Battles Over Media Violence Move To a New Frontier: the Internet

Many adults have long felt helpless to shelter children from pervasive media violence and sexual imagery. But after years of research and activism, the tide is shifting toward better programming and ratings systems, particularly on TV. As those battles subside, a new challenge is forming with the vast world of the Internet.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

This has been a victorious year for the battle-weary researchers and activists who have spent entire careers combating violence in the media.

1996 has produced the V-chip, the three-hour-a-week-rule (for mandated network children's programming), impending TV ratings, and two independent, multiyear studies that for the first time have the support of both network and cable-TV producers. New antimedia-violence programs also debuted at both the American Medical Association and the National Council of Churches.

But, like creeping shadows in a horror film, the explosion of new technologies such as the Internet and interactive video games is threatening to darken this victory parade with entirely new and, many say, more daunting challenges.

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"The technology is going from passive to active," notes Professor Brian Stonehill, who created the media studies program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. "The violence is no longer vicarious with interactive media. It's much more pernicious and worrisome. Will we take responsibility for the thrill-seeking areas of our culture? That's what we're wrangling with now," he adds.

Technology always moves ahead of society's moral and ethical judgments, giving rise to a cultural lag, observes Richard Gelles, director of the Family Violence Research Program at the University of Rhode Island, in Kingston. While many people still can't afford the expensive new hardware and software (the average cost of a new computer setup is about $2,000 and video game decks average $200), Mr. Gelles says society must move on to consider the new issue. "The TV wars are over. The new wars are going to be brutal."

While years of research gave rise to the successes of the past year, work in the new areas is just beginning. Many scholars who might be expected to lead the charge are slow on the uptake. "I'm overwhelmed by the Internet," says Jeff Cole, lead author on the three-year network-funded study of television violence at UCLA's Center for Communication Policy. At the same time, he acknowledges, "It's the next frontier for everything."

Researchers, however, are not at ground zero. Much of what they now know about the impact of violence and how to handle it applies to these new technologies as well. For starters, the underlying assumptions about the effects of violence are no longer debated by most scholars. They are:

*Television violence can lead to imitation.

*Witnessing repeated violent acts can lead to desensitization and a lack of empathy for human suffering.

*The cumulative impact of violence-laden imagery can lead to a "mean-world" perspective, in which viewers have an unrealistically dark view of life.

Next, says UCLA's Mr. Cole, progress has been made in influencing the producers of material, in his case the networks. In undertaking yet another study in a field littered with reports, Cole's group was anxious to produce one that would make a difference.

They took a qualitative or contextual approach to analyzing the violence in network shows. In an area that has long been dominated by quantitative scholarship, Cole's is the largest qualitative study ever done. "We wanted to do something that was accessible to the public, so that when we write about a show like 'America's Funniest Home Videos,' we explain why."

The approach seems to have paid off. The UCLA report, which issued the second of three annual parts in September, noted that violence decreased from 1995 in several areas, notably in on-air promotions and movies of the week.

Martin Franks, senior vice president at CBS Inc. confirms that, in contrast to many other studies over the years, the UCLA study "gets referred to a lot. It sits on an awful lot of desks at CBS."

Ed Donnerstein, director of research for this year's other big report, The National Television Violence Study (NTVS), funded by the cable industry, is less sanguine.

Noting that the UCLA study was extremely selective, targeting only prime-time shows, the NTVS took a random sampling of a week's worth of programming. "We found that a good deal of violence goes unpunished, the pain or harm is unrealistic, and if someone gets hurt, it has no bearing on real life," he says.

But Mr. Donnerstein does acknowledge that both studies show an important sea-change in attitude. "At last, we're getting the producers of content to admit there's an issue," he notes, adding that the next step, namely, TV ratings due in January, may be the best indication of a real change. "At least there's a step here, given that nothing has moved for years."

Indeed, lessons gleaned from both the new TV ratings system, and blocking technologies such as the V-chip that are based on it, are already being applied to the Internet. The company that produced a ratings system for video games, the Recreational Software Advisory Council (RSAC), has created a similar system for sites on the Internet.

Many adults have long felt helpless to shelter children from pervasive media violence and sexual imagery. But after years of research and activism, the tide is shifting toward better programming and ratings systems, particularly on TV. As those battles subside, a new challenge is forming with the vast world of the Internet.

Joel Federman is co-director of the Center for Communication and Social Policy at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He notes that several major companies such as Microsoft and Compuserve already have announced they will use the RSAC ratings. Once the sites are rated, consumers can use a Web-blocking device that will access only the sites with desirable ratings. Unrated sites can also be blocked.

Federman says that, although some technologies are being developed to help parents deal with violent or otherwise unacceptable material such as pornography on the Internet, the biggest problem may be a technology gap between generations. "Parents may not understand enough about the technology to really effectively protect their kids."

However, this doesn't absolve parents of the most basic responsibility implicit in all the research. Says Professor Stonehill: "We have to sort and choose as a culture. It's a bumpy path, but it's still up to us."

Just as researchers have generally agreed on the effects of violence, they've also narrowed down the sort of children most at risk to be adversely influenced. Not surprisingly, the unsurpervised child is high on the list.

HOW MUCH DO THE MEDIA INFLUENCE CHILDREN?

THE ADULTS' VIEW

The following survey is based on a poll of 1,209 adults, all of whom have kids aged 2 to 17 living with them.

How much do portrayals of sex in popular culture contribute to whether teenagers are sexually active?

A lot: 52% Little: 4%

Some: 25% None: 17%

How much do portrayals of violence in popular culture contribute to whether teenagers are violent?

A lot: 56% Little: 5%

Some: 26% None: 11%

Have you ever forbidden your child to see or listen to a particular television program, movie, or musical recording because you objected to the content?

TV Program Movie Musical Recording

Yes: 84% Yes: 64% Yes: 42%

No: 16% No: 36% No: 57%

What do you think is most to blame for teenage violence? The top five causes cited by all adults.

Television: 21%

Lack of supervision: 13%

Parents, unspecified: 8%

Breakdown of family: 8%

Drugs: 7%

*Source: The New York Times

THE CHILDREN'S VIEW

A telephone survey of 750 children ages 10 to 16 throughout the country on how television affects them.

The media are a significant influence:

66% say their peers are influenced by TV shows.

65% say shows like "The Simpsons" and "Married ...With Children" encourage kids to disrespect parents.

Sexual behavior on TV can sway kids' actions:

62% say that sex on TV shows and movies influences kids to have sex when they are too young.

77% say there is too much sex before marriage on television.

Kids say they get mixed messages about morals from watching TV shows:

49% think people are mostly dishonest.

54% say people care more about money than others.

46% say people are selfish.

51% say kids talk back to parents.

54% see people taking responsibility for their actions.

61% have generally good morals.

Viewing habits change when parents aren't around:

55% watch TV alone or with friends, not with family.

44% watch something different when they're alone than with their parents (25% choose MTV).

54% have a TV in their bedroom.

*Source: Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates

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