EVERY DAY MILLIONS OF PARENTS SEND their children alone and unarmed to the most violent place in America - the television screen.
Prime-time television serves up five to six acts of violence per hour, according to an American Psychological Association study. And for Saturday morning children's programming, that rate quadruples. By the time he or she reaches 18, the average child has witnessed about 13,000 television killings, another study found. TV characters are a thousand times more likely to be murdered than real-life people, contributing to what media experts sometimes call the "mean world syndrome" of life appearing in the media to be even more dangerous than it really is.
TV violence today differs not only in quantity but in context from when baby-boomer parents were themselves children. Violence is no longer the province of evil characters or the last resort of reluctant-to-shoot heroes. The Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers, although given to fisti-cuffs, displayed an uncanny ability to shoot the gun out of the villain's hand instead of shooting the kill By contrast, social scientists S. Robert Lichter Linda Lichter, and Stanley Rothman counted 278 instances of sympathetic characters committing violence in the 1992-93 television season, versus 212 villains acting violently.
Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers," but you won't find many of them on TV. Television generally portrays violence as an acceptable way to solve problems - instant gratification without a hint of the consequences (such as grieving children or spouses). Movies, video games, comic books, and toys carry the same drumbeat of approval for violence. And in the music videos that are the staple of teen-favorite MTV, violence is combined with sex to send the message that sexual aggression against women is okay.
Children between the ages of 2 and 11 watch TV an average of 23 hours a week, and teenagers an average of 28 hours. Given this exposure and their formative age, these kids must be especially susceptible to the effects of TV violence. In a ten-year study for the U.S. Surgeon General's office, Dr. David Pearl of the National Institute of Mental Health found four such effects: 1) direct imitation of observed violence, 2) "triggering" of violence that otherwise might be inhibited, 3) desensitization to the occurrence of violence, and 4) viewer fearfulness.
Parents as well as politicians are attracted to the promise of a high-tech quick fix called the "v-chip" (for violence), a device that would automatically block out violent programming. President Clinton, who is both a parent and a politician, signed a law last February that included a provision to require television manufacturers to include the chip - not yet commercially available - in their products. "This is not censorship; this is parental responsibility," he said at a family-values conference in Nashville last July.
Although using the v-chip would perhaps salve the conscience of parents who rely on TV as an electronic baby-sitter, it would really be an abdication of parental responsibility. Cartoonist Jim Borgmann showed this when he depicted two fourth-graders sitting in front of a television, one saying: "Looks like the v-chip is blocking this show ... Let's go catch a smoke." Pointedly, the kids are alone. Their parents may feel safe being absent because the v-chip is present. The whole job of the device is to take over the parents' role in protecting children from harmful TV violence.
And who would define what is violent and should be blocked out by the v-chip? Not the parents who are striving to pass on values to their children, but the television industry with its own values. And the industry would likely have to employ a mechanistic approach that could, for example, block out a program on the life of Jesus (it ended violently!) but permit verbal violence from a heroic character. …