Spoiling Our Kids

Hour after hour, American children immerse themselves in electronic media. Experts worry that while parents aren't watching, a steady stream of sex and violence is doing damage.

November/December 2002

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Spoiling Our Kids

Ferruccio Sardella

The average american kid racks up almost six hours a day consuming various electronic media outside of school. Heavy users—16 percent of children 8 and above—log 10 hours or more. For many people, these statistics conjure up a zombie-eyed latchkey kid glued to the TV. They may even bring to mind troubled teens like the Columbine High School killers, who reportedly spent hour after hour playing violent computer games and listening to anarchistic music.

But those numbers also describe kids like Liza Jones (not her real name), a popular, happy 12-year-old A-student in a private Menlo Park school. She participates in school activities, plays three sports and volunteers for church and community service. “Six hours sounds like so much,” sighs Liza’s mother, but she points out that this includes time when her daughter has a radio or CD playing in the background as well as time spent chatting online, playing games and looking at websites for clothes. “Then you add in an hour or two of television or a video, or a movie on a weekend night, and there it is,” she says.

Mrs. Jones says she tries to keep tabs on it all and thinks most of Liza’s media diet is acceptable, if not exactly nutritious. But she admits she finds it impossible to shield her children from everything she finds objectionable. “When we were kids, we didn’t have nearly so much stuff blasted at us.”

Mrs. Jones is right. The myriad gizmos common in homes today include personal stereos, multiple televisions, computers, video games, portable TV and cassette and CD players. “Send a kid to his room these days and you’re really sending him to an arcade,” says Stanford professor of communication Donald Roberts, author of a wide-ranging study on kids’ media habits.

Surveys show that most parents, unlike Liza’s mother, do not supervise their children’s media use or prohibit TVs in their rooms. For many kids, the bedroom is not only an arcade, but also a war zone and peep show. “By the time they enter middle school, American kids have seen eight thousand killings and a hundred thousand more acts of violence on TV,” writes Stanford lecturer James P. Steyer in The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media’s Effect on Our Children (Atria Books, 2002). According to Steyer, each year the average American kid is exposed to more than 14,000 references to sex or episodes of sexual intercourse on TV alone.

Steyer, ’78, JD ’83, believes this bombardment erodes what he calls the “Postman principle,” attributed to Neil Postman, chairman of New York University’s department of culture and communication. The NYU professor posited that parents have a duty to make growing up “a sequence of revealed secrets” about sex, death, violence, illness and other mature matters, explained only as the child is ready to understand them. But even the best-intentioned parents are often too busy to monitor every minute of their kids’ electronic diets. And media then become the de facto parent, with no such concern for revelation in measured steps, Steyer asserts.

For 50 years, Stanford researchers have pioneered measuring the effects of media and debating how to improve content. From the beginning, many of them, like the late communication professor Wilbur Schramm, focused on the compelling allure of television. In the 1950s, Schramm studied remote Canadian towns during a period when television was introduced. “Overnight a new box appears in the home, and thereafter all leisure is organized around it,” he observed.

In the early 1960s, psychology professor Albert Bandura designed one of the most famous social science experiments ever done. The so-called “Bobo doll” studies showed that children exposed to violent behavior on television—in this case, a woman bashing a plastic doll—were prone to mimic or “model” the behavior themselves. The television industry bitterly attacked those findings, claiming that violence on TV and in films actually had a “cathartic” effect and drained aggressive impulses.

But Bandura’s results have been duplicated many times. Other studies have demonstrated that a violence-heavy media diet desensitizes children toward violence in general and also leads them to view the world as scarier and more dangerous than it really is. Given the increasingly intense and interactive nature of the violence kids experience today in video games, for example—a quantum leap from simple film clips of a woman hitting a doll—Bandura says, “We have to redo all those studies.”

For all the research, media’s impact on kids remains a controversial subject. Certainly, there is more to content than sex and violence. Big Bird and the Sesame Street gang have sent innumerable youngsters off to school better prepared to count and read. Discovery Channel, the History Channel and interactive computer games like Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? can bring dry school lessons to life. Generations of kids once trooped off to the local library and thumbed through National Geographic to write a report. Now, students pop a CD into the computer or go online and summon far richer material in seconds. Even that infernal Barney tape played for the umpteenth time on the drive to preschool imparts powerful messages about diversity, kindness and the importance of wearing a seatbelt.

