This article is part 3 of 4 in a series on Kids & TV
With children now watching an average of four hours of TV each day, parents have their work cut out for them if they want to minimize the influence of inappropriate content, especially violence, on their kids' behavior.
Years of research shows that children really do "learn about violence and how to commit violence" from activities such as watching TV, says media expert and Harvard psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint.
"The violent scenarios on television tell children that this is one of the primary ways that you handle conflict. You don't have to negotiate. You fight it out," Poussaint says.
He also worries that televised violence, particularly as entertainment, can "create anxiety, cause nightmares and have a lasting impact on the psyche." Moreover, he says, seeing enough hostility on TV can cause an insensitivity or "numbness to violence."
In his work, Poussaint has seen cases such as a child so obsessed with Power Rangers programs that he would "go bananas with aggression" after watching the show - kicking and acting out the action, even getting in fights at school. But Poussaint worries even more about the TV-watching child who lives in an environment with real physical threats, due to abuse in the home or danger in the streets. That child is "more vulnerable to being stirred up to act out urges and tendencies."
Still, debate about the influence of TV violence on children has gone on for years, and not everyone agrees that media violence is unhealthy. Gerard Jones, a father who wrote the provocative book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence, argues that kids need fantasy violence because it provides a way for them to objectify the anger or frustration they naturally have.
He cites a 2003 Independent Television Commission study in the United Kingdom that analyzed children's reactions to TV. The study showed that kids "really weren't affected negatively at all by simple cops-and-robbers shoot-outs, slapstick comedy or superhero fistfights," Jones says.
"I'm a great proponent of slapstick comedy," he adds, calling it "an antidote to the constraints of the overly serious adult worlds [kids] have to endure in school, at home and in extracurricular activities." And superhero action, he says, "is a great source of emotional recharge, a release of tension, and fantasies of courage and competence."
Yet, even Jones agrees that kids can be exposed to too much, too soon. "Our culture has become steadily more open about what can be shown and discussed in public forums. It can certainly have a down side, especially when there's a lot of titillation and not much information."
Gregory Keer is a writer, teacher and father of three boys. Read his Family Man column on Parenthood.