What Parents Can Do about Media Violence

For 40 years, researchers have asked the wrong question about media violence: Does watching violence cause someone to become violent? Although there is evidence that some children imitate Ninja kicks, and that occasionally someone will "copycat" a crime they've seen or read about in the media, we know that watching violence does not itself cause people to be violent, or we would all be murderers! A more relevant question is: What is the long-term cumulative impact of excessively violent imagery as entertainment doing to us as individuals and as a society?

Children have always learned how to behave in the world from the stories of their time, and the mass media are today's story-tellers. If the stories our children see routinely involve violence as a solution to problems, or simply as a random omnipresence, what kind of personal value system and cultural worldview are we passing on to our children? Even if we don t become more aggressive ourselves, we —or our neighbors, or the kids at school— may become overly fearful of others, or desensitized to the seriousness of violence to others.

For almost the same period of time, but especially in recent years, many people have also asked the wrong question about television violence —Why can't somebody do something about it? Since each somebody can point a finger at the next "somebody else," everyone feels powerless to effect change. But the truth is, something can be done. And we must start by breaking the "circle of blame" about media violence.

Here is how the circle of blame spins: Viewers blame those who write and create the shows. Writers and directors say the producers require violence in programs in order to get them financed. Producers blame network executives for demanding action in order to get ratings. Network executives say competition is brutal and blame the advertisers for pulling out unless a show gets high ratings. Advertisers say it's all up to the viewers!

How do we break the circle? We can take responsibility for our role in perpetuating media violence. Writers, directors, producers, and executives can all work to change the ways in which violence is pre-sented on television. Advertisers can request and support nonviolent programs that also get good ratings. And parents can make especially important contributions by tak-ing charge of their televisions and taking responsibility for what their families watch.

How can parents take charge? Here are five ideas.

  1. Reduce exposure to media violence. This idea is based on a very simple premise: If children watch television less, and watch it less randomly, they will see less violence. This can be accomplished by setting limits on how much your children watch, and by set-ting guidelines on what they watch. Help your children select programs within your family's guidelines. Seek to add positive programs while limiting negative ones.
    Another way to control what your children watch is to tape appropriate entertainment for them to watch alone. You can even skip over commercials while you tape if you are concerned about your child s exposure to television advertising. You can also apply guidelines to media other than television, including videos, movies, video games, magazines, and comic books, and encourage children to become involved in a variety of leisure activities.


  2. Change the impact of violent images that are seen. The best way to help children deal with violent television is to watch with them and talk to them about what they see. Find out what they understand and what they don't. Media literacy curricula provide a variety of tools to help parents and children analyze the techniques used to stage violent scenes and decode the various depictions of violence in different media genres —news, cartoons, drama, sports, and music. It is important for children to learn the difference between reality and fantasy at an early age and to know how costumes, camera angles, and special effects can fool them.
    Don't simply say to kids, "Violence is bad for you and you shouldn't watch it." Instead, encourage them to develop an awareness of violence when they see it and understand its consequences through their own experience. Critical-thinking skills will stay with kids when you cant be there. Through guided practice, critical viewing can become an everyday habit for both children and adults.


  3. Locate and explore alternatives to media that solve conflicts with violence. Look for TV shows videos, and books that provide positive role models to counteract the actions and attitudes of today's violent super heroes. Scan Better Viewings program listings, ask your local librarian, or see if your child s teachers or day-care providers know of appropriate books and videos. But don't limit your efforts to finding media that show good role models. Talk with your children about different ways to solve problems. Ask them to create non-violent endings to media scenes that com-monly show escalating violence. Discuss what makes a "true" hero. Encourage them to hold media heroes up to their own stan-dards of real heroism.


  4. Talk with other parents. Talk about TV management with other parents; share tips and provide support for one another. Be aware of what children are watching outside your home. Communicate your stan-dards to neighbors, grandparents, baby-sitters, and others who may care for your child or children. Ask for their cooperation in limiting the viewing of violence. If you'd like advice on setting limits and guidelines, contact local parent/teacher organizations, churches, libraries, or other community groups. Many of them sponsor classes and programs to help parents learn how to set limits on viewing time and enforce age-appropriate viewing standards.


  5. Get involved in the national debate over media violence. Let your voice —and your children's voices — be heard. The Children's Television Act requires local monitoring to be effective. Sweeping telecom-munications reform legislation and public broadcasting cutbacks are currently being debated in Washington. Ask your children what they think, and encourage them to act. Even young children can learn to communi-cate their concerns to local media owners and their elected officials. And don't forget to commend what's good—positive feedback can help keep good, nonviolent programs around!


There is no one solution to the problem of media violence, nor will we ever totally eradicate violence from our lives or from the media. But there are many steps that each of us can take to reduce the amount and the impact of violent images in our lives and in the lives of our children. These individual acts, along with the acts of others, will add up to widespread social change. We have come to believe that every single soda can we pick up is one small step in saving the environment—isn't our cultural environ-ment equally important?

The time has come to break the circle of blame and start building a movement for a caring culture.

Author Bio: 

Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneering leader in the U.S. media literacy field, founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 and the Center for Media Literacy in 1989. She is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and continues her leadership through this website, consulting, speaking and as a founding board member of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA).