Turn off the tube tomorrow

November 13, 1996|By J. Joseph Curran Jr.

ASK YOURSELF -- would you ever invite someone into your home to teach your children that violence is a good way to solve problems, that it will likely be rewarded and that it causes no pain?

Of course not. Yet we effectively do this every day. Our children watch an average of 28 hours of television each week. By high school graduation, most teen-agers have spent more time in front of television than in school.

And what are they watching? Kids leaving elementary school have seen 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other acts of televised violence. Five or more violent acts occur each hour on prime time, and 20 to 25 on children's programming. Child-oriented videos, music and computer games have similar levels of violence.

Moreover, 73 percent of televised violence is rewarded or unpunished; 58 percent shows no pain to victims, and violence is often equated with power and glamour.

So here is the terrible paradox: While we are wringing our hands over how to stop youth violence, we are entertaining children with it every day. With media as their powerful teacher, children learn over and over again that violence is OK: It works, it doesn't hurt that much. And some children are learning this all too well.

To be clear, not all children become what they watch. I do not suggest a simple-minded correspondence between a cartoon fight and a bloody playground assault.

What I do mean, and what 30 years of research supports, is that immersing children in a world of media violence degrades their understanding of what violence is really all about. They become desensitized -- violence no longer shocks or horrifies. They develop exaggerated fear and less sympathy to suffering. And some, with the wrong combination of other problems in their lives, will be moved to real-life violence.

Youth violence is among the most difficult problems we face. The reasons are many -- poverty, family violence, poor academic achievement, truancy, teen pregnancy, substance abuse. We must address these problems, and any meaningful progress will require a wholesome commitment of political will and resources to widespread prevention and early intervention.

Entertaining evil

But why, while engaged in this struggle, do we make things worse by saturating children with violent images day in and day out? As we work toward solutions to the violence that plagues our communities, it makes no sense to continue to entertain our children with the very evil we are trying to conquer.

It is time that we stop. Unlike many causes of crime and violence which often seem beyond reach, we can exert better control over children's exposure to media violence.

So let us begin on November 14 -- national Tune Out the Violence day. Attorneys general across the country, together with the American Medical Association, have declared this day a wake-up call to parents, teachers, doctors, local media, corporate advertisers, public officials and everyone else concerned about the rearing of our next generation.

Its purpose is to bring into national focus the harm media violence visits upon children, and how we must all work harder to protect them from it.

I call upon us all to meet this challenge -- tomorrow and thereafter. Parents are the key. They must screen violence from what their children see and make sure kids learn their values about violence, not those on the screen. To help parents, all Maryland elementary school children will receive a Media Violence Inventory this month. I encourage parents to use it -- spend one week watching what your children watch, rate the programs for violence and eliminate those you believe are inappropriate. Then contact your local media to let them know what you like and don't like. Public pressure can make a difference.

Yet parents cannot do this alone. We must all use whatever tools at our disposal -- as educators, doctors, corporate advertisers, public officials -- to raise public awareness, to create incentives for less-violent programming, and to promote media as an educational tool. The media themselves should set more ambitious goals for quality children's programming.

So let Tune Out the Violence day mark the beginning of a commitment by youth, parents and communities across Maryland and the country to help combat youth violence by tuning it out and turning it off.

J. Joseph Curran Jr. is attorney general of Maryland.

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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