Here's a pop quiz for parents.
If a vigilante thug knocks at your door and announces his intention to entertain your children by stabbing and shooting to death a gang of "bad guys," would you let him in?
That might sound like a ridiculous question, but these days vigilante violence, mayhem, and even murder are routine events in most American living rooms. The culprits gain entry not through the front door but through the glowing screen of a television set.
By the time a youngster graduates from elementary school he or she will have witnessed 8,000 killings on TV, say researchers.
Many studies confirm that this is not just benign "entertainment." Development of the V-chip and a planned television rating system are expected to help address the problem. But a coalition of all state attorneys general and the American Medical Association say parents must play the most important role in protecting their children. They are urging parents to, in effect, keep their doors closed to violence on television and in other media.
"Would any of us deliberately invite someone into our homes to teach our children that violence is a good way to solve problems, will likely be rewarded, and causes no pain?," asks J. Joseph Curran Jr., attorney general for Maryland.
Mr. Curran and the nation's other attorneys general are concerned about the issue because research shows that violent programs spark aggressive behavior in certain children. Law-enforcement officials say they are struggling to counter what they call an "epidemic" of juvenile violence that they say is partly linked to TV shows, movies, and video games that are desensitizing kids.
To reverse this trend, the attorneys general are asking parents to monitor the content of television shows and of every CD, video game, and computer activity, to make sure they don't include destructive themes and negative influences.
"To reduce violence in society we must reduce children's exposure to media violence," says Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III.
In Maryland, as part of "National Tune Out the Violence Day," state officials today will begin distributing 500,000 copies of a booklet in which parents are asked to chronicle their children's television-viewing habits for a week and to rate each show in terms of violent content. The pamphlet suggests parents contact local television stations to register their disapproval of the worst shows and to compliment the stations on their best shows.
Parents in other states are urged to do the same.
Some experts say that 58 percent of all television programming is violent, with five to six violent acts occurring per hour during prime time. On Saturday mornings, when the audience is almost exclusively children, the rate of violence skyrockets to more than 20 violent acts per hour.
"We agree ... that parental responsibility is the key to raising healthy kids," says Dennis Wharton at the National Association of Broadcasters. But Mr. Wharton disputes allegations about television violence. He says a recent University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) study concluded that violence on network television shows is at its lowest point in many years.
For parents who find it difficult to screen every television show, there is help. The newly formed National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis is developing a detailed evaluation system - independent of the major broadcasters.
The institute has already completed children's impact statements for 15 television shows, four movies, three video games, and one computer game. The statements are available on the Internet at: www.mediaandthefamily.org.
It evaluates a media product for appropriateness for certain age groups by looking at violent and sexual content, whether vulgar or sexually explicit language is used, and whether the main characters are respectful, responsible, and caring, says executive director David Walsh.