Sex, Violence, And Passing The Buck

032802, story, television violence and children, JM
Joseph Lieberman, the senator and presidential candidate, and John McCain, the senator and non-presidential candidate, are currently among the loudest protectors of children when it comes to sex and violence on television. Others will join them as the campaign drags on, because, except for flag burners, there is probably no easier target than the evil minds of Hollywood.

I'm not always happy with the way sex and violence are treated on television, either, but governmental interference with media content is only a hop, skip, and a goose-step away from telling women what they may wear in public, or deciding what books people may have in their homes, or — heaven forbid — telling you which columnists you may read.

My parents used an interesting system when my brother and I were kids: if they didn't want us to watch something on TV or go to a certain movie, they told us not to. My wife and I have used the same approach, and it has worked out pretty well. I'm not so naive as to think that children always do what their parents tell them to, but why should the government get any more involved in enforcing parents' wishes when it comes to TV viewing than it does when parents want their kids to have good table manners, do their homework, or only hang out with friends that we like?

According to the research, it's not a good idea for children to watch a lot of violence on television. (I wonder how many millions of dollars this startling conclusion cost.) But the research also states that the most important factor in determining whether children will imitate the violence they see on the screen is how involved their parents are. Do they use television as a babysitter? Do they watch these programs with their kids? Do they discuss the shows' implications with them?

Also, it's not violence per se that experts consider dangerous for children. It's showing violence without showing its consequences. That's where the irresponsibility comes in.

It is indisputable that some people imitate some things that they see on the screen sometimes. But it's not the only factor in determining whether a child becomes a violent person. If we were all that impressionable, why would violent shows be the only kind that we emulate? In the early days of television, Milton Berle was a huge star. Yet I don't know of one study that shows that in the Fifties, there was a huge increase of men dressing up like unattractive women to try to make other people laugh.

You'd think the current popularity of "reality shows" would mean that we'd all be eating bowls of tarantulas or pretending to be millionaires or getting into the boxing ring to fight celebrities we've never heard of.

With the popularity of sitcoms, why haven't there been outbreaks of people telling jokes all across the country? Why aren't more of us getting fantastic apartments with our friends, and then following them around all day and commenting wryly on their foibles? Why don't we all have goofy next-door neighbors who open our unlocked doors and walk into our homes at the most inopportune times? According to the viewer-see, viewer-do logic, shouldn't you be running into your all-time favorite movie star on the same day when, ironically, you have a huge pimple on your nose? If we can't help imitating TV, why don't we all learn a big moral lesson every half hour?

The issue of violence in our society is more complex than politicians make it out to be, and attacking television is not the answer. If Lieberman, McCain, and the others really feel strongly that children should not be exposed to immorality, dishonesty, sex without love, and violence without thinking about the consequences, I have one suggestion. Maybe they should just urge parents to not let their kids watch politicians.

By Lloyd Garver