You Are What You Watch: Media Induced Aggression In Youth Has Skeptics Pointing The Finger At Parents
by Kat Belopolskaya
Mike Hudis of Adweek.com reports that in 1993 a five year old boy set his house on fire after imitating a scene that involved and aerosol can and a lighter in a cartoon show. The boy's mother suggested that Beavis and Butt-Head, the main characters of the MTV adult cartoon show by the same name, were to blame for the tragedy that killed her two year old daughter, due to the irresponsible antics performed in the program. Consequently, media violence and its effect on young children became an issue up for reevaluation by executives and parents alike (Hudis). Studies have illustrated, using controlled experiments and specific findings, that life, indeed, imitates art and vice versa. In addition, however many wonder what new lengths society must go to, as begetters of the next generation, to diminish such unfortunate accidents as the one mentioned above. Some might argue that monitoring child activities, while controlling media influence in the home, is definitely an aspect of the famous proverb “all good things in moderation.” However, taking into consideration that as children grow and evolve, so too does television, many feel its getting harder for parents to distinguish which programs have positive, negative or long term effects on their offspring. Some believe the family unit is being infiltrated by a cunning, baffling culprit, disturbing the unblemished image of child behavior. Many also feel that as the child grows, he or she will perpetuate their elder’s actions or react toward them by incorporating the responses they learn from important
sources like television. Critics point out that unless something or someone intervene to change their pattern of behavior, young viewers will retain that aspect of childhood in their adult responses to the world they live in. They feel parental involvement is the most influential factor in raising the next generation, with studies supporting efforts of scholars and experts alike.
Charles Clarke, United Kingdom’s education Secretary, points out that television violence is not an issue only found disturbing in America. Mr. Clarke criticizes broadcasters for failing to invest in children’s programming, as the ratio of cost to the number of cartoons shown is not sufficient, especially due to their content. “These shows encourage bullying by giving youngsters the impression that violence is acceptable” (qtd. Malvern). Clark states that bullying is a tremendous problem in schools, one that could be solved by having parents and educational mentors teach kids to discuss problems and formulate positive solutions.
Amy Dickinson, of Time magazine, also sees cartoons as a threat. In June 2000, she reviewed a study by Harvard’s School of Public Health that categorized acts of violence in G-rated Disney movies. The study highlighted the growing number of Disney videos viewed by young children, out of which the ones up to five years of age needed adult help to process. Dickinson writes that the classic scene where Bambi’s mother is killed by hunters is an example of where parents need to explain the harsh realities of life to their kids. She goes further to suggest that parents learn every frame of the movies they leave their children to watch on their own, as they would every bedtime story read to them (Dickinson). Many argue that as an international problem, violence on television, and in turn movies, has become a would-be threat even in the PG world.
However, from an opposing angle of this controversy, not everyone believes that cartoons depict only violent images, wreaking havoc on the young, impressionable minds of tomorrow. In an interview with comic book writer, screenwriter, historian and parent, Gerard Jones, Sara Rimensnyder of Reason magazine reports on the benefits of fantasy depicted in children’s media. In his book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super-Heroes and Make-Believe Violence, Jones states that the fierceness portrayed in different aspects of the media helps more children than it hurts. As a lonely 13-year-old, Jones identified with comic books and cartoons. “The character who caught me, and freed me, was the Incredible Hulk: over gendered and under socialized, half naked and half-witted, raging against a frightened world that misunderstood him” (qtd. Rimensnyder).
