The Way We Live Now: How TV Depraves the Young

GEORGE F. WILL

April 08, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- An Indiana school board had to issue an advisory to children, who had been crawling into storm drains, that there were no Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles down there. To understand why this was necessary is to understand one of the causes of America's epidemic of violence.

And the path to understanding that Indiana advisory can begin in a remote Canadian community that in 1973 (signal reception problems having been overcome) was due to acquire television. Social scientists seized the opportunity to investigate the effects of television on this community's children, using for comparison two similar towns that had long had television.

Before television was belatedly introduced, they monitored rates of inappropriate physical aggression among 45 first- and second-graders. After two years of television, the rate increased 160 percent, in both boys and girls, and in both those who were aggressive to begin with and those who were not. The rate in the two communities that had had television for years did not change.

Other researchers studied third-, fourth- and fifth-grade boys in two Indian communities in northern Manitoba. One got television in 1973, the other in 1977. The aggressiveness of boys in the first community increased immediately, in the second it increased four years later.

A study from 1960 to 1981 of 875 children in a semi-rural American county (controlled for baseline aggressiveness, intelligence and socioeconomic status) found that among persons subsequently convicted of crimes, the more television they had watched by age 8, the more serious their subsequent crimes. A ''second-generation effect'' was that the more television a parent had watched as a child, the more severely that parent punished children.

Seven U.S. and Canadian studies establish correlations between prolonged childhood exposure to television and a proclivity for physical aggressiveness that extends from pre-adolescence into adulthood. All this is reported in The Public Interest quarterly by Brandon S. Centerwall, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington.

He used a historical oddity -- because of disagreement between Afrikaner- and English-speaking South Africans, that nation had no TV prior to 1975 -- to study its effect on violence rates in the prosperous industrial society of white South Africans.

He studied homicide rates among white South Africans, white Americans and all Canadians. From 1945 to 1974 the white homicide rate in the United States increased 93 percent; in Canada, 92 percent; in South Africa, the white homicide rate declined 7 percent.

Neither economic growth, civil unrest, age distribution, urbanization, alcohol consumption, capital punishment nor the availability of firearms explain the 10-to-15 year span between the introduction of TV and the doubling of the homicide rate in the United States and Canada -- or the similar lag in South Africa after 1975. Furthermore, Dr. Centerwall believes that the introduction of TV helps explain different rates of homicide growth for American whites and minorities.

White households began acquiring television sets in large numbers approximately five years before minority households. White homicide rates began increasing in 1958. A parallel increase in minority homicide rates began four years later.

A 14-month-old infant can adopt behavior it has seen on television. Because young children are unable to distinguish fact from fantasy, they regard television as information about how the world works. (Hence the need for the Indiana school board's advisory). And, Dr. Centerwall says, in the world as television presents it, violence is ubiquitous, exciting, charismatic and effective:

''In later life, serious violence is most likely to erupt at moments of severe stress -- and it is precisely at such moments that adolescents and adults are most likely to revert to their earliest, most visceral sense of the role of violence in society and in personal behavior. Much of this sense will have come from television.''

So what can be done? Dr. Centerwall believes that violence is a public-health problem deserving measures as practical as nutrition, immunization and bicycle-helmet programs. He suggests requiring all television sets to be manufactured with locking devices by which parents can control children's access to a set or to particular channels. But such devices presuppose the sort of parents who would not need them: parents alert to the dangerous degradation of taste and behavior by entertainment saturated with violence.

Wiser parents are the only hope because, as Dr. Centerwall understands, there is no hope for cooperation from the television industry. It exists to draw audiences for advertisers. Desensitized Americans are attracted by ever stronger doses of ever more graphic violence. A decline of 1 percent of advertising revenues would cut the television industry's revenues a quarter of a billion dollars.

So as Dr. Centerwall says, it is as idle to expect television to help combat the epidemic of violence that is derivative from violent entertainment as it is to expect the tobacco industry to help combat the epidemic of lung cancer that is a comparable sign of that industry's sickening health.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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