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TV Encourages Disrespect...And Violence

By Christopher Gildemeister


Recently, shocking stories involving violent actions by teens and young children against schoolteachers have been reported in the news. While television is not directly responsible for this behavior, it and other forms of media have helped shape a cultural acceptance of violence and disrespect for authority.


On March 28th in Waycross, Georgia, school officials at Center Elementary School learned of a plot by a group of eight- and nine-year-old students against their teacher.  The students allegedly brought a broken steak knife, a roll of duct tape, handcuffs, ribbon, gloves and a crystal paperweight to school to use in a planned attack on teacher Belle Carter. According to news reports, the third-graders had hatched an elaborate plan involving a division of roles. One child's job was to cover windows so that no one could see outside, while another was supposed to clean up after the attack.


While of course it is common for children to resent being disciplined by a teacher, and for even young children to fantasize about revenge, the elaborate detail this plot entailed implies adult knowledge. Most third-graders do not naturally possess so thorough a knowledge of criminal intent as to plan the use of items like handcuffs and duct tape. Nor do most have sufficient knowledge of crime scene investigation to know enough to wear gloves, block windows and clean up blood after committing a crime. It is hardly likely that the students gained such knowledge from other children, their parents or books they were assigned in school or read in their own free time. Where then could they have gotten such ideas – and the detailed knowledge necessary to carry out such a plot?


A week later, at Reginald F. Lewis High School in Baltimore, art teacher Jolita Berry was attacked and beaten by a student, classmates simply watched the attack, and one recorded the assault on a cell phone and later posted the video of the attack on the Internet. The attack occurred when the teacher told a female student to sit down and behave; when threatened, the teacher told the student that if attacked she would defend herself.


Since the 1970s, television has portrayed teens and children as acting in an insolent manner towards adults, while parents and teachers are repeatedly portrayed as bumbling idiots undeserving of respect. Meanwhile, television has become tremendously more violent (as was demonstrated by the PTC’s 2007 study of TV violence); and with such graphic violence now being specifically targeted at children and teens, it can come as no surprise that young viewers are apparently imitating what they see.


It is in the interest of society to encourage civility and decent, non-violent behavior in children and teens. Media bosses claim that this is solely the job of parents.  But in today’s media-saturated world, with so many media outlets available to children, parents cannot possibly monitor everything their child may see or hear…particularly when those controlling the media appear hell-bent on inundating viewers with violence.  While media bosses trumpet program ratings and the “V-chip” as solutions, they continue to show ultra-violent programming during prime time, thus exposing children and teens to unnatural levels of violence. If those controlling the media were truly interested in the psychological and emotional health of America’s children, not to mention the health of American society, they would take greater steps to ensure that children and teens were not exposed to such content.


Common sense tells us that children, even those approaching adulthood, lack adult judgment and require parental and societal supervision.  Science has discovered the physical mechanisms which explain why children and teens stand in greater need of protection, especially from the influence of the media.


Brain-imaging research has shown that the brains of teenagers differ from those of adults. Scientists previously believed the brain reached 90% of its adult size by the age of six, and that the brain finished developing by age 12. But teams of researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health and the University of California have learned through magnetic resonance imaging that the brain continues to mature during the teen years, beginning a final push around 16 or 17.  Thus, the key part of the brain that affects judgment may not be in place until men and women reach their early 20s. They also control decision-making, risk perception and impulse control. Until their brains mature, teens rely heavily on the amygdala, a brain region which is responsible for "gut" reactions including "fight or flight" responses. "The frontal lobes were the last to develop…These brain regions control inhibition, rash actions, rage and anger," said UCLA brain researcher Paul Thompson in 2005.


This is why the American Psychological Association adopted a resolution in August of 2005 recommending that violence be reduced in video games and interactive media marketed to children and youth.  The resolution noted that decades of research indicate that exposure to violence on television and in video games increases aggressive thoughts and behavior and angry feelings among youth. Research on media violence also revealed that perpetrators go unpunished 73 percent of the time in all violent scenes. Based on their findings, the APA recommended that the entertainment industry link violent behaviors with negative social consequences.


“Showing violent acts without consequences teach youth that violence is an effective means of resolving conflict. Whereas, seeing pain and suffering as a consequence can inhibit aggressive behavior.” -- Elizabeth Carll, PhD, co-chair of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media, American Psychological Association press release, August 17, 2005


Teens themselves recognize the power media has to influence their behavior: a survey in 2002 by the Kaiser Family Foundation of 15-to-17-year-olds found that 72 percent of them believe that sex on TV influences the behavior of their peer groups.


Television, film and other media serve to legitimate what they portray, making it seem acceptable and even attractive to the viewer.  This is especially true for children, who are still in the process of learning about the world. Television and movies act as templates for young people, defining for them what is normal and desirable. Once, it might have been possible for someone to avoid the negative impact of media imagery by “just changing the channel”; but today, media is ubiquitous, and its influence is inescapable…and undeniable.


Media owners may continue to deny the immense power of the instruments of influence that they control; but survey after survey, study after study, scientific investigation and common sense all point to the obvious.  The media serves to define the world, especially to younger viewers, and to shape their thoughts, opinions, choices and behavior. 


Obviously, television is not solely responsible for society’s ills.  But the influence that media, and particularly television, has over youth is not to be taken lightly, especially given youth’s greater vulnerability to suggestion and encouragement.  At a time in life when they are particularly susceptible to external stimuli and are still developing their capacity for self-control, America’s youth deserve to be protected from influences which have the potential to make them unhappy, and to be encouraged in their efforts to make healthy choices.


The childhood and teenage years are a gift, during which the promise of life lies ahead.  Our children and teens deserve to have those years filled with optimism, encouragement and hope, not rage and disrespect for others. The PTC urges media leaders to look a little further than their bottom line, consider the potential harm their programming is doing to society…and the good they might do if they acted more responsibly. 

TV Trends: This column was compiled from reports by the Parents Television Council’s Analysis staff.


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