BATON ROUGE, LA. — I teach my students that the research evidence, though not definitive, is potentially frightening: Prolonged exposure to entertainment television can make children stupider, less empathic, angrier, lazier, and more vain, fearful, and violent.
So when my wife became pregnant, we planned a sanitized post-natal media environment in our home. Our family would not watch TV until our child hit her teens. Our home would be a haven of great books, cuddling, and stimulating playtime.
Jump cut to reality. "The Sopranos" crashed into our nursery like a heisted garbage truck. At some point during one episode, after the 30th expletive and the fifth act of wanton violence - just as suburban mob boss and fretful family man Tony Soprano was body-stapling another mobster - our pink-clad, bunny-stockinged daughter, who had been nursing, turned to stare at the glowing screen. She was hooked - just like us.
Our foiled plan is a case study in the challenges of modern parenthood in the mass-mediated age. I know from extensive research that this is a crucial issue: Kids pay attention to what parents say if it is backed up by what parents do. For example, preaching avoidance of illegal drugs is undercut if children see their folks tippling martinis and smoking a pack a day.
Am I, then, a hypocrite? We want to protect our little girl from becoming a cynical, self-centered, television-hardened teenager, but does that mean we must suppress cravings for "Just Shoot Me" and "Babylon 5"?
My daughter's enemy is omnipresent. As Bart Simpson chillingly replies to his mother when she asks him how many hours of (unsupervised) television he watches a day: "Six. Seven if something is on." By the time children reach the age of 18, they will have seen almost 200,000 violent acts (including 16,000 murders) on television alone.
We know that, as one of Tony Soprano's crew remarks, "It's tough to raise kids in the information age." Entertainment media assault boys and girls with erotic messages as well. "Tween" and teen-oriented film and television programs - especially music videos - sexualize the world of young kids, who want to watch programming that their older siblings enjoy. Britney Spears may be a fine entrepreneur and "spokesgirl" for abstinence, but what parent wants his or her 14-year-old modeling her clothing like she's out for action at the local red-light district?
We have decided on a "Plan B" strategy of prevention. First, there's parental self-censorship, not as a panacea, but to moderate the quantity of mental abuse injected by certain TV shows. We record our favorite sexually explicit and violent programs and watch them when baby is asleep. And we know we might have to stop watching altogether once she becomes old enough to wander in and catch us.
We note that recent research has shown that simply decreasing the intake of violent media can make children less aggressive and more sociable. The American Academy of Pediatrics urges parents not to show any television to children under 2 years.
As our child matures, however, it would be a mistake for us to try to wall off the sex and violence media culture altogether, either demonizing it or creating a forbidden fruit. As our daughter ventures to peers' houses, our censorship scheme will break down. Banning her from television will not prepare her for the mass media-saturated world of the present and future.
Instead we can wean her on one show, one episode at a time - discussing and dissecting the messages. The American Academy of Pediatrics argues that "increased media education in the United States could represent a simple, potentially effective approach to combating the harmful media messages seen or heard by children and adolescents." Certainly, I hope our baby girl's earliest memories of engaging television are Mommy and Daddy talking back to the set, challenging its verities (as does our beloved "Mystery Science Theatre 3000"), not simply watching in stupefied acceptance.
Finally, I'm hoping that my daughter and I can watch some programs together that teach positive social values without the sappiness that too often accompanies "family" TV. A select few children's shows, especially reruns from the (comparatively) halcyon days before the toy sellers took over, are entertaining, clever, and imbued with useful life lessons.
My favorite among these is the "Scooby Doo" series. Unlike the gullible sensationalism of "paranormal" investigators, "those meddling kids" apply what Edmund Burke called "sound prejudice," common sense, and the scientific method to uncover the hoaxer behind a seemingly unexplained poltergeist, alien abductor, or swamp monster. "Scooby Doo" improves children's minds by teaching them to approach life's problems with pluck and reason, as opposed to Kung Fu and rage.
In all, I hope my daughter can learn to understand television as well as watch it. Then, as an adult, she can make rational decisions about her viewing choices and those of her own children - resolving the dilemmas of the mediated age. It's the kind of future that all parents, including the angst-ridden Tony Soprano, could wish for.
David D. Perlmutter is a senior fellow at Louisiana State University's Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs. He is the author of 'Photojournalism and Foreign Policy' (Greenwood, 1998) and 'Visions of War' (St. Martin's, 1999).
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor