HARVARD DIARY
Children and Media Violence

April 1988By Robert Coles



For many years I’ve tried to figure out what, if anything, happens to children when they watch television shows that are full of assaults, shootings, killing; or when they see movies of a similar nature; or when they watch rock videos or go to rock con­certs that offer violent themes, not to mention vio­lent language. I keep reading the social-science journals on the subject, the pediatric ones, those put out for child psychiatrists. I go to meetings where the subject is discussed. Yet, I still find the entire question of the effect of media violence on the young a hard one to deal with — especially when I’m asked to come up with reasonably clear-cut conclusions.

For one thing, and this is very important, chil­dren vary enormously. Some lucky children are be­ing brought up, even today, in homes where televi­sion is only a controlled presence in the entire fam­ily’s life. Those same children aren’t permitted, either, to go running to any old film that happens to be playing at the nearby movie house, nor do video cassettes pile up in their living rooms. The parents of such children may be religious, and de­termined for that reason to consider carefully what their children see, or they may be quite secular in many respects, yet offended by various television shows or movies, and anxious to keep them out of their children’s sight for a mix of moral and psychological reasons.

Some parents often find it hard to decide what legal steps, if any, ought to be taken to deal with television shows or films which they clearly regard as undesirable for their children, if not po­tentially hurtful to them. As I go from home to home, talking with boys and girls, I find the dilem­ma of such parents interesting to hear, and often eloquently put. A mother, a father, ruminating about what a son or daughter ought or ought not be watching and why, can manage to touch upon many of the ethical or constitutional conflicts the nation as a whole is struggling to comprehend, to resolve. When the speaker is a lawyer, much inter­ested in the rights of the individual, but also the father of three children under 12, the discussion can get quite intense as well as edifying: “We try to keep my kids away from most of television, but we don’t want to turn a prohibition into a source of temptation. Our son’s friends watch those Saturday morning cartoons, one after the other. They are such junk — and full of craziness and violence, if you ask me. Even the ads — a brainwashing for the kids: buy sugar of all kinds, and eat it all day long! But we decided not to turn those programs into ‘a federal case’; we told our son he can watch ‘one or two.’ I watch them with him, because I’m home then. He knows how I feel. Sometimes he’ll watch two in a row; usually, he’ll watch one, and then I can tell he’s ready to quit. He’ll give me a quick look, and I’ll suggest we go downtown to do errands. He’s quick to say yes!

“My nephew is 15, and he’s seen lots of rock videos. We can get a lot of stuff on cable. My brother [a businessman] asks me what to do. I say: ‘Tell him [the nephew] what your limits are, and why you’re setting them.’ But then I look at my son [who is 10] and ask what I’ll be saying in a few years. Even now, he’ll look at that cable stuff sometimes. Should we get rid of cable? Should we get rid of our VCR? Should we in the future tell our kids not to buy certain [rock music] tapes? I’m not in favor of ‘censorship’; I’m not wanting to ban magazines and tapes and movies and videos, or to set up ‘watch-dog committees.’ We can take care of ourselves — in this family. There may be flak; it may be tough, at times — but we can manage. But I’ll be in town and see kids — they’re 13, 15, 16, maybe — flipping through those magazines [he mentioned Penthouse in another conversation] and playing those tapes, right out there on the streets, wearing the earphones, and I begin to waver. I get thoughts I’d never want to defend in a constitu­tional law class. I see albums like The Dead Kenne­dys or WASP, and I say to my brother: ‘draw the line.’ In our town there’s an agreement: the drug­stores don’t sell Playboy, never mind other stuff. But kids go to Boston. They get what they want. They get people to buy booze and drugs for them; they get the magazines they want, and the videos and tapes. They flip on the TV, and even in the sit­coms, people are blowing other people up, the machine guns rat-tat-tatting away. And the flicks — Rambo; they must be making Rambo Ten by now. It’s all crazy, and if you’re a parent you wonder what it all means — what it’ll do to your kids. That’s the big question. What?”


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