Are we selling out our children's minds?

Media violence indicates that society values profits over children

By Patricia Peterson


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At family gatherings, we knew how to keep my nieces and nephews quiet: We let them play Nintendo or we rented a video. It's not that we didn't want them around; we just didn't want to hear them. Or, more accurately, we wanted to have an uninterrupted conversation.

We didn't think about what values the children were absorbing from the movie or the video game or if there was too much violence. Now that I have a 2-year-old, I pay attention to those things. And when I heard on the news that a second-grader had brought a loaded gun to New Hope Elementary on Nov. 5 and that 5 percent of American school children carry a gun, I began to wonder why more and more children are victims or perpetrators of violent crimes.

"We, as a society, did this to ourselves," said psychologist Dr. David Walsh, executive director of clinics and systems operations for Fairview Behavioral Services in Minneapolis. "Violence grabs the headlines, but violence itself is a result of a society that promotes selfishness, greed and instant gratification."

Walsh, the author of Selling out America's Children: How America Puts Profits Before Values - And What Parent Can Do, was one of the featured guests on Bill Moyers' PBS special, "What Can We Do About Violence?" in January 1995. The father of three, Walsh is a 1976 graduate of St. Thomas' master's in counseling program and has been in pastoral studies at the university since 1977.

Media messages motivated by profit

"Parents, churches and schools try to pass on values by teaching, by example, and by talking to children," Walsh said. "These methods pale in comparison with the powerful tools of persuasion of the modern electronic age. The thunderous, anonymous voices of our society include television, radio, print media, computers and video games. ... And the messages they're sending are motivated by profit, not what's best for our children."

Children learn by imitation. We hope that they learn from their parents and teachers, but statistics show that children now spend more time in front of an electronic teacher - television and video games.

On the average, a child spends 1,680 minutes a week watching television, according to Walsh. Compare that with the 38.5 minutes a week that he or she talks one-on-one with a parent. On the average, a child spends 30 hours a week at school and 32 hours a week in front of a television or video screen.

"It would be naive to assert that America's epidemic of violence is simply the result of too much violence in the media; the roots of violence include other things like racism, poverty, and injustice," Walsh said. "However, it would be equally naive to deny those roots include society's promotion of violence for profit."

To make a profit, television advertisers need to hold our attention long enough for us to stick around for the commercials. "As a psychologist, I know that the best way to get attention is to stimulate or 'jolt' someone," Walsh said. "Some of the reliable ways to get someone's attention are to use violence, sex and humor. As the competition for attention increases, there is pressure to increase the 'jolts per show' in order to keep the viewer from switching to another channel."

The advertisers themselves are very interested in children as a market, not only for their own buying power ($50 billion this year), but also for their buying influence. Walsh explained, "You and I know 'buying influence' as the nag factor. In 1995 the buying influence of children was estimated to exceed a third of a trillion dollars." Because children have such a big economic impact, advertisers try to create programs that will keep children riveted to the screen. one of the things that does this is violence.

80.3 percent of TV programs contain violence

The Notional Institute of Mental Health, a federal government agency, found that 80.3 percent of all television programs contain acts of violence. The typical program includes 5.21 incidents. Children born today will witness 200,000 acts of violence on television by the time they are 18. The institute, along with the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association and the Surgeon General's Office, agree there is a link between violent entertainment and violent behavior.

Why are television and video games so appealing to children? The combination of images and sound seem to make them more attractive than other forms of media.

"Any parent who has tried to get the attention of a child watching a program knows how hypnotic it can be," Walsh said. "Parents I meet complain that a bomb could go off, and if their children were watching television or playing Nintendo, they would be oblivious to it."

Walsh pointed out that a study by the National Coalition on Television Violence showed that 8 percent of Nintendo games portray violence. "In Mortal Kombat, the best selling video game of all time, the object is not just to kill your opponent, but to master the skills to do it more and more viciously." An arcade video game, Mad Dog McCree, is "complete with large-screen video high-volume sound effects, and life-like weapons, (in which) children anxiously await their turn in line so they can try their skill at simulated murder."

Three thousand studies have been done since 1955 on the link between television and violence; 2,980 of them found a correlation between the two. We hear little about that, said Walsh, because we get most of our news from television, of course.

One study, conducted by Brandon Centerwall from the University of Washington, found that 10 to 15 years after television was introduced on a mass scale in the United States, Canada and South Africa, homicide rates doubled in each country, even though television wasn't introduced at the same time in each country. In one remote Canadian town, which did not have television until 1973, a study detected a 161 percent increase in biting, shoving and name calling among first- and second-graders two years after the introduction of television.

