Parents who want to keep their children from becoming immune to violence must take an active role in monitoring their television viewing habits, according to a leader in children's television.
Hedda Sharapan, associate producer of the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood television program on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), was a featured speaker at the National Children/ Preschool Seminar in October, sponsored by the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board.
Sharapan quoted recent studies which found only 15 percent of parents guide their three- to eight-year-olds in watching television, and children are watching from three to five hours a day. One California study, she said, found that 43 percent of kindergartners through twelve-year-olds have TVs in their bedrooms.
"This is not a window to the world; it is a story-telling machine," Sharapan said. "And it happens to be telling the same story over and over. And it is no surprise to me that the stories they are telling are really grabbing children."
In addition to monitoring programs their kids watch on TV, Sharapan urges parents to watch the shows with them and discuss the content and how it relates to their values and beliefs.
"Children tend to imitate what they've seen. ... They take what they see and apply it to their everyday lives," she said.
Sharapan shared a letter from a woman whose grandchild had become aggressive and unruly in school after watching a heavy dose of Power Rangers on television. When the child's parents stopped letting him watch the program, his behavior at school improved.
Programs with violence and "good guys vs. bad guys scenarios" are attractive to children, she said, "because they know they don't have much power themselves. They feel small. And they know that there's a scary world out there. It also feeds right into their own inner dramas, their struggle with, 'Will I be able to keep my own bad guy down?'"
Sharapan referred to another research study which found people who watch five or more hours of television a day "tend to be more fearful of the world around them. They underestimate the number of police and they overestimate the number of crimes taking place."
Quoting another disturbing statistic, she said in 73 percent of violent acts on television, the perpetrators go unpunished. "And not only is there no punishment, there is usually no consequence (for their action)."
Sharapan gave several suggestions to children and preschool workers attending the meeting for encouraging healthy interaction with television:
Use your eyes.
"Watch some of the television that the kids are watching so you can know what they're talking about. Sometimes you can 'redirect the play' by discussing a program with children."
For example, Sharapan said one clever teacher used her children's fascination with "Michelangelo," one of the Ninja Turtles characters, to interest them in the painting of the Renaissance artist by the same name. She even taped paper to the bottom of tables and had students lie on their backs and paint as if they were painting the Sistine Chapel.
Use your mouth.
"My daughters used to laugh and tell me that I was no fun to watch television with because I was always making comments under my breath like, 'I can't believe she is so rude to her mother.'
"But watch the sitcoms with a pencil and paper in hand and jot down the number of jokes that are put-downs. You'll be amazed. Your kids need to hear from you when things don't relate to your values."
Use your hand.
Write letters to the network or sponsors, Sharapan suggested. "A form letter tends to get discarded, but a letter with a story in it gets passed around."
She also encouraged parents and teachers to consider getting involved with their local cable channels and producing children' programming of their own.
Use your finger (to turn it off).
"I work in television, but even Mister Rogers says that sometimes the best thing is to just turn off the television. Children need to be playing. They need to be doing. That's how they experience and learn about their world.
"I'm going to put in a big plug for turning the TV off and reading your child a book before bedtime. That's one of the best things you can do."
Out of Touch
Hollywood's television industry has radically strayed from mainstream America according to a national poll.
The Los Angeles Times, in its national public-opinion poll on entertainment television, found the following:
• Sixty-five percent of those polled believe the quality of programming has declined in the last ten years, while only 17 percent believe it has improved.
• Seventy percent agree that they have "very different values" from the TV industry.
• Seventy-one percent agreed that "the way TV shows depict nudity and sex tends to encourage ... immorality," while only 4 percent disagreed.
• Fifty percent believe television portrays families negatively, 33 percent do not.
• Fifty-five percent feel TV portrays gays and lesbians positively, while 24 percent see no pro-gay bias.