Like many parents, Sarah Woodruff is concerned about the messages and images her children see in the media.
So when she took her sons, ages 4 and 6, to see the movie "Fly Away Home" in Durham, N.C., she didn't foresee any problems. But then came the previews - along with Barbra Streisand screaming that she wanted sex, now. "I was cringing. I was angry," Ms. Woodruff recalls. "How come nobody thought this would be inappropriate for young children?"
Experiences like Woodruff's resonate with many parents. The media's long reach has made it difficult to shield children from messages some consider inappropriate or negative.
From car crashes and sex scenes to glamorizing drugs and hypermarketing, the effect of media images on children has caused concern for decades. Violence has raised particular ire, and for good reason: The average child viewer will see 20,000 murders and 80,000 other assaults before leaving elementary school.
But in the past several years, a groundswell of activity has grown not only to monitor media messages but to respond to and influence them.
Parents are sending protest letters to entertainment executives and analyzing TV shows with their children. Media literacy groups, as well as family and religious organizations are offering education and ratings. Many state medical associations are labeling media violence a public-health issue and launching campaigns to combat it.
"The change is in the level of awareness," says David Walsh, director of the National Institute on Media and the Family in Minneapolis. Every time a major survey comes out, the percentage of parents who say they are concerned about the negative influence of media on children goes up.
But how they're responding is changing. In 1994, for example, Dr. Walsh published "Selling Out America's Children: How America Puts Profits Before Values and What Parents Can Do." What prompted him to write the book was the word "it."
"I kept hearing that word in the late '80s and '90s wherever I went," says Walsh, who conducts seminars on the subject. Parents would say things like, "There's nothing we can do about it, it is such a powerful force. I feel like we're just overmatched by it." A major part of what "it" is, he says, is mass media that influence attitudes and, in turn, values.
The most pivotal issue has been media violence. Politicians have leaned on Hollywood in response to public pressure, and gotten results: V-chip legislation has brought the discussion to the fore. Networks have been told to provide three hours per week of children's programming and are poised to rate all their shows starting in 1997.
Why? Children and teenagers spend 22 to 28 hours a week watching TV; the only thing they do more of is sleep. Prime-time viewers see an average of 150 acts of violence and about 15 murders a week.
Close to 65 percent of parents report that they limit their children's viewing time. But they can't always control what kids see.
Just ask Diane Levin. She and her family were on an airplane delayed for take-off. The Florida-bound plane was full of families. For their "viewing pleasure," they were shown a short news summary - of mass murders. "It's showing bodies, and it's showing people crying...." she recalls. Ms. Levin called a flight attendant. "Get that off," she said. "That's outrageous, there are kids on this plane." By the time they did, the show had ended.
But officials apologized and wrote it up on the flight report. "One voice can make a difference," says Levin, a professor at Wheelock College in Boston.
She finds herself saying that a lot. A child-development expert, Levin has done much research and written several books on media violence and war toys and their influence on children.
A year and a half ago, she founded Teachers for Resisting Unhealthy Children's Entertainment, a Somerville, Mass., group of educators and parents. TRUCE members encourage adults to write a letter or make a phone call every week expressing disapproval or approval of what they see in the media, on the Internet, and in the marketplace. "It seems like we're reaching a critical mass, and it's about to take off," Levin says.
TRUCE is one of many such groups sprouting up around the country.
"We found just in the past year a greater receptivity in the industry to thinking about the ramifications of what they're showing, says Laurie Trotta, director of communications for Mediascope, a nonprofit public policy group in Studio City, Calif. She attributes such progress to "political and social forces."
In Bethesda, Md., the Lion & Lamb Project aims to stop the merchandising of violence to children. "For a while, there was this sense that [parents] were helpless against the barrage," says founder and executive director Daphne White. "But now they're recognizing that they do have power over their children's entertainment choices."
At the same time, national groups have raised their profile. The American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss., is leading a boycott of the Disney Corp. They charge that Disney has "slid into the gutter" with violent movies such as "Pulp Fiction" and what they call antifamily values in films aimed at younger audiences. Another project of the Christian group is its drive to get "trash talk" TV shows off the air.
Americans for Responsible Television in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., is also working to better the offerings by contacting advertisers who sponsor programs.
A survey released by the American Medical Association in September stated that 75 percent of parents are "disgusted" with media violence, and that parents overwhelmingly want stronger rating systems for movies, television shows, and computer games.
"Parents want more information on the negative as well as the positive," says Walsh of the Institute of Media and the Family. The Institute recently announced plans to produce its own rating system for all media products.
Indeed, nothing can substitute for what goes on in the home, says Walsh. He, like many experts, is emphatic about keeping TVs out of kids' bedrooms. He counsels parents to watch TV only when something good is on. Parents also must inform themselves about what their kids are watching and playing on the screen.
Another key issue is media literacy. The movement has gained ground in helping families understand the media and the way TV, for example, delivers "eyeballs to advertisers." If viewers are more savvy, the reasoning goes, they will be less likely to be manipulated.
"We need to instill and establish ways to deal with media in the lives of children and in raising our children in the 21st century," says Elizabeth Thoman, founder and executive director of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles. How? Manage viewing, have schools teach critical viewing skills, and participate in larger public debates.
Reinforcement may also come from religious groups. The National Council on Churches has deemed 1997 "Media Awareness Year." The focal point will be a national teleconference in May on media issues from consumerism to substance abuse.
Cathi Coridan is a youth minister and a media-literacy consultant. "People are beginning to understand that popular culture is not something that happens to us, it's something we create," she says. "Just as parents buckle their kids in [the car], they need to start doing other things to safeguard their children."