"I don't think the worst outcome of television violence, however, is the violence itself; it's that it nourishes disrespectfulness," Walsh said. "The line between name calling and pushing to shooting becomes easier to cross.

Is TV merely reflecting existing violence?

The media's often-heard counter argument is that television is merely reflecting the violence already present in our society. When we consider the numbers, however, that argument becomes preposterous. [Research] reveals that TV characters are murdered at 1,000 times the rate of American citizens."

Does Walsh practice what he preaches? "From the time that Monica and I first became parents when Dan was born 19 years ago, we made a pact that we would never let our children watch Saturday morning television. So even then, we had a sense that it was a very easy thing to let the television be a babysitter. We've had a general rule in our family (which we've made exceptions to): No television on school nights. But it's still a struggle. ... One time my son said, 'I wish you never wrote that stupid book!... The Walshes have three children: Dan, 19; Brian, 15; and Erin, 13.

Their efforts seem to have paid off. Dan, who is a freshman at University of Wisconsin-Madison, called home in November and said, "I see lots of people in the dorm just watching hours and hours of television. I'm really thankful that you never let us watch a lot of television. Now I really appreciate it."

What can we do about media violence? According to Walsh, we need to act as individuals and collectively. He offers some suggestions in Selling Out America's Children and plans to elaborate in a future book, tentatively titled Reclaiming America's Children.

You don't have to throw out TVs

The answer isn't to get rid of our televisions. "It's too much a part of the fabric of our culture. ... Prohibiting the use of television merely increases its attraction as forbidden fruit ... and banning television eliminates the legitimate and worthwhile benefits it can provide. ... Our goal should be to help our children learn how to use television appropriately," Walsh said.

His suggestions include:

Walsh's book has made him a popular speaker on the subject. He was a participant in Vice President Al Gore's roundtable discussion on media's impact on the family last summer in Nashville.

Walsh worked on a videotape shown at the National Catholic Youth Conference, and has been invited to give a presentation at the United Nations International Conference in Istanbul, Turkey, in June.

Discussion groups have sprung up around the United States in response to the community discussion questions Walsh included at the end of his book. A woman in California was inspired by the book to start her own organization called Healing the Nation From Violence.

Locally, Walsh has worked with the Minnesota Medical Association on its Stop the Violence campaign. This successful campaign made national news because the Minnesota Medical Association is the first organization to declare media violence as a public health issue. He also has been involved with Twin Cities public television, which is now in its second year of a campaign, Act Against Violence.

Walsh cannot fulfill the five to 10 requests he receives each week for speaking engagements. And his popularity means more time away from his family. "It's a balancing act," he said.

What started out as a sideline activity has now become his job. He is working on a major public health initiative with Fairview Health System. More on David Walsh: David Walsh, Ph.D., is the 1992 recipient of St. Thomas' Harriet Burns Award for professional psychology. In addition to teaching in the St. Thomas School of Divinity, he is working with the Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility, affiliated with St. Thomas, to offer ongoing education for corporate leaders. He also is the author of another book, Designer Kids: Consumerism and Competition - When Is It All Too Much?

Violence on television: A class project surprised sociology student

by Gena Swenson '99

Recently I was assigned a project by my sociology professor, Ryan Sheppard. Our class was asked to sample how much violence appeared on TV programs.

We had to watch a drama, a sitcom and a cartoon. Of course, these were not a representative sample of television violence because they did not include entire categories such as news, talk shows and athletic events. But it gave us an idea of how much violence there really is on TV.

The results were shocking. For my drama, I picked "X-Files," which had a total of 21 violent acts in one hour. The half-hour episode of the sitcom "Seinfeld" had two violent acts. The most violent program I watched was the prime-time cartoon "The Simpsons," with 26 violent acts in only one half-hour.

I put violence into two categories physical and non-physical - and then defined them. Physical violence included hitting, strangling, punching, tripping, shooting - any bodily harm done with malicious intent. Nonphysical violence included verbal assault, name calling, derogatory jokes, insults in general and verbal harassment.

Each person doing this project came up with his or her own definition of violence, and opinions differed greatly. There were no clear right or wrong answers, which makes it so difficult for sociologists when comparing data.

When I watch TV, like most people I don't pay much attention to the commercials, but for this project I kept track of the amount, of violence displayed in commercials. During a two-hour block of TV, I counted 27 acts of violence in the commercials.

What's worse is that it seemed that the violent commercials targeted children, specifically boys. There were a lot of action figure commercials for little boys, and every single one of them included fighting and killing. The video games were the worst. They showed the cartoon figures in the games electrocuting each other, stabbing, throwing knives, etc.

