"

Adolescents, in particular, are highly imitative - a casual look at the baggy jeans and backwards caps worn in malls across the country is evidence enough of that. "Adolescents are the most prone to visual images," says Marshall Korenblum, a psychiatrist at the Hincks Centre for Children's Mental Health in Toronto. And teens learn to pattern their behavior after stereotypes they see on television, often with disturbing results: a 1986 University of California study found that teen suicides tend to rise after TV news stories about suicide.

The trend in many commercials, meanwhile, is to stereotype parent-child relations: parents are clods, kids are cool. One ad for Apple Jacks, for instance, has a father wondering to his preteen daughter and her friends why they like the cereal when it doesn't even taste like apples. The response: "Da-ad!" - as if he just committed some sin to all things hip by asking an honest question.

It is worth pointing out that adult perceptions of youth are also shaped by what they see on TV. Some shows, like CanWest Global's Ready or Not, CBC's Straight Up and WIC Communications' Madison, attempt to transcend stereotypes of youth culture - and they do it well. But television, Korenblum argues, still tends to portray adolescents either as victims or as "leather-jacketed amoral thugs" - feeding an "us-versus-them" mentality among adults, and raising public hysteria about juvenile crime even while many researchers say youth violence is actually declining. One example: a promo for an NBC Nightly News special report last week made a clear pitch to adult fears with the lines, "Younger and younger criminals are terrorizing our cities. How can we stop them? How should they pay?"

In at least one respect, Elizabeth Bonnell of Halifax is an unusual 11-year-old: she watches only half an hour of television a day. She says she "sort of" likes TV. "But sometimes I don't like it," says Elizabeth, whose mother is a preschool teacher. "Like, sometimes I get bored watching it." She seems to make the most of her time: at school she takes cello lessons, sings in the choir, swims and plays basketball. After school, she takes jazz and tap dance lessons. And then, Elizabeth says, "I walk the dog."

Everyone who watches television knows the feeling - lying on the couch, bleary-eyed and bored, flipping vacantly through channels that offer nothing particularly worth watching. It is the most familiar TV effect and yet it may also be the most pernicious. According to Statistics Canada, the average Canadian spends 22.7 hours in front of the tube every week. Teens and children 2 to 11 actually spend less time watching television than the national average. And viewing hours for those ages have decreased - from 20.3 and 22 hours, for teens and children respectively, in 1986 to 17.1 and 17.7 hours in 1994, the last year for which statistics are available. Part of the reason for that decline, however, is that the numbers do not take into account time spent playing video games.

What worries many parents is the fact that kids watching television could be doing something else - like cutting the grass, playing with friends, reading, anything. On the other hand, parents who contemplate turning off their TVs altogether risk cutting off their kids from the cultural reference points of their generation: every kid at school knows the Power Rangers by name. And TV does have an undeniable role as a refuge. "For many households," says Mirabelli, "there is so much stress that it's really come down to a question of television or Valium." In an era of broken families, many kids find a sense of belonging in the virtual families depicted on television. Some even claim to find enlightenment: in a 1994 American survey of kids aged 11 to 16, more than a quarter said daytime talk shows - the likes of Jerry Springer, Geraldo and Oprah - do the best job covering people their age. The fact is, says Mirabelli, "somebody who spends that much time watching TV will begin to develop a perception of the world which is not real."

According to Wilkinson, 80 per cent of parents say they monitor what their children watch on television. But in the age of latchkey children and two working parents, taking control of how long children watch is not always easy. The V-chip will help. And many parents and educators are already coming up with creative ways to address the problem. In Winnipeg, Grade 2 teacher Hallstead is waging what he calls "emotional nuclear warfare" against television. At the beginning of every school year, he invites parents to two evening sessions to discuss how they can help their children perform well in school. His main message: turn off the television and start reading to your child. He also offers parents placards to put on their fridge or on top of their TV sets. One asks, "Who do you love? Who do you spend time with?" - over an illustration of a set of scales balancing a TV set with a blank space for a picture of their child.

Some parents, meanwhile, are turning to a more traditional method: bribery. Bonnie Lovelace, a provincial civil servant from Edmonton, and her husband, David Hudson, a business development consultant, began to worry about their two kids' TV viewing about a year ago. "More and more, we found that whenever they had time to spare, they turned on the television," says Lovelace. So they made an offer to Michael, 15, and Leigh, 10: if the kids could watch a maximum of three hours a week for a year, beginning on April 1, 1995, then the parents would pay them $200 each. Lovelace says that Leigh stopped watching TV altogether and collected her $200 last March. But Michael "fell off the wagon," his mother adds, although he did cut back on his TV viewing - and earned himself a consolation prize of $100. Now, the kids are back watching television, but not as often, and not in the same way. Says Lovelace: "Now when they watch TV - and I don't know if this is a big step forward - they are conscious of what they are doing."

Deborah Irvine finally gave up - on television, that is. "We're going to cancel cable for the summer," she decided. "And where we live, if you don't have cable, you virtually don't have anything." How did she break the news to her son Nick - lover of The X-Men and The Simpsons? "I told him the TV's going on summer vacation, just like he is," Irvine recalls. "What I have to do is wean Nick off television from being his best friend."

Maclean's June 17, 1996