Watch out for studies about TV harming kids

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Children whine about monsters under their beds, but their parents have more
adult fears: They cower under the covers whimpering about those scary television
sets in their living rooms.

Why wouldn’t parents worry? Studies suggesting television harms our children
are churned out by the truckload.

In its most recent issue, for example, the Archives of Pediatrics and
Adolescent Medicine
opened up 43 pages of prime academic real estate to
explore a “Media and Children” theme. The package includes eight articles by 25
authors who cite hundreds of other scholars and studies in 302 footnotes.

Humans have been grappling for centuries with media demons. The first words
uttered were no doubt fearsome to somebody. Then came writing — and worse.

The April issue of Wired Magazine provides a sampling of pronouncement
about new forms of expression when they came along.

“Romances, novels, and plays … poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of
many a promising youth,” the Rev. Enos Hitchcock intoned in 1790.

The Times of London tagged the waltz as an “obscene display” in

Movies had “gone far to blast maidenhood,” proclaimed the New York Society
for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1909.

The telephone would surely “break up home life,” the Knights of Columbus
worried in 1926.

“All child drug addicts … were inveterate comic-book readers,” said Fredric
Wertham in 1954.

And rock ‘n’ roll turns young people into devil-worshippers, sex fiends and
mental wrecks, assured Minister Albert Carter in 1956.

We somehow survived those threats. But we quickly found new ones.

Adults too embarrassed to publicly confess their own fears or offense over
new forms of communication generally sound the alarm in the name of children.
Their innocence and vulnerability are just waiting to be corrupted by the new
and the stimulating, adults warn, despite hard, ample evidence to the

No doubt, their prehistoric ancestors sat staring into the campfire grumbling
that no good would come of those cave drawings.

Now we are just beginning to
explore our darkest fears of the Internet and video games. As for fear of
television, we’ve got that down to a science.

The articles in the Archives of Pediatrics reveal just how nuanced and
specious those fears can be. The articles suggest a link (they carefully avoid
suggesting a causal connection) between watching television and bad effects on
children. According to these studies, children may become more aggressive in
behavior and thought and experience angry feelings and arousal. They may face
the “risk of sexual initiation” and social isolation. They may ask more often
for products they see advertised. They may overeat, gain weight and suffer in
health and physical activities.

Certainly, such studies often offer helpful data to medical and psychological
experts trying to advise parents. The authors usually keep their findings narrow
and their conclusions careful, with lots of caveats and hedge words. But those
qualifiers often get lost or oversimplified in news coverage. Then advocates
with an agenda simplify and distort further. By the time elected officials have
given in to the temptation to exploit such an emotional issue, parents are in a

Too often, these studies are being used to play footsy with the facts. Among

  • There is no sure way to predict how media, violent or otherwise, will affect
    a particular individual.

  • While some links between TV viewing and defined effects are suggested, it is
    a rare study that asserts a cause-and-effect relationship.

  • Hours of TV watched daily by children have increased dramatically over the
    past three decades, yet the rate of youthful violence declined dramatically
    during that same period.

Another uncomfortable fact is a clear link between this cycle of panic and
bad public policy.

When legislators and regulators punish and restrict certain programming,
choices for viewers, creators and broadcasters dwindle. Attention and resources
are diverted from real problems affecting children’s well-being. And the role
parents should play — and that polls say the overwhelming majority want to play
— in guiding children’s choices is usurped or compromised.

In a review of the scientific research in this area in 2000, the Federal
Communications Commission found most researchers concur that “exposure to media
violence alone does not cause a child to commit a violent act” and that it “is
not the sole, or even the most important, factor in contributing to youth
aggression, anti-social attitudes, and violence.”

That’s why claims of harm from media violence find little traction in court,
where evidence must show that one thing follows another.

Then there’s the matter of the First Amendment, which protects portrayals of
violence — because it is not violence it protects, but speech. And it is not
someone else’s speech, but our own.

Paul K. McMasters is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment
Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

Tags: , ,