WATCHFUL RULES FOR TELEVISION; How Parents Can Control What Children View

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), April 13, 2003 | Go to article overview

WATCHFUL RULES FOR TELEVISION; How Parents Can Control What Children View


Byline: Karen Goldberg Goff, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The average child in this country watches three hours of television per day, the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates. That's three hours - or more, in many homes - of car chases, Pop-Tart commercials, cartoon violence, real violence, potty jokes and ads for stuff you've just got to get. But it doesn't have to be. Parents can find ways to wade through the 100-channel network and cable pool and find smart shows. They might even find a few the whole family could enjoy together, says David Walsh, founder and president of the nonprofit National Institute on Media and the Family.

"It depends a lot on what age a child is, but a good kid's television show should engage and interest them," Mr. Walsh says. "It should provide them with mind food, not mental junk food."

That is a fairly easy task for a preschooler, whose universe is still largely controlled by his parents and is full of choices such as "Sesame Street" and "Clifford." As children get older, however, finding shows that are entertaining and appropriate without being patronizing is more of a challenge, says Ranny Levy, president of the Coalition for Quality Children's Media, an advocacy group.

"As a culture, we have not been very responsible in developing programming for older children," she says. "After children get to the 8 to 12 age group, there a few shows, such as Scooby-Doo or things on the Disney Channel, but then after about age 12, holy cow, it's MTV."

Mr. Walsh calls this the "adultification of youth," and it can be seen from clothing stores to cable.

"It is not easy to engage preteens and at the same time provide something beneficial," he says. "There are not a lot of commercial organizations willing to invest the resources."

How did we get here?

Once upon a time, Father knew best, Beaver learned his lesson and Gilligan was a harmless buffoon who was never going to get off that silly island.

While there never was a legitimate "family hour" - a court ruled nearly 30 years ago that networks could not mandate what could be on television at any given time - most of what aired seems quaint now, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

TV shows needed to appeal to a wide range of people, Mr. Thompson says, because families typically had one set and no choice but to watch together.

These days, the average family owns 2.75 TV sets, and more than half of American children have a television in their bedrooms, according to data from the National Institute on Media and the Family.

"In the 1960s, the standards and practices of television was that producers did not want to offend anyone," Mr. Thompson says. "So a family could sit down together and feel pretty sure whatever was on was OK. The disadvantage was that nothing was more sophisticated than something an 8-year-old would watch.

"We've come a long way, though, and I wouldn't want to go back," he says. "However, for a family to sit down with a 7-year-old today and watch prime-time network TV, I don't think there is anything on that's entirely appropriate. Even sitcoms, like 'Everyone Loves Raymond,' which are supposed to be so good, are full of innuendo and mean behavior."

Some surprises are out there, however. Family friendly TV can be found if you look hard enough. Some recommendations:

*Not all reality is bad. The hit talent show "American Idol" on the Fox network is an example of harmless reality entertainment, says Melissa Caldwell, director of research for the Parents Television Council, a nonprofit group that rates shows so parents can keep tabs on levels of sex, taste and violence.

"The reality is that 'American Idol,' is interesting and does not have the sex or violence like on so many other prime-time shows," Miss Caldwell says. "It is a talent competition, pure and simple. …

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