It's a Job for Parents, Not the Government: Politicians Say Violent Television Creates Violent Kids. I Say Regulation Can't Take the Place of Mom or Dad

By Romano, John | Newsweek, August 9, 1999 | Go to article overview

It's a Job for Parents, Not the Government: Politicians Say Violent Television Creates Violent Kids. I Say Regulation Can't Take the Place of Mom or Dad


Romano, John, Newsweek


On an August day in 1993 a few hundred TV makers like myself, from writer-producers to network chiefs, gathered in the grand ballroom of a Beverly Hills, Calif., hotel for the less-than-grand experience of being pelted with statistics. Led by the then Sen. Paul Simon, experts presented the yield of a dozen years of university studies, showing or seeming to show that watching violence on TV made kids violent. From Saturday-morning cartoons to prime-time dramas and the news, the number of violent incidents per week approached four digits. American kids reached high school having "witnessed" some 8,000 murders.

Naturally, we TV folk squirmed. We'd ask, "Can our programs actually make a nonviolent kid violent? Will you settle for 'reinforce'?" They'd answer, "But why would you even want to reinforce violence in children?" Nice point. Or we'd say, "Where are the parents? Didn't they ever hear of flipping?" They'd shoot back, "What about latchkey kids, whose single parents have no choice but to use the TV as babysitter?"

But even on that day there were counterexperts pointing out that the studies were at best controversial and at worst unscientific because they showed correlation instead of cause. Remember your philosophy professor with his old saw about how the rise of alcoholism between 1885 and 1900 correlated with the rise in the number of Baptist ministers? He'd let you founder for a while, then let you off the hook with the explanation: population rose between 1885 and 1900. But when the making of public policy is at stake, correlation masquerading as cause is not merely foolish; it's dangerous. Suppose a correlation could be shown, for instance, between certain ethnic groups and violent or criminal behavior: should ethnicity be cited as cause, and targeted by Congress--or should deeper causes be looked for?

And as for the latchkey kid, some of the skeptics asked, aren't there other circumstances in their lives that we should be worried about? Circumstances of neglect or poverty that might bring violence into their lives in ways other than TV? But, on that August day, any questioning or criticism of the statistics went unanswered. The issue was our children's safety, and so even clear thinking seemed impious. By the time we collected our cars from valet parking, it was with a sense that we'd bought them with tainted money. Impressed by sessions such as this one, we in the industry imposed a ratings system on ourselves in 1996, and the V-chip entered American life. …

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