- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2001

On any given morning in the Sauls home in Gainesville, Va., 4-year-old David awakens early, about 7. He pads downstairs, where one of his parents prepares his breakfast, perhaps waffles and bacon his favorite.

As David munches, he gazes at one of the 21st century's best-loved electronic devices the television.

"He wants to watch it while he eats his breakfast," says David's mother, Jennifer Sauls, a senior systems developer at an Arlington information-technology company. "Sometimes that is how we get him to eat by threatening to turn off the TV if he doesn't."

Whether a reward or a staple, television is a fact of life for most American children. The medium's capacity to inform and entertain is indisputable, but educators, pediatricians and social scientists warn about the myriad of inherent social detractions.

Topping the list, some say, is the fallout from exposure to commercialism, violence, sex, and rude and coarse behavior. Analysts say parents must create a sensible, balanced and age-appropriate viewing forum for their children, whether they are toddlers or teen-agers.

It's TV time

One thing is for certain: Americans love the tube.

"There's really an incredible amount of time spent in front of the TV," says Dr. Daniel Levy, an Owings Mills, Md., pediatrician and national spokesman for the American Aca-demy of Pediatrics.

"The average child watches 3.5 hours of TV a day," he says. In the typical home, the television blares for seven hours a day.

About 65 percent of children age 8 and older have a TV set in their bedroom, as do 32 percent of children in the 2 to 7 age range, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation's study "Kids & Media The New Millennium." The foundation surveyed 3,155 children nationally who were between ages 2 and 18 and completed its study in 1999.

Two-thirds of the children surveyed for the Kaiser study reported that the television usually is on during mealtimes, and nearly that many said their parents have no set rules about TV watching.

The Saulses treat the television as do many of their friends and neighbors across America.

"The TV seems like it is always on," Ms. Sauls says. "Usually, it's just background noise; it's not really being watched."

She continues: "I've heard you should limit it, but I feel that since David isn't just sitting there watching it he is usually doing something else then I'm not so concerned. I would guess he is watching it no more than two to three hours, and they break it up during the day."

Ms. Sauls says she and her husband, Scott, who is the stay-at-home caregiver for David and his 8-month-old sister, try to limit their son's TV consumption to "nice cartoons and stories that kind of have little lessons in them, where everyone is nice to each other. I feel David is still a person being formed, and I don't want bad influences on him. I tell him to be nice to people, not to call them stupid then if he hears it on TV I have to explain it to him."

Right from wrong

Amy Aidman, senior research fellow at the Center for Media Education (CME) in Washington and a parent of two children ages 9 and 16, says parents are responsible for shaping their children's taste and through this, their behavior.

"As with other things, when we tell our children I don't want you to watch that program, we're teaching them about our taste and helping them to develop theirs," she says. "For example, I, as a parent, might not mind sarcasm, but I don't like rudeness. But if you sit there and let your children watch that, you are essentially saying that's OK."

Even the relative safety of the "family hour" has been invaded, according to a recent report by the Parents Television Council. The watchdog group reports that the amount or intensity of vulgarity and violence aired during the hour between 8 and 9 p.m. skyrocketed during the past year. Although the amount of sexual material aired during the family hour has decreased, the content actually is more explicit.

Ms. Aidman says she is seeing an increase in "real rudeness and fast pace and insults" in cartoons.

But cartoons are supposed to be for children, aren't they?

Not exactly, says Tim Hall, executive vice president for Cartoon Network, based in Atlanta and the purveyor of hits such as "The Powerpuff Girls" and "Scooby-Doo."

"Cartoons are not just for kids," he says. "They are loved and watched by millions of people." He says 30 percent of Cartoon Network's U.S. audience of 73.9 million is adult.

"The best cartoons have always appealed to parents and kids alike," Mr. Hall says. "That is the gold standard we've all been operating under."

But Dea Perez, vice president for programming at Cartoon Network, explains parents must decide "on a show-by-show basis" and with the help of the network's own rating scale, which cartoons are appropriate for their children.

"We try to make sure that the humor is mainly for most kids," she says. But with the retro-popular "Scooby-Doo," for example, "you have to make the judgment as to whether your child might get scared." And the hugely successful superhero show "The Powerpuff Girls," she says, has a "high level of action," and "some kids and some parents may not feel comfortable with the level of action in it."

Feeding the brain

Appeal aside, educational psychologist Jane M. Healy is alarmed about television's influence on the intellectual lives of the young. Television, she says, "can be partially responsible for the difficulty we're having in bringing our children up to standards in academics."

A former teacher, Ms. Healy works with educators and parents to understand media and children's development. She also is author of "Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It."

"Anything that a child does for any length of time is going to make subtle alterations in the ways their brains are set up," says Ms. Healy from her home in Vail, Colo. "What I was seeing as a teacher was an alarming decline in children's listening skills and ability to express themselves in words and focus if it wasn't easy and quick and fun."

