AS politicians bemoan Hollywood's "depravity," saying it spawns antisocial behavior, a unique campaign is under way in Minnesota to persuade parents to limit the harm to children from media violence.
Launched in St. Paul, Minn., on June 6, the statewide campaign to "stop the media violence" will employ counseling as well as thousands of posters and brochures to teach parents how to better guide their children's television viewing.
The campaign is unusual because it enlists Minnesota's physicians to inform youths and their parents directly during office visits of the strong scientific evidence of harm to children from violent television programs, movies, and video games.
"If the kids watch a lot of violence, they are likely to imitate that behavior," says Lorrie Holmgren, communications manager at the 9,000-member Minnesota Medical Association (MMA), which is organizing the campaign.
The Minnesota drive reflects a growing, interventionist movement by doctors nationwide to promote public awareness and prevention of violence within families, including the widespread abuse of women, children, and the elderly.
For instance, a major theme of the American Medical Association's (AMA) annual meeting in Chicago next week will be the media's role in family violence. "Violence is by and large a learned behavior," said Robert McAfee, the AMA's president, in an interview. "The more violent activity children see in the media or real life, the more apt they are to accept it as a way to behave. So we are looking at all the options available to diminish the exposure of children to violence."
Most US children are born into homes where the TV set is turned on for several hours every day. On average, American children watch between 11 to 28 hours of television a week, making television viewing their most important activity except for sleep and school, numerous studies confirm.
Research data show that children are exposed to about five to six violent acts per hour on prime time television, and 20 to 25 violent acts on Saturday morning children's programs.
While many positive and educational programs do pass over the airwaves, experts stress that other shows glamorize alcohol use, smoking, drug use, and sexual promiscuity as risk-free. In addition, some advertising takes advantage of children's naivete to promote the sale of candy, junk food, and faddish toys.
In Minnesota, organizers say that although it is hard to predict how effective the new campaign will be, they hope it will prove as successful as the state's pioneering, decade-old antismoking drive, which was also strongly backed by the MMA.
As part of the drive, doctors will offer parents a brochure outlining 10 tips for guiding children's viewing. The tips include:
* Setting clear limits to the time children spend watching TV or movies or playing video games, while encouraging reading, music, sports, and other alternative activities.
* Not using TV as a babysitter or allowing indiscriminate viewing and "channel surfing."
* Avoiding placing the TV in a central location in the home and keeping it out of children's rooms.
* Selecting the programs that children watch and focusing on high-quality, nonviolent shows.
* Watching and discussing shows with children, and talking about more realistic and peaceful solutions to on-screen conflicts.
Experts say that despite the evidence of its powerful influence on children's attitudes and behavior, the media should not become a scapegoat. "We have to first look in the mirror and take responsibility for what kids are watching," says David Walsh, author of "Selling Out America's Children," a book about the influence of TV and advertising on children's values.