BOSTON — THE networks have come forward with a voluntary program to put a parental warning on violent TV shows - but how useful will those labels be to parents? Among a number of people who have spent years observing the interplay between moms and dads, children, and the TV set, the consensus is: not very useful.
Dorothy Singer has been studying TV-watching habits for nearly a quarter century as co-director of Yale University's Family Television Research and Consultation Center. Most of the shows carrying the warning will come on too late to be of much concern to younger children, she says.
As for older kids, she adds, "maybe it will only intrigue a few more people to watch."
The basic need, Dr. Singer says, is an overall decrease in the amount of violence on television.
The networks could make a more concrete contribution to lessening the problem of children's exposure to violence by eliminating promos that regularly run during children's viewing hours but are aimed at adults, she suggests.
Singer says her center frequently hears from parents who are concerned about the violent content of such promos.
Beyond the network decisions, parents cannot abdicate their own decisionmaking responsibilities, Singer adds. She is skeptical about proposed technology to allow parents to pre-program sets so that kids can't watch questionable shows.
"Parents have the simple option of saying `no!' You don't have to pre-program. You don't need any gadget at all."
Susan Ginsberg, director of the Work and Family Program at Bank Street College in New York City, says the best option for parents is often just to say "no TV between 8 [p.m.] and 10 [p.m.] and not get into fights about each program." She thinks that "it's helpful to have a scale for gauging violence," as such warnings have some value.
BUT she, too, says the critical issue is the quantity of violence. "The networks are trying to look socially responsible, but if they really want to be socially responsible, they should be stopping the gratuitous violence. There are plenty of other stories to tell that don't involve guns and blowing people's heads off."
"I think this is a step," says Linda Braun, who runs the Families First Parenting Program in the Boston area, which works with some 5,000 families a year.
"I think the programs should be labeled. My job as a parent educator is to help parents develop the tools to say `no' to their children." That, in her view, means getting beyond the instant fuss whenever the TV is turned off and beyond the argument that "everybody else is watching it."
The fundamental task, says Ms. Braun, is first to get parents' attention.
"If you can get a clear message across - this is not good for your children - then parents become very interested in learning strategies to monitor TV watching." A crucial part of those strategies, she continues, is teamwork between parent and child in deciding each week what's really worth watching.
Singer suggests this analogy to families she works with: "Would you let a stranger come into your house and hawk products or knock someone down and not do anything about it? That "person" (the TV) should be treated like any other, she says. "You can stay if your manners are good."