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Wolves in Sheep's Clothing:
A Content Analysis of Children's Television

March 2, 2006


By Kristen Fyfe




Children today are bombarded by intensely violent images in the movies they watch and the video games they play.  Even prime time TV is loaded with violent imagery.  But what about programming specifically created for young children? 


The Parents Television Council set out to discover exactly what young children are seeing on programming designed uniquely for them.  The PTC chose to focus on entertainment programming for school-aged children aged 5-10 on broadcast television and expanded basic cable.  Eight networks four broadcast and four cable offer programming matching that criteria: ABC, Fox, NBC, WB, ABC Family, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.  The PTC focused its analysis on before-school, after-school, and Saturday morning programming.  The analysis covered a three week period from the summer of 2005 for a total of 443.5 hours of children's programming. 


The results were staggering.  In the 443.5 hours of children's programming analyzed by the PTC there were 3488 instances of violence -- an average of 7.86 violent incidents per hour.  Even when the innocent, "cartoony" violence most of us grew-up with (e.g. an anvil falling on Wile E. Coyote's head) is extracted, there were still 2794 instances of violence for an average of 6.30 violent incidents per hour.   To put this figure in perspective, consider that in 2002 the six broadcast networks combined averaged only 4.71 instances of violence per hour of prime time programming.*  Thus there is more violence aimed directly at young children than at adults on television today.


But it is not only violence that is present in today's programming for children.  Sexual innuendo is present.  Adult language is present.  Trash talking, bullying, and disrespect are present.  In its analysis of children's television the PTC also found:


  • 858 incidents of verbal aggression (e.g. abusive yelling, mean-spirited insults and put-downs) for an average of 1.93 instances per hour

  • 250 incidents of offensive language (such as excretory references or euphemisms for obscene language) for an average of 0.56 instances per hour

  • 595 incidents of disruptive, disrespectful or otherwise problematic attitudes and behaviors for an average of 1.34 instances per hour

  • 275 incidents of sexual content for an average of 0.62 instances per hour


Looking at the individual networks:


  • Although the Cartoon Network had the highest total number of violent incidents,  the ABC Family Channel turned out to pack the most punch-per-program, with 318 instances of violence (only 11 of these could be considered "cartoon" violence) for an average of 10.96 violent incidents per episode. 

  • The Disney Channel had the least-violent children's programming (0.95 incidents per episode).

  • The WB had the highest levels of offensive language, verbal abuse, sexual content and offensive/excretory references. 

  • Fox had the lowest frequency of this content.    


Too often we dismiss violence in children's programming as inconsequential; "After all," the argument goes, "I grew up watching Road Runner cartoons and I turned out okay."  Violence in cartoons, of course, is nothing new.  What has changed is that the violence is ubiquitous, often sinister, and in many cases, frighteningly realistic.  


Studies have shown exposure to TV violence to be positively associated with aggressive behavior in some children and exposure to sexual content increases the likelihood that children will become sexually active earlier in life.  The extended argument implies that exposure to coarse language and disrespectful attitudes will also negatively affect children. 


Parents often take it for granted that children's programs are, by definition, child-friendly. This clearly is not always the case.  Unfortunately this faulty assumption has led many parents to let their guard down and allow their children to spend hours watching television unsupervised.  Young children are especially impressionable, and they learn social norms and behaviors as readily from television as from their peers or parents.  The "Wolves in Sheep's Clothing" report documents that "children's television" is no safe haven for children and parents must be extremely vigilant as to what their children are watching. 


* PTC Special Report TV Bloodbath: Violence on Prime Time Network TV


Full Report | Press Release | Statement by L. Brent Bozell |Response by Michael Rich, MD, MPH  |Comments by Senator Brownback | Response by Nell Minow "The Movie Mom"




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