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Taking a look at TV viewing

Parents, kids can review TV programming together to make selective choices

Parents, kids can review TV programming together to make selective choices

May 14, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

Extreme makeovers, men choosing their brides from a lineup of willing contestants, cars exploding, and people killing each other are but a few examples of prime-time viewing options on today's network television stations. And that doesn't include such surprises as Janet Jackson's bare breast during this year's Super Bowl halftime show.

What's a parent to do?

While total elimination of TV in the home would curb kids' exposure to programming that some argue might hinder their development, that's not an option - nor should it be - for most parents today, said Kathleen Crowley-Long, a mother of two and psychology professor at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. She's been studying the influence of media on childhood development for more than 20 years.

"Many parents have no choice but to put their child in front of the TV to entertain him or her long enough to accomplish essential tasks. Americans no longer live in extended families with plenty of helpers," Crowley-Long said. "Our goal should be to teach parents and kids to use TV - a ubiquitous and powerful force - wisely."

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The TV is tuned in an average of seven hours per day in American homes, said Edward L. Palmer, psychology professor at Davidson (N.C.) College. The veteran media expert, who co-wrote "The Faces of Televisual Media: Teaching, Violence, Selling to Children" (Lawrence, 2003), is a Hagerstown native.

His studies have found that exposure to violence on television tends to increase children's own acts of aggression, desensitizes them to real-life occurrences of violence so that they don't respond in a normal, caring way, and makes them more fearful of becoming victims themselves. Even children younger than age 2 pick up on TV violence and aggression, Crowley-Long said.

"Children are extremely responsive to emotional tones," she said.

Children also internalize the way they see relationships portrayed on TV, Palmer said.

"For many children, this is kind of their guidebook for relationships," he said. Preteens and teenagers are particularly vulnerable to negative portrayals of relationships because children in those age groups are in the midst of forging their own identities, Palmer said.

And reality TV programming can really throw young viewers for a loop - in part because they have a hard time distinguishing between what's real and what's not, he said. Such reality TV shows as "The Swan" also single people out as "not good enough" and advocate drastic measures to conform to a modern vision of beauty, Palmer said.

"It's the opposite of the Mister Rogers message that each person is unique and special," he said. "We lose our identities."

Monitoring programming content is the No. 1 action parents can take to protect their children from unsuitable shows, the experts said. It's important to select programs that reflect your family's values, Crowley-Long said. And it's tough in many cases to make those choices without watching the show.

"You can't just rely on the ratings," Crowley-Long said. "To begin with, they're inconsistent."

Responding to a 1996 Congressional request to establish a voluntary ratings system for TV programs, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Cable Television Association and the Motion Picture Association of America created "TV Parental Guidelines." The guidelines include six possible ratings - ranging from TV-Y (appropriate for all children) to TV-MA (mature audience only) - which appear in the corner of the TV screen during the first 15 seconds of each television program. Ratings are given to all television programming, except news, sports and unedited movies on premium cable channels, according to information from the Federal Communications Commission at www.fcc.gov on the Web.

Palmer cited shortcomings in the ratings system, which he said was geared more toward the age of the viewer than the content of the show. Raters tend to low-ball the age ranges of target audiences, he said. Crowley-Long agreed that basing ratings upon age is a tricky enterprise because not all viewers in the same age group share the same maturity level. Palmer advocates a content-based rating system displayed on the screen throughout the program, rather than just at its start.

But the only surefire way for parents to guarantee that their kids are watching appropriate programming is to watch the shows first, the experts said. Parents also can help kids critically process what they're seeing by watching TV with them and discussing the on-screen action - an especially useful tactic for making clearer the distinction between what's real and what's not on so-called reality TV shows, Crowley-Long said.

"If you have a basically good relationship with your child, they will enjoy the time together and the attention," she said. "It isn't that difficult. What's hard is that parents don't have a lot of time."

So be selective. Palmer suggested reviewing the fall programming schedule as a family, and choosing which shows to view together at least once. "Together" is the key word, Palmer and Crowley-Long said.

"In my view, television viewing should be a communal experience," Palmer said.

Allowing kids to have televisions in their bedrooms is asking for trouble - a temptation that's often too great for youngsters to use responsibly, he said.

"It's really a critical problem, and it's one that we as parents have unknowingly gotten into. We thought we were doing our kids a favor, but it's just the opposite," he said. "We need to reverse it."

Limiting kids' TV viewing options likely will breed a bit of resentment. That's normal - and kids will get over it, Crowley-Long said.

"As a parent, my main obligation is to keep my kids safe and imbue my values in them," she said. "It's my responsibility to do that."

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