TV Values: Bart's Bad Influence

Two new studies show extent that TV portrays negative behavior and the effect on children

WHEN children click on the TV set looking for entertainment, they sometimes get an unexpected education as well - one that encourages deceitful behavior, disrespect for parents, and early sexuality.

That is the conclusion of two major studies about children and the entertainment media released yesterday. Commissioned by Children Now, a California-based advocacy organization, they mark the most comprehensive surveys to date on television's portrayal of children and its potentially negative effects on youthful values.

In a national poll of 750 10- to 16-year-olds, two-thirds of participants say that children their age are influenced by what they see on television. Four-fifths think TV entertainment shows should help teach children right from wrong.

Sixty-five percent of those polled find that programs such as ``The Simpsons'' and ``Married ... With Children'' encourage a lack of respect for parents. And more than three-quarters think television portrays too much sex before marriage, with 62 percent stating that this influences young viewers toward early sex.

Reinforcing these findings is a separate study examining how children are portrayed in entertainment programs on network and cable television. The content study found that the majority of child characters engage in pro-social acts - telling the truth, sharing, helping others, and meeting responsibilities - but that 40 percent exhibit antisocial behavior. This includes lying, being physically or verbally aggressive, and neglecting responsibility. Some of that negative behavior helps TV characters achieve their goals, thereby encouraging lying or being aggressive to get ahead.

Almost all of this negative behavior - 95 percent - appears on commercial television, the analysis finds. PBS - noncommercial televison - presents the most positive role models, with only 10 percent of its child characters exhibiting antisocial behavior.

According to Katharine Heintz-Knowles, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Washington who conducted the analysis, child characters are most often influenced by peer relationships, romance, and sports. Communities, schools, and religion are far less powerful influences.

Speaking of the findings, James Steyer, president of Children Now, says, ``This is a huge issue for us as a society to deal with. Kids are exposed to media today in a way they never have been before. At the same time, they're growing up facing more difficult choices and consequences at earlier ages, from sexuality to violence to `How do I make it in a changing world?' They need a strong foundation and strong values.''

Among the young people polled, two-thirds live in a household with three or more TV sets. More than half have a set in their own room.

``Being bad is cool.''

One participant, 14-year-old Rayelyn Rodriguez of South Gate, Calif., watches five or six hours of television a day, ranging from comedies and dramas to MTV. Some programs convey positive values, she finds. Others feature young characters who send the message that ``being bad is cool.''

As for TV portrayals of sex, Ms. Rodriguez adds, ``They tell kids, `Everybody's doing it.' Then some kids think, `Well, if everyone's doing it, why don't I?' ''

This perception by students that programs encourage early sexual activity surprises Jeffrey Cole of the University of California at Los Angeles. ``It's not exactly that they're wrong,'' he says. ``But I've always thought TV was more conservative than the country as a whole. Clearly television teaches that kids sometimes have sex, but the message almost always is that the parents are unhappy and the kids are too young.''

Good gender equality

Among the poll's positive findings, a majority of children say that TV offers enough role models for girls and shows girls and boys as equals. The content study confirms that programs feature roughly equal numbers of boy and girl characters. Even so, 70 percent of the youths polled complain that kids on TV don't deal with the same problems they do.

``Kids are mostly used for comedy,'' explains Mr. Cole. ``In one technique a kid will say something that seems funny only because it's coming from a child.

``A good move, and not a difficult one,'' says Cole, ``would be for programs to look at kids as real people, doing real things, and not just as the setup for the punch line on the joke.''

Mr. Steyer and other child advocates hope the two studies will encourage industry executives to strengthen the messages they give young viewers. Among other changes, he wants programs to show the negative consequences of antisocial behavior, such as physical aggression, violence, or lying.

He also hopes networks will increase the number of Latino characters, which represent only 2 percent of children on television.

Finally, Steyer wants producers to become more conscious of how they portray boys and girls. ``Since children on entertainment TV are motivated most by peer relationships and romance, it's important for the industry to avoid stereotyping relationships,'' he says.

``TV and the media should not be a scapegoat for all of our problems about kids and values, but they can't be a scofflaw either,'' Steyer adds. ``This is a time for every major segment of society ... to step up to the plate and do their part to improve the quality of childhood by equipping kids with the ability to do the right thing and make good choices.''

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