She continues, "This medium has the potential to be educational but also has the potential to erode learning skills in children. The first thing you need to realize is that if watches too much TV, he probably won't be that great in school."

What about those shows that parents laud as "educational"?

"Look, is a long way away from a volunteer effort to teach children to read," she says. "That we see our children as a huge market and will try to sell lifestyles, products and attitudes to them irrespective to what it's doing to their minds is a sign that we're in for trouble in the future."

Dr. Levy says he is concerned about the way commercial media affect children, as well.

"For kids entering the magical years ages 2 to 6 they have no capacity to distinguish the commercials from the programming, even if you tell them over and over," he says. For example, he tells his patients to eat healthy food; the TV advertising bombards them with messages about candy and soft drinks.

Dr. Levy continues: "'Tween' kids before puberty: This is the time when kids are learning their relationships to others and thinking about how to live in society. The messages they often are getting are: Your parents are stupid. School is dumb. Boys are not cool."

Last, he says, the impact of media on teen-agers is "profound. Media often present opportunities or ideas to children they never knew existed, such as sexuality, depression, suicide."

Keeping busy

Annandale resident Karen Pollard, an environmental-protection specialist, says she and husband Gary, a real-estate agent, regard the television somewhat warily.

They are the parents of three two teen-agers and a 6-year-old and "like all parents, I worry about TV watching," Ms. Pollard says.

Of her three children, she says, only one seems to gravitate toward television with any fervor.

"When I walk into my house , I typically will find my 6-year-old riding bikes. When the 14-year-old gets home, he tends to beeline it to the TV. If my husband is home, he will tell him to turn off the TV. But left up to his own, he would watch until whatever hours until I walked in the door."

This, although the family cut out cable a decade ago.

The good news, says Ms. Pollard, is that her children have always been very active in organized sports, church activities, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.

"Between that and homework, it doesn't leave a lot of time to watch TV," she says.

Keeping children busy is one way to combat TV overexposure, but parents have several other weapons in their arsenal, including the ratings system.

Called the TV Parental Guidelines, these ratings have been adopted by the TV industry to help parents select appropriate programs for their children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, channels that have agreed to use the guidelines air a rating symbol for 15 seconds at the start of each program. The ratings also may be found in local TV listings.

For example, a show rated "TV-Y" is designed for a young audience, including ages 2 to 6, and is not expected to frighten younger children. The next ratings level is TV-Y7, which is deemed OK for children 7 and older who can differentiate between fantasy and reality.

And so the ratings go, all the way to TV-MA, for "mature audiences." These programs, the guidelines read, may be unsuitable for children younger than 17 and will contain graphic violence, strong sexual content and/or crude, indecent language.

Parents also can tap into technology called the V-chip, which blocks the display of TV programming based upon its rating. The Federal Communications Commission ruled that half of all new TV models manufactured after July 1, 1999, must have V-chip technology; all sets 13 inches or larger manufactured after Jan. 1, 2000, must have it, as well.

Two weeks ago, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a survey on the V-chip. Fifty-three percent of parents with a new TV didn't realize they have a V-chip, and of parents who knew they had a V-chip, 36 percent were using it to block certain shows, the survey said.

Parents on alert

All good, says Ms. Aidman of the CME, but "the V-chip is not a magic-bullet solution. There is no substitute for parental previewing. Viewing with children and commenting on what is on the screen or turning a program off is a highly effective strategy for helping children to establish good taste and viewing habits. Also, parents are role models for children in how they manage their own viewing."

Anne Sweeney, president of Disney Channel Worldwide in Los Angeles and the mother of two adolescents, has a different take on television's value.

"I regard it as a tool," she says. "You're given lots of tools as a parents books, TV, radio, art, music, dance, theater. Not unlike a good book, TV as a tool is a great springboard for increased communication with your child.

"As a parent," says Ms. Sweeney, "I read the TV listings. I make it a point to be there I watch MTV with my son, 'Lizzie McGuire' with my daughter, using it to prompt conversation. I want to be that involved with my kids' lives, because the minute you take the silent route, you're in trouble."

Ms. Healy, the educational psychologist, concedes that opinion.

"TV can be a very educational experience in many cases if you sit down with your child and have a conversation about it, even if it's a lousy program," she says.

And Dr. Levy stresses the importance of staying informed.

"We must know how media affect our lives," he says. "The positive is that many creative things can happen. Media can realize all the potential that was originally foreseen when it became popular in the late '40s and early '50s. The problem is, commercial interests have taken over TV and have dictated the kind of programming rather than the other way around. And this is why there is a crying need for media literacy."

Reporter Cheryl Wetzstein contributed to this article.

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