In a world of violence

March 28, 2003

MANY OF US have grown up on violence: point-and-shoot video games, "professional" wrestling, music lyrics that describe thug life, television programs and movies that leave no act of carnage to the imagination.

Fictional violence. The images pale beside the realities of America at war, now dominating TV programming. War is real. The rest of that stuff on the tube is entertainment, and with a click of the remote, we can make it go away. And if there are children watching, especially at this time of pervasive images of bombs and masked soldiers, perhaps that's just what we should do.

It's an urgent challenge: Research shows that kids who are saturated in TV violence grow up to behave aggressively as adults.

The most recent study, conducted at the University of Michigan, concluded that boys and girls -- regardless of family income, education and nurturing -- who as children identified with the heroes of programs such as Starsky and Hutch and The Six Million Dollar Man, are likely to be aggressive adults. The researchers followed their subjects over many years, surveying them about their attitudes and examining their driving and court records and their relationships with spouses and children.

Starsky and Hutch? In the late 1970s, it was cutting-edge action programming. Compared with the TV fare of 2003, it seems laughably tame. Still, the researchers draw an apt analogy to smoking: One cigarette won't kill but a pack a day surely increases the likelihood of lung cancer. Such is the case, they argue, with repeated exposure to violent television programs.

Today's TV characters migrate easily among movies, video games, card games and comic books. It's harder than ever now to know what's appropriate for children, when a Saturday morning cartoon character may also appear in an adult-oriented movie, comic book or video game.

Movies, of course, have been rated for decades, and many other media employ voluntary rating systems, each based on independent standards. The result is confusion. Meanwhile, the broadcast industries have steadfastly resisted such high-tech solutions as "V-chips" and channel-blocking software that prevent objectionable content from reaching the screen.

We'll never live in a G-rated world, so it's time for media producers to work with parent groups to create a voluntary and uniform rating system that is descriptive, so that parents will know at a glance if a TV program, movie, video game, card game, music or comic book portrays excessive violence -- or sex, nudity or offensive language, for that matter.

The University of Michigan study confirms that a society saturated in violence bequeaths more of the same to its children through popular culture and entertainment. It's a reminder that the remote control can be a tool for a more civil society -- provided parents have the will to use it and the resources to make informed choices.

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