With the recent spate of school shootings, there has been renewed public concern over how violence is depicted in the media, particularly on television.
Television's influence is obvious: An estimated 98 percent of U.S. homes have at least one television; two-thirds have three or more. In the average home, the television is turned on seven hours, 12 minutes a day.
Studies have shown that the average child has witnessed 8,000 murders on television before finishing elementary school.
Dr. Paramjit T. Joshi, a child psychiatrist and founding director of the Johns Hopkins Children's Center's Office for the Prevention of Violence, believes parents need to take more control over their children's viewing habits.
"Children who are raised surrounded by violence develop an emotional immunity to it," Dr. Joshi writes, "and often grow up themselves to be the perpetrators of the same violence."
Here are some of his thoughts on children and the effect of television:
Q: How worried should parents be that TV violence may be harming their children?
A: They should be very worried about it. More than 4,000 studies have looked at the effects of television. The average child watches 1,680 minutes of television per week, while parents spend 38.5 minutes in meaningful conversation with a child.
A survey of children age 4 to 6 found that more than half preferred watching television over spending time with their fathers. Fifty-four percent of children have a TV set in their bedroom.
That's the backdrop. You know television viewing is a very passive experience. Usually children don't watch television in the company of adults. Unfortunately, a lot of adults use television as a baby sitter. Therefore, there is no dialogue, and it impedes development of communications skills.
Q: How can parents protect their children from TV violence?
A: First, the parents really need to be monitors of what their children are watching. All television is not bad, but it needs to be seriously scrutinized. Look at how concerned parents get when a teen-ager is learning to drive. For some reason, we don't take television watching by youngsters seriously.
I would recommend that parents need to be able to watch television with their children and help them process what they've watched. Ask questions about how it made them feel, or a problem-solving question: Could this person have done something besides getting in a fight?
Q: Are certain children more at risk of being harmed by TV violence?
A: Absolutely. Children who are anxious, a little more afraid or have trouble with separation anxiety. Those who suffer from major psychiatric disorders such as depression or have been diagnosed with development difficulties, or children who themselves have been victims of violence or trauma.
Q: What shows should be avoided? Are cartoons harmful? The news?
A: It's not a particular show seen once or twice. It's a cumulative effect. It's the degree and intensity of the content. Watching show after show that is violent on a perpetual basis with a vulnerable child is much more harmful than an occasional viewing.
Q: What's the proper way to set limits on TV viewing?
A: We need to be up front. A good way is to keep a diary of the kind of shows children watch. Go through the log and discuss the programs with your children. Was there something good about it? What did they enjoy?
If you explore these shows, it will be a conversation instead of a parent coming down heavy-handed and setting the rules. Maybe you can decide together that some program wasn't such a great idea if the child had a nightmare after watching it.
Q: What about other forms of media? Should parents be worried about video games, music lyrics, movies?
A: Yes. We tend to blame television entirely, but other forms of media are troubling, too. Some of these lyrics are quite damaging. Some of the video games are very vivid, the graphics very realistic.
There's a numbing effect. When I was a child, we'd cringe at the idea of a murder. Well, it doesn't faze the kids anymore.
Q: How can I decide what age is appropriate for what level of content?
A: The rule of thumb is to never give more than the child is ready for. The child will give you indications when enough is enough.
Q: What do you do when an older brother and sister want to watch a program that isn't appropriate for a younger sibling?
A: They must be reminded that just as older kids have a later bedtime or other privileges that younger children don't, watching certain TV programs is a privilege.
Q: Is it a good idea for a child to have a television in his room?
A: I don't think so. It forces children not to interact with families and secludes them. It's also harder to monitor what they are watching.