Doing homework on TV violence Schools: Parents asked to keep tabs on children's viewing so both may learn.

December 03, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

If you are a Maryland parent, your child may soon come home from school with a "Media Violence Inventory: A Parent's Diary." In it is this pressing message from Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.:

"Unlike many other factors placing kids at risk of crime, we can exert better control over our children's exposure to media violence. So I encourage you to fill out this Media Violence Inventory to understand better what your children are watching and how it may affect them."

Starting this month and continuing for the next several months, the inventory will be distributed to 500,000 students in schools across the state as part of a public health initiative to reduce media violence.

It's a fine idea. But if you're a typical parent, you already have a school fund-raiser to organize, trip permission slips to fill out, homework to examine, soccer games to attend and library books to return. Now, you're supposed to sit down and watch television, too?

It would be nice if all parents monitored their children's television time, as the attorney general advises. It would be nice if all parents didn't have to work and could stay home with their kids. It would be nice if we all won the lottery.

More to the point, does keeping a diary of children's weekly TV consumption sound like another good idea that only makes overworked, weary parents feel guilty because they don't have the time or stomach to do it?

There are certainly simpler, if more dramatic, methods to try. For instance, instead of keeping tabs on what is pumped into our kids' brains, why not just "kill the television," to paraphrase a bumper sticker popular among parents of alternative school students.

But if you don't toss the TV out, does it make sense to dignify it by giving it your concerted attention?

"I grew up watching a lot of junky TV. I have not killed or maimed," says Helen London, executive director of the Central Scholarship Bureau and the mother of three children. Similarly, "My kids grew up with values and they know how to separate reality from fantasy. Obviously some kids can't."

Those kids, London says, are not receiving instruction on values from any other source. Additionally, if they glean their values from television, "then violence is just a piece of it," London says.

Besides violence, television boasts many other unsavory aspects, including gender bias, overt sex and commercials pandering to gullible kids. "They're getting a whole lot of stuff. TV viewing in general is negative," London says. "We need better parenting than turning off the TV for a week or two."

By all accounts, the children present for the "Tune Out the Violence" kickoff last month at Pointer's Run Elementary School in an upscale Howard County community were not children at risk for confusing televised violence with the real thing. Curran admitted as much in his address: "You have a wonderful school and parents who care about what you do," he said.

They were parents such as Michelle Davis, a mother of three and vigilant keeper of the remote.

"Television imitates life," Davis said after the press conference. "And when a young child watches television, they're imitating what they see on television," she said.

Statistics have proven that life can imitate television, says Dr. Susan Villani, director of child and adolescent services at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Health System, and a frequent guest speaker on rearing children in a violent society. Even children from stable, caring homes are susceptible to being hurt by the numbing presence of imaginary violence and need their parents' protection from television, she says.

Overtaxed parents who may have no use for the inventory still have to admit that Villani has a point, as these chilling statistics attest:

By the end of elementary school, a typical child has seen 8,000 murders and more than100,000 other acts of televised violence. By high school graduation, teens have spent more time watching TV than going to school.

Villani, a mother of two, lists eight national organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the surgeon general's office, that have concluded violent entertainment causes violent behavior.

But aren't the children who really need guidance the ones who won't receive it? Children from broken homes or homes where substance abuse is common, or where parents are too busy or too often absent to pay attention to their kids' TV-watching habits?

Parents who take the time to fill out the inventory are probably not the effort's target audience, Villani says. Admittedly, there is a certain amount of "preaching to the choir" going on, she says.

But like educating the public about lead paint, the value of car seats and every other public health initiative, the violence inventory may be revealing to a handful of parents, she says.

"Parents who have not been educated, who did not think it mattered," she says. "I want them to know about this in the same way they know about lead paint."

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