Blood and Sex and Common Sense

RICHARD REEVES

November 02, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York.-- "Just turn the thing off.''

As a solution to the current controversy over sex and violence on television and their effects on children, that would seem to be common sense. I wish it were, but I don't think it is. You cannot control television with a clicker or an on-off button, because television is not an appliance, or even a ''medium'' as we now use that word. It is an environment. Television is more like weather than it is like this newspaper.

The argument is that parents really have to take responsibility for what their children see, or are exposed to.

Many kids, though, do not, in effect, have parents in these trying times. For some, TV is their parents, their baby-sitter, their best friend. We all know that.

But that is not my point. Short of locking children up or hiring keepers, I don't believe you can keep them away from the tube even if you stop paying the electric bill and make the sets into settees.

My thinking about that, as in all things, is a reflection of my own experience, particularly what happened to the Reeves family when we returned to the United States in 1988 after living in France for four years.

Our youngest child, a daughter who was an infant when we left the United States, had seen very little television in her young life. France's government-owned television was pretty boring in any language. The only American cassettes we brought into our house in Paris were ''Sesame Street'' and ''Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.''

Coming home, we intended to continue the same parental censorship. That lasted about a week, because Fiona had nothing to talk about with her peers. Children want more than anything to ''fit in.'' Coming from another country was bad enough, without having a child called ''weird'' because she was not watching ''Gilligan's Island'' and ''Mod Squad'' reruns. (The same thing happened with food. Other kids in kindergarten teased her about eating yogurt and fruit, as she had in Paris.)

And what would have happened if, for instance, we did take out the television set? Almost certainly she would have been glued to sets at friends' houses -- if it's possible to make friends without some grounding in pervasive popular culture.

Parents alone cannot change that. The people who make television and movie entertainments will, as they have before, wait out the furor of the moment. They will say there is no definitive proof; they will blame extremists, in this case Christian fundamentalists; and then go back to business as usual, saying that moving images have no effect on human behavior except the behavior of consumption. The idea being peddled is that a product plug can persuade you to buy Sprite or something, but has no effect on other behavior.

Then there is the news. You have to be on your own guard constantly watching it with small children in the room.

It's not only the blood and guts, the mass murders and the group sex; it's trying to answer the questions kids have about the electronic carnage -- questions about, say, sadomasochism that you didn't plan to bring up for a decade or so.

For me, common sense dictates that too much television is dangerous to children's health -- but it also tells me I do not have the power to deal with it alone. I also believe that it will take more than newspaper stories and congressional testimony by ''concerned'' officials to change the profitable structures of U.S. television.

Parents have to be part of a community to change the relationship between bad TV and good parenting. And if we cannot organize to put pressure on networks, advertisers and producers, then we have to turn to government to do what it is supposed to do.

That is, as Abraham Lincoln said, to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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