Violence, selfishness and insults have skyrocketed on national television since the first year of the war on terror, my second-grade students at Rosa Parks Elementary in Berkeley found.
For the last decade, I’ve had students analyze television preceding National TV-off week organized by the TV-Turnoff Network.
The mostly 7-year-old students are asked to collect all the data themselves since their teacher has never owned a television. An average total of 35 children’s television shows, both in Spanish and English, are studied for a period of seven days.
The first day of the study, as homework, students record how many times they see hitting, hurting or killing on half-hour segments of the shows they regularly watch, viewed from beginning to end. The second day, they are to focus on acts of selfishness; the third day, on instances of put-downs and the fourth day, on the number of times a typical class rule is broken.
Finally, in class, each of four groups of students compiles the data produced by the homework, focusing on one of the four variables in the study. But this year, when I pulled out old samples of graphs compiled by a class in April 2002 as models, the contrasts between the graphs produced five years ago and this April shocked my students.
“In a half hour of Jackie Chan in 2002 you would see hitting 10 times at most,” wrote gifted 7-year old Flynn Michael Legg. “In 2007, shows of Jackie Chan had 34 hitting scenes.”
For the 2001/2002 season—year one of President George Bush’s “war on terror”—nearly one-fourth of the television shows my students watched had one or no acts of violence at all in one half-hour. Now, of the shows they randomly watch, only That’s So Raven continues to have no violence, and all other shows have at least three instances of hitting or violence in one half-hour. Today, nearly half of shows randomly viewed by my students contain hitting or more violent acts seven to 34 times each half-hour.
The maximum number of gratuitous put-downs or insults has nearly doubled since 2002, going from 10 in That’s So Raven to 18 in Dumb and Dumber—over one put-down every two minutes. In Sponge Bob Square Pants, Flynn pointed out, one would hear at most two put-downs in 2002. Today it’s 16. No shows had more than 10 put-downs in 2002. Now three shows did (Sponge Bob: 16; Dumb and Dumber: 18; Letty La Fea: 13).
Very few shows have no insults at all any more. All the shows my students watched this year showed people or characters being selfish at least once in each half-hour. In 2002, only three shows had more than three acts of selfishness in a half hour. Now, 10 did. Half of the shows showed five to nine instances of selfishness each half hour.
Students also found that in April 2002, only one show depicted the violation of ordinary class rules (no hitting, put-downs, swearing, etc.) twelve or more times. In April of 2007, the number of such programs rose to six.
In 2001, the maximum times class rules were broken on a given half-hour show was 17 on one show. In 2007 the number of such shows has quadrupled with the maximum number of rules broken on a given show doubling or reaching over 34. These differences compelled us to substantiate our findings with Internet research. Indeed, children in the “yellow group” found that according to a 2007 study by the Parent’s Television Council (PTC) called “Dying to Entertain,” since 1998, violence on the ABC network has quadrupled (a 309 percent increase).
In 1998 the station had about one act of violence per hour (0.93). By 2007, it was almost four or 3.8 on average. CBS, according to the PTC study, had the highest percentage of deaths during 2005-6, with over 66 percent of violent scenes depicting death after 8 p.m. (www.parentstv.org).
Students in the “blue group” reading the same PTC study noted that now violence has shifted to being more central to the story with more graphic autopsy scenes or torture scenes. The study remarks that the 2005-6 season beginning in the fall was one of the most violent ever recorded by the PTC.
Precocious 7-year-old Maeve Gallagher reported in her essay: “The green group found kids will have seen 200,000 violent acts on television by age 18 … and 16,000 murders,” according to Real Vision, a project of the TV-Turnoff Network.
“Videos and TV are ‘teaching kids to like killing,’ according to a 1999 Senate Judiciary Committee Report entitled ‘Children, Violence and the Media,’” Maeve cited.
The Senate report also found that 10 percent of crimes committed are caused by violence seen on television. The findings by students in the red group convinced the rest of the class to limit their viewing of television, turning it off completely during the TV-Turnoff Network’s TV-off week—something they were reluctant to do when our unit of television study began.
What they discovered, largely thanks to the TV-Turnoff Network’s website (www.tvturnoff.org) is that there are more televisions (2.73) in the average home than people (2.55). The average home has a television on eight hours a day, more than was the case 10 years ago, asserts Nielsen (2006).
Children who watch six or more hours a day perform worse on reading tests than do those who watch one hour a day or don’t play video games, reports the Center for Screentime Awareness (www.screentime.org).
And by the time they finish high school, children will have spent more hours watching TV than in school. “I suspect the increase in television violents [sic] has something to do with the war on terror,” Andres Ventura hypothesized in his essay summing up his conclusions to the study. “By scaring kids and parents and pushing violents [sic], people are more likely to vote for war. The TV makes you dumb because if you see a lot it makes you forget things. It makes parents dumb too. It makes them forget how things were when they were kids.”
“If you watch too much TV when you are an adult, you lose the kid that is inside you,” Maeve Gallagher agreed.
“Watching television replaces your imagination with television thinking and there’s not much space left after that,” Daniel Hernandez-Deras, commented a few years ago.
One of the most shocking facts my students found was that according to the TV-Turnoff Network’s Real Vision project, parents spend only 38.5 minutes a day with their children in meaningful conversation.
And more than half of 4-6 years olds (54 percent) would rather watch TV than spend time with their parents. This finding inspired Alejandro González’s unique conclusion: “I think Jorge [sic] Bush wants to make people more scared. We know Jorge [sic] Bush likes war. And… TV makes you like more war. What’s scary is kids spend more time seeing TV than being with their dad. Since our study, I turn off the TV more and go play with my dad. Maybe the president used to watch more TV than being with his dad.”
Margot Pepper is a Mexican-born journalist and author whose work has been published internationally. Her memoir, Through the Wall: A Year in Havana, was a top nomination for the 2006 American Book Award.