And so the industry cries censorship when its content is attacked, often pointing a finger at indifferent parents or lax gun laws if a media-saturated kid goes bad. Then, too, some parents frankly prefer to have the kids home watching virtual villains than roaming a neighborhood where real ones lurk.

Stanford researchers remain engaged in the ongoing debate. Here are four voices from the front lines.

Communication professor Donald Roberts's office walls are lined with some pretty juvenile-looking artwork. In fact, the pictures are framed cartoon stills and promotional material for kids’ TV series and movies, such as All Dogs Go to Heaven, for which he’s served as a consultant, trying to make sure positive messages are a part of these shows.

Roberts began his career studying violence and television, but in the 1980s, he also turned to music lyrics, then a largely neglected area. His findings, published in It’s Not Only Rock and Roll: Popular Music in the Lives of Adolescents (Hampton Press, 1998), showed that kids pay attention to lyrics, despite the widespread belief to the contrary. “We know people use music as a mood amplifier and a mood controller,” he explains. “If you’re blue and listen to blue ballads, you get bluer.” The increasingly popular heavy metal rock and rap music, whose lyrics often express anger, violence, alienation and misogyny, amplify those feelings as well.

Today, however, Roberts finds it unrealistic to focus on any one medium. “It’s almost impossible to distinguish between media. The computer and Internet have changed things again.” For example, kids don’t just hear a rapper’s message in music played on the radio or sold on a CD; they experience it in music videos, Internet fan sites, teen magazines and, increasingly, from the artists’ starring roles in feature films. “The most violent things on TV today are Hollywood movies,” he asserts.

Roberts says that although the lion’s share of research funding in his field is from groups interested in exploring the negative impact of media, there are positive impacts. Despite all the inappropriate sexual messages in mainstream media, Roberts notes that medical and sexual advice columns in teen magazines and on websites aimed at kids are providing accurate, even lifesaving, data on subject matter rife with embarrassment and misinformation. He also believes media have contributed greatly to making kids more tolerant. Roberts is currently studying the ethnicity of musical artists with Top 40 hits throughout the decades. The percentage of white singers has declined steadily since the 1980s, remaining under 50 percent since 1990. “That’s a significant change in popular culture that’s holding.”

For Milton Chen, a former student of Roberts’s, part of the challenge is to learn what attracts kids and apply it to educational and positive-message programming. Chen, MA ’83, PhD ’86, is executive director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in San Rafael, Calif. “The real digital divide,” he argues, “is between media in school and outside of it.” Chen believes dry textbooks leave too many kids behind. “Educational media has to become richer to compete.”

What most worries Roberts, however, is the number of kids who have virtually unlimited access to media any hour of the day or night and are often absorbing it alone. A Kaiser Family Foundation study he collaborated on found that fully two-thirds of American children over age 8 have televisions in their own rooms—as do 32 percent of those 2 to 7, and 26 percent of those 2 to 4 (see sidebar).

Roberts belongs to a camp that believes it’s crucial for parents to play an active role in their kids’ media exposure. Studies show that when kids view programs with their parents or in a group, they are less likely to be frightened by violent or scary material. Parents can provide context by saying, for example, that “in real life this could never happen.” And it’s no accident, laughs Roberts, that Sesame Street characters often make witty asides that sail past kids but delight their parents. “We know they learn so much more when they watch with their parents. Those jokes are designed to keep parents around.”

Most media researchers focus on content and how it is perceived. But Thomas Robinson, assistant professor of pediatrics and of medicine, has found a measurable connection between the raw volume of television viewing and children’s health.

Robinson’s main interest is disease prevention, and his biggest concern these days is the skyrocketing rate of obesity in children. “The major health risks for the next century are diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular problems, which all go along with obesity,” he says. Initially, he looked at media as a way to influence kids to eat and live more healthfully. Then, he found some weak correlations between obesity and television watching patterns.

“Very few people had ever tried to reduce kids’ television viewing,” explains Robinson, ’82, MD ’88. So he designed an experiment for 192 third- and fourth-grade students from San Jose, Calif., half of whom were given periodic presentations designed to cut back their television viewing. The other half—the control group—received no special information or training. The presentation did not focus on specific programs, but on the amount of time spent in front of the TV. The researchers also developed a classroom curriculum to motivate the kids, including a fun and memorable “No-Watcharena” song and dance. There were charts to fill, stickers to display and notes signed by parents signifying a “No-TV” evening. The kids and their families kept diaries. At the end of the seven-month study, the experimental group managed, on average, to reduce their self-reported TV exposure by about one quarter to one third, while the control group’s exposure stayed the same.