In one study done in the 1960s on the effect of violence on children, researchers went to a town that didn't have television yet and studied children on playgrounds. In a follow-up study three months after the town had television, researchers found that the children were more violent and less creative when at play. If they had a disagreement over the game they were playing, they would often grow frustrated and fight or just quit. They didn't compromise. When researchers went back to the same town years later, they found more job disruption and higher rates of criminality. The entire study was described in "Does TV Kill?" which aired on Bill Moyers' "Frontline" in January 1995.

Violence does not only affect children, it also affects adults. Another study of TV violence showed that right after a popular boxing match on TV, the homicide rate rose sharply.

The question is why television includes so much violence. The answer is that the powerful leaders in television industry know that violence=viewers, so they fight to keep it on.

Sociologists find it hard to really observe the effects of violent TV on children firsthand. They can't put children in an ideal laboratory setting, watching violent programs and observing the effects, because exposing them to violence may, in fact, harm them. This violates a sociologist's code of ethics: cause no harm.

Measuring video violence by the 10 commandments

Wise teacher asked her third-graders to chart their TV viewing - using the ten Commandments

by Bob Zyskowski

Third graders at Parkvalley Catholic School in Golden Valley measured televised violence last spring using the Ten Commandments as their yardstick.

Teacher Stephanie Nierenhausen had her nine-year-old charges chart what they saw on their home screens one weekend.

Armed with a child's version of the Ten Commandments, pupils made a tally when they recognized an offense such as putting other things before God, using the Lord's name in vain, disrespect for life (killing or hurting others), disrespect for parents, stealing, not telling the truth and other sins.

One pupil had 55 tallies in the space after the Fifth Commandment after watching "Ani-maniacs" and "Looney Tunes." All were instances of cartoon characters hurting one another. She was not alone.

When the class turned in their assignment sheets, they showed that thanks to television and videos - over one weekend the third graders had witnessed every commandment being broken, most several times.

Nierenhausen wasn't surprised. Now in her seventh year of teaching, she said she's seen video violence replicated by students in her classroom in this upper middle-class Minneapolis suburb.

"I'd suspect that some of the things the kids were doing and some comments they were making were picked up from TV," she said, "but I didn't want to make judgments without watching programs myself."

When she did, her suspicions were confirmed: "I'd seen kids acting out the same exact actions and saying the same words I thought were inappropriate that were on 'Beavis and Butthead.'

"They would do kicking and karate chopping that they'd seen on TV, and they weren't just showing they could do it. They were trying to hurt other students."

She said that her third-graders called each other "jerk" and "sucker" and used other language that she considered borderline cursing, language she heard when she saw programs children watch.

Nierenhausen decided to battle back. While working on a master's degree in education at the University of St. Thomas, she researched the effect TV viewing has on children.

She worked a number of antiviolence lessons into the third-grade course work, stressing how important it is for pupils to judge how people on television are treating one another, a value she said is taken straight from the Gospel.

"One thing I wanted to get across to them was that put-downs are also a form of violence," Nierenhausen said. "I think the children really understood that concept. This group is pretty sensitive, especially the girls; they treat each other well."

Throughout the year she worked at helping pupils see that they have choices for what they watch.

She repeatedly stressed that pupils have lots of choices for free time - besides television or videos.

As the class reported and discussed the results of the Ten Commandments assignment, one pupil said she only kept watching a particular show "because there was nothing else on." Nierenhausen jumped at the teachable moment.

"It's so nice out, why aren't you playing outside?" she asked. "Could you make other choices? You are such a good reader!"

And she enlisted parental help. During parent-teacher conferences last year, Nierenhausen mentioned to a handful of parents that she had observed their children mimicking behavior she recognized as being from certain TV shows.

Although some parents saw the behavior as innocent, most took to heart the suggestion that they might take a closer look at the kinds of things their children were viewing. "Some parents said, 'Oh, I never realized it came from TV.' I made them think," Nierenhausen said.

She made the point that it is okay for television programs to show people doing wrong if the program also shows that those wrong actions have a consequence or that the character learns a moral lesson.

Throughout the discussion students questioned if one thing or another should be considered violent, providing evidence for a claim Nierenhausen made earlier that children as young as third-graders have difficulty differentiating between reality and what they see on a video screen, and that - in order for their own values to be properly formed they need adults to express their opinions about moral issues "so children know where you stand."

"Everything they watch goes right into their heads," Nierenhausen added. "I had a student who was trying to get his own way, and when I pointed out how he was being a bully the student said to me, 'Well, that's how Bart Simpson does it.'"

About the author: Bob Zyskowski is editor of The Catholic Spirit, from which this story is reprinted with permission.

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