A lot of people identify with the interviewee, recalling what character they emulated in their youth, and the sheer pleasure of distraction role playing provided from their parents’ divorce or the innocent childhood tragedy of a lost soccer tournament. Likewise, today many kids copy the martial arts action of Japanese animations. And although anime has a reputation for its strong violence and sexual content, which many adults find vulgar, as well as costly, in the example of the “gotta-catch-‘em-all” Pokemon trading cards, certain experts believe that it exhibits positive reinforcement as well. Antoine Gill and associates of the CE News Team of the New York Amsterdam News report that Anime does not enforce stereotypes and some stories are based on Japanese legends, in their interview with Ken O’Connel, an art professor at the University of Oregon. “Sometimes the Japanese use elements of their culture in the stories, and unless you know these, you don’t get all the meanings and references in the cartoon” (qtd. Gill). These proactive sources find that deprivation of child entertainment could very well be detrimental to young viewers, seeing as how children remember both the delight and trauma of growing up. With all of the reality kids face in everyday life, many agree that an occasional escape could bring as much positive fortification as negative. They argue that parents, as the suppliers of a child’s wants and needs, should be able to allow creativity and imagination thrive, while enforcing a sense of stability. As an example, Jones states that he would never let his nine year old son play Grand Theft Auto III, a game known for its shock value in terms of violent action and sexual content, like he allows him to watch cartoons that are part of the Saturday Morning lineup (Rimensnyder).
Two decades ago a study documented by Kaj Bjorkvist and Kristi Lagerspetz, published in the International Journal of Psychology, found that violent cartoons affected children in the way they were presented. Experiments (performed) showed that children in two different age groups, one preschool and the other nine to eleven, had different moral evaluations, as well as memory observations of the material they viewed (Bjorkvist and Lagerspetz). Conclusions were drawn on the basis that the older kids had been more subjected to violence in daily living, and that younger ones were more prone to remember loud music, as well as, audio and visual effects of animated stories.
In 1997, more than ten years later, another study, with no correlation to the first, was conducted, showing young kids’ perceptions of educational programming. Shalom Fisch, et al, published their findings in The Journal of Educational Media. This study created a strong hypothesis that education and entertainment were not mutually exclusive, despite broadcasters’ concerns that educational TV would not receive high ratings (Fisch et al). In the end, they pointed out that kids could not distinguish between the informative and whimsical cartoons, as both were offered in a colorful and humorous way.
The behavioral science team of Shalom Fisch and his counterparts all imply that children are affected by violent and educational programming alike, due to the manner in which each is presented. Whether helpful or hindering, the accumulation of information will affect them later in life (Fisch et al). In educational circles many find that to change the attitude of general acceptance in animated aggression in older children, and to prevent the same from occurring in younger ones, is to become a society that requires innovative thinking and fresh approaches to the way we deliver messages in cartoons and other child-related media to our youth. Thus the angry or lost child one once was will not continue to thrive as one becomes an adult.
Critics argue that bountiful research clearly links child aggression to what they visually consume at a young age. With unreasonable fatal accident and reports of bullying in schools, violent cartoons and other types of negative programming have received much of the media’s negative attention and parental chiding. As a society that dwells on the negative, accounts of such events and studies of damaging effects on the underdeveloped mind, circulate the scientific community, searching for resolution. Many agree that a rudimentary solution exists, but hasn’t been sufficiently explored. Hudis described in the case of the boy who set his family’s house on fire, people questioned where the guardians responsible for watching the child were (Hudis).
Many claim that from the earliest days of childhood, children feel a sense of attachment to their parents. They point out that in the same way society relies on them, parents have come to rely on childhood patterns, which persist far into adulthood. The vicious cycle continues. They relate that at the mercy of their injunctions, children believe everything their parents tell them. Thus, they argue, it would be most reasonable to safeguard the future generation from the extremes of negative media, while cultivating creativity and passion for life, when we are placed in the maternal or paternal role. They strongly feel that the task of developing kids into autonomous, self-sufficient adults is not the job of the television set. Likewise, they point out that some adults allow their difficulties and needs to interfere with proper parental transmissions, hindering progress and growth of their offspring’s behavior. Many relate the general concept that broadcasters will always try to propogate a new fad or trend, so it is up to adults to classify what is morally acceptable in the minefield of children’s programming. They argue such a response will determine the stability of the family unit.