Fighting violence in the media

& & commentary by Don Higgins & & & &

There is a wealth of scientific evidence that affirms that media in the American culture is increasingly violent and that it does have emotional and psychological consequences for our children. What does this portend for the emotional and social fabric of our culture? What should we as parents, educators, social service and health service providers do? What should we as responsible people who care about the future of our children do to address this problem?

We are a media-driven culture. Television drives our self-perception, what we buy, how we think, who we admire, emulate and disdain. Is it any wonder that the diet of violent content we have been fed for the past four generations has fostered our transformation into the most violent culture on earth?

Certainly there are other factors that play into this result; structural poverty, the erosion of the primary family, the prevalence of drug and alcohol use and abuse, not to mention issues with gun control. But the fact is that each of these other issues is in some way shaped by the media through product advertising, through hero portrayal, through the very storyline in every drama we see and have learned to accept: "violence solves problems."

It is true that not every child who watches a violent act through the media imitates it. But lets look at the cumulative effect on children who are exposed to our media today. How do our children view the world in which they live? Is it a safe and happy place, one that engenders optimism, trust, a fostering of family values? If this is so, why do we have so many violent crimes committed by teens? Why do we have what many health professionals report as an epidemic of teen suicide? These are all cultural signals for us. Wake up calls if you will. Are we listening?

The National Television Violence Study, a three-year, $3.5 million project commissioned by the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), is clearly the most comprehensive and authoritative report on this subject to date. After reviewing more than 1,000 scientific research studies, it concluded that there were indeed harmful effects from the kind and amount of violence children are exposed to on television. Among the findings is that the average child watches 27 hours of television per week with more than 60 percent of it having violent content. This is more time than they spend in school.

What are the consequences? There is a marked increase in learned aggression as children imitate behavior seen on television. There is an increased desensitization to violence. As children are exposed to more and more violence, they lose connection with the normal emotional response that keeps violent acts in check. And there is a decided increased fear of becoming a victim of violence.

The report also stated that viewers, especially young viewers, develop an "increased appetite for violent media content." The more violence they see, the more violent content they desire to satisfy their emotional interest. This helps us to understand the significant escalation of sensational violent content in films geared to young audiences. The question is how far will the media go, and what are the social and economic consequences?

The shootings at Columbine High School certainly sharpened public attention on this issue. Many parents began to say enough is enough. They called for more controls. They blamed Congress for succumbing to political and financial pressure exerted by the media. Congress called for hearings and chastised the media. The movie industry responded by blaming the parents, the schools and the churches for not developing and enforcing social and parental controls. "We are parents too," they admonished, "we have concerns for our children, just like you."

However, it seems that the preservation of profit outweighs their parental concern, as no significant overtures to curb violent content were forthcoming. Their mantra continues to be that any further regulation by Congress that infringes upon their First Amendment right of free speech is unconstitutional. Regulatory restraint on their freedom of expression was an abomination -- apparently a greater abomination than the harm that their violent films cause our children.

What has been the outcome? Congress took no action. Violent content in prime time television was up 29 percent the next year.

Some say it is time for more aggressive legislative action, that there is no absolute right to profit so unconscionably at the expense of our children. While acknowledging the First Amendment right of free speech, the Constitution also provides for the public health and safety of our children. Where is the equitable balance? Which party is more vulnerable? Who is looking after the health and welfare of our children on this issue?

In the face of such a wealth of scientific evidence from bodies like the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Psychological Association, isn't it time to balance the interests? Isn't it time for industry reform?

The stakes are very high in this game; the media industry's profits are in the billions of dollars each year. Some in the industry maintain, however, that regardless of the scientific evidence, regulation is a dangerous precedent. They contend that at any given time, the industry will transform itself. It will ascend to a higher community value. If this is indeed possible, how long will that transformation take and what is the social and economic cost until that time?

What is the solution? Voluntary restraint? Unlikely. Increased regulation? Perhaps, if there is sufficient civic will, but this will undoubtedly take more Columbines to galvanize public action. What about more parental responsibility? What about more teen responsibility? Certainly, but how much more pressure can our fragile family networks contend with? The American family is already devastated with divorce, debt, alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy and violent media. How much more can it bear?

Where should the brunt of the burden really fall? Who is reaping the profits and who is paying the price? Is it not time for Congress to address the issue of greater regulation?

These are important questions, and it is time for a community discussion on this issue.

& & & lt;i & Don Higgins is the executive director of the West Central Community Center. He will be a panelist at tonight's community discussion at the Gonzaga University School of Law. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &

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