Unsavory content in kids' shows does a disservice to youth

Parents should not assume that children's programming is child-friendly.

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Well, the self-congratulatory glitter of Oscar night has come and gone, and I am not going to add to those moviegoers who have already shelled out more than $76 million to see "Brokeback Mountain," or $53 million to see "Crash."

I do not feel especially culturally deprived. At least I have not had to listen to the 92 profanities that the Family Media Guide says litter "Brokeback Mountain," or the 182 expletives in "Crash," 99 of which are utterances of the so-called "R-rated" curse word.

Hollywood excuses all the profanity, violence, and sex it routinely offers up because it says it must portray life as it actually is. To do less, say its producers and directors, would be a travesty and a prostitution of the cinematographers' art.

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In many years in the newspaper business I've been exposed to a fair amount of bawdy language, but I can't remember an occasion on which anybody managed to infuse 90 minutes (the length of an average movie) with 182 expletives.

I suppose we should be grateful that none of this afflicts the eyes and ears of young children - say between ages 5 and 10 - who presumably are not being taken to see such movies. Alas we would be wrong and naive to come to such a conclusion. According to the Parents Television Council, children in that age group are getting a big dose of violence, bullying, name-calling, bathroom humor, and sexual innuendo on television, on cartoons, and on children's programming designed uniquely for them.

A PTC content analysis of children's television for the 5 through 10 years age group last year found that there were 3,488 instances of violence in 443 hours of children's programming surveyed. That is an average of 7.8 violent incidents an hour.

The survey released last week, called "Wolves in Sheep's Clothing," says that too often we dismiss violence in children's programming as inconsequential. "Violence in cartoons is nothing new, but what has changed is that violence has become ubiquitous, often sinister, and in many cases, frighteningly realistic."

Parents often take it for granted that children's programs are, by definition, child friendly. Unfortunately, says the PTC, this faulty assumption has led many parents to let their guard down and allow their children to spend hours watching television unsupervised.

The children's watchdog TV organization cites studies that show exposure to TV violence is "positively associated with aggressive behavior in some children." Also, "exposure to sexual content increases the likelihood that children will become sexually active earlier in life. The extended argument implies that exposure to coarse language and disrespectful attitudes will also negatively affect children."

Any study of popular culture, says the PTC, acknowledges a general coarsening of societal views, especially with regard to the media. A study conducted by Harvard University in 2004 detailed that content in G-rated films today is more violent than it was 10 years ago. Twenty years ago, says the PTC report, there were in fact seven words you could not say on television, which comedian George Carlin turned into a stand-up routine. Most of those words now sprinkle the scripts of prime-time television. The trickledown effect of this cultural coarsening is being reflected in children's programming.

The report asserts that "cartoon characters weren't pulling their brains out through their noses four decades ago. Bugs Bunny didn't call Elmer Fudd an idiot. Satanic demons didn't populate the world of bad guys. Many tout the belief that today's computer-literate, text messaging/instant messaging kids are savvier than their peers twenty and thirty years ago. One must ask if that is because the culture we live in and the media we consume are forcing more mature themes, ideas, and issues down the throats of children. It seems that being savvier comes at the expense of innocence, at least in terms of exposure to media."

PTC found that although the Cartoon Network had the highest number of violent incidents, the ABC Family Channel turned out to pack the most punch per program. The Disney Channel had the least-violent children's programming. The WB had the highest levels of offensive language, verbal abuse, sexual content, and offensive/excretory references. FOX had the lowest frequency of this content.

Once confined to Saturday mornings or before school, cartoons and children's programming are now available around the clock on some cable channels. Few broadcast networks now even offer original Saturday morning children's programs. Networks regularly offering children's programming are ABC, FOX, NBC, the WB, ABC Family, the Cartoon Network, the Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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