But the bigger news to Robinson was that over the seven months, the kids in the experimental group on average gained almost 2 fewer pounds and 1 less inch in their waistlines than did those in the control group. “Those were larger changes than we’d ever seen in prevention programs aimed at getting kids to eat better,” says Robinson.

He also found a decline in aggression in the experimental group, even though no effort was made to influence the kinds of programs watched. This change was measured by peer reports of verbal and physical aggression experienced during the study, as well as by the researchers’ periodic spot-checks of playground behavior. A final encouraging finding came from some parents who reported that their kids pestered them less to buy toys advertised on television.

Robinson admits these results raise new questions, including the precise explanation for the weight loss. Activities that replaced TV viewing—playing games, reading a book, resting, talking to family members—might burn more calories or be less likely to involve snacking on a bowl of chips or a handful of cookies. Seeing less food advertising and consumption on TV could reduce the urge to eat high-fat goodies.

As for the reduction in aggressive behavior, Robinson doesn’t know whether the kids cut down on Sesame Street or on crime shows—so it may or may not be due to reduced exposure to violence and a change in “modeling” behavior. Arguably, increased classroom support and family communications improved everybody’s mental and physical health.

Still, Robinson feels vindicated in taking a new approach. “Most people are not trying to get kids to watch less television,” he says. “Instead they’re focused on critical viewing and media literacy. Well, as a pediatrician, if I have an intervention that reduces weight gain, aggression and consumerism, I’m not going to wait to use it until I fully understand it.”

Jim Steyer has that frazzled look familiar to any parent who’s ever been late to a meeting because of a car pool snafu. Today, he was shuttling his three young kids around, in between running his media company, promoting his book and organizing a new nonprofit advocacy group. Over the past eight years, Steyer has also been a lecturer in the School of Education and, last year, at the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Good thing he’s not teaching this quarter, or he might admit to being busy.

The peripatetic Steyer, in other words, is no stranger to the stresses and demands on working parents. He well knows the temptation to park the kids in front of the television or computer screen and grab some time to read or work or think or just relax. However, Steyer’s top priority these days is rallying parents to fight that urge, both within their homes (see sidebar) and by taking on a media industry that he charges has made unsupervised television watching a downright perilous adventure for kids.

In his provocative new book, The Other Parent, Steyer paints a frightening picture of greedy media companies, indifferent government regulators and parents too overwhelmed to pay attention. “If another adult spent five or six hours a day with your kids, regularly exposing them to sex, violence and rampantly commercial values, you would probably forbid that person to have further contact with your children,” argues Steyer. “Yet most of us passively allow the media to expose our kids routinely to these same behaviors—sometimes worse—and do virtually nothing about it.”

Steyer spent years teaching inner-city kids and running the advocacy group Children Now. But in 1996, fed up with the programming available to his own kids, he started his own media company, JP Kids, to try to develop high-quality fare. The best-known result is The Famous Jett Jackson, a popular staple of the Disney Channel.

Six years later, he’s even more exasperated with the media giants. He says broadcasting standards have declined precipitously, especially since the Reagan administration ushered in deregulation of media companies in the 1980s. Make no mistake, Steyer is a liberal, also having spent time as a civil rights lawyer. But he insists that the seeming contradiction of a First Amendment supporter advocating a crackdown on media and entertainment is a red herring. Just because companies have the right to produce coarse fare doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

“We’re for sanity, not censorship. [Kids] need guidance, education and special rules to keep them from being damaged or exploited. We recognize this in virtually every sphere of American life. Yet in the media world, we have stripped away the very rules created both to protect kids and to enhance their lives, leaving them almost entirely to the profit-driven manipulations of a largely unregulated free market.”

Steyer says that with the exception of a few channels like Nickelodeon and the Children’s Television Workshop, media conglomerates offer little rich educational fare. Instead, they schedule mature programs and promotions during times when large numbers of kids are watching, and in general stuff the airwaves with sex and violence to boost ratings at all costs.

In 1980, Steyer contends, “the three major networks were each airing more than 11 hours of quality kids’ educational and informational programs weekly, including short subjects like In the News and Schoolhouse Rock.” By 1983, after regulations requiring stations to broadcast such fare were eliminated, that kind of programming had dropped by more than half. And by 1990, the total number of network-sponsored educational programs had dropped below 2 hours per week.

In the past decade, there has been some improvement in the quantity and nature of educational and informational television, thanks to the passage of the Children’s Television Act in 1990, which mandated at least 3 hours per week of such shows from the networks, Steyer says. These years gave rise to programs like Blue’s Clues.

Unfortunately, Steyer says, other developments offset that positive trend. Specifically, he bemoans the rise of toy-hawking shows like Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and Teletubbies for the diaper set. He also points to music shows aimed at kids that feature an endless parade of ultra-skinny girls in skimpy outfits and boys cooing about a far more mature brand of love than Frankie and Annette ever dared whisper.

Perhaps even more troubling, Steyer says, are studies showing that kids spend up to 70 percent of their TV time watching shows intended for adults. And according to the Parents Television Council, sexual material on broadcast television jumped more than 42 percent from 1996 to 1998. The Kaiser Family Foundation reports that more than two-thirds of TV shows now contain sexual content, up from 56 percent in 1998. Are parents to be held accountable for that viewing? In part, says Steyer, but so must the companies marketing and creating this highly charged subject matter.

So far, Steyer’s book has met with mostly silence from the media industry. “We have no official comment,” a Fox Broadcasting official said in response to a list of Steyer’s criticisms about its programming and its chief, Rupert Murdoch.

Steyer’s new advocacy group is called Families Interested in Responsible Media. Among the projects it’s considering: trying to restore “safe” time slots for family viewing, making sure promotions for mature-themed shows don’t run during sporting events and other programming attracting young viewers, and offering media-consumption advice for harried parents. Lawrence Wilkinson, vice chairman of Oxygen Media and father of a 9-year-old daughter, is a board member of FIRM. He joined Steyer’s group, he says, because “I’ve experienced in [my daughter’s] childhood an extraordinary shrinkage in the good stuff in favor of stuff that tramples on the Postman principle.”

Steyer’s book, on which Susan Wels, ’78, collaborated, has garnered wide attention, in part through the involvement of Chelsea Clinton, ’01, who helped with research and wrote an afterword. In it, she says that her parents practiced “parental media literacy” by watching media with her and restricting her viewing. Steyer says he believes a developing grassroots, bipartisan outcry will push media companies to clean up their acts and inspire parents to push the “other parent” from the center of their children’s lives.

Al Bandura wishes Jim Steyer well, but says with a lopsided grin that his faith is not high in grassroots efforts to shape up media. “Parents are heavily dependent on television for babysitting,” he says. “There’s no evidence you can mobilize the public for much of anything.” Bandura, 75, has the scars of decades of taking on media executives and trying to convince policy makers that the effects of violence shown to children are real and go well beyond the rare child who is motivated, like the Columbine outcasts, to become a killer. He believes today’s media contribute to a constellation of factors that can push people over the edge to do dramatic things—and that it only takes a few incidents like the Columbine shooting to profoundly affect a society.

Yet there has been little success in getting commercial producers to improve their content. Bandura has testified many times on the subject of violence and kids, and frankly, he says, “after a while the congressional hearings on this are just like reruns. They call a hearing and say, ‘Clean up your act or we’ll do something.’ [Industry executives] say, ‘We aren’t doing it,’ and suddenly you have a rally [protesting] the idea that we’ll have special-interest groups prescribing morality.”

Nonetheless, Bandura contends that more can be done than just turning off the TV. He favors a concerted push for funding for positive programming on the public airwaves and for much more research. One reason, he says, is that studies showing the negative effects of media also offer lessons about how to get good messages across. When he and his Bobo-doll team discovered children modeling violence on the actor’s behavior, they also identified which elements of the experience seemed to motivate the children—including making the actor-model’s behavior very memorable and ensuring the model was someone to whom the subjects could relate.

Bandura has since used those approaches to develop what he calls “pro-social modeling” to help children overcome phobias, for example. This year, he published a paper showing how the technique helped a global project use serialized television programs to try to limit birth rates and stem the spread of HIV. Thomas Robinson cites Bandura’s ideas about pro-social modeling as the basis for methodology he used in his TV-reduction study.

“The positive effects are rarely studied, but media has fantastic potential [to do good],” says Bandura. Until the industry more broadly proves its interest in exploiting that potential, however, parents would do well to pay close attention to who is helping raise their kids.

Joan O’C. Hamilton, ’83, is a science and technology writer for Business Week who lives in Menlo Park.

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