by Megan McNamer
When my boys were two and five, they loved watching Disneys Beauty and the Beast. I approved of this because not only is the heroine famous for her brains, but the Beast, you might recall, has to undergo the kind of substantive transformation usually reserved for sleeping princesses or mermaids. He loses his fur and fangs and turns into a friendly, civilized prince with a soft upper lip and a shag haircut. Then he and Belle live happily ever after.
My little boys, however, much preferred the Beast as beast. At the final scene, when Belle and the prince dance hand in hand in a peaceful, redemptive, soaring waltz, theyd hit the off button. They seemed to want to keep the penultimate scene, the Big Fight, fresh in their minds.
Why did they like the Beast so much? Why does there always have to be a Big Fight? Are little girls generally so fixated? I was hoping for at least a few neat answers to my questions about children, violence and the media from John and Rita Sommers-Flanagan, both clinical psychologists with substantial counseling experience.
Rita Sommers-Flanagan, an associate professor at The University of Montana, teaches in UMs counselor education program. Her husband, John, is an adjunct faculty member in the same program, and he directs Families First, a resource for parent education in Missoula. They are also co-authors of Tough Kids, Cool Counseling, a guide for counselors working with troubled and aggressive young people.
The Media and Violence: The Chicken or the Egg?
The more I talked with the Sommers-Flanagans about correlations between video or TV viewing and violence in children, the more I realized the complicated nature of this topic. Theres a certain ambivalence, it seems to me, surrounding the questions we parents pose about media violence. Didnt we watch plenty of westerns when we were young and didnt we turn out okay? Sometimes our questions can seem overwrought, even ridiculous: Are Ninja turtles good role models? Is it okay to watch pirates?
But we know, I think, that the answers matter because bad things can happen in the world of children. The influence of television has never gone backward, John says, and I dont think it ever will. And the statistics are sobering. According to a 1986 study by the American Psychological Association cited in Big
World, Small Screen:
Do these figures include, I wondered, the murder of Gaston-the testosterone-burdened bad guy in Beauty and the Beast who fights the Beast and is sent accidentally-on-purpose plummeting to his death? Even if the multiple deaths of such characters as the indomitable Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons arent counted (reducing the above statistics by several thousand), that still leaves thousands of murders to behold. With such a steady diet of mayhem, is it any wonder young people in this country seem prone to aggression?
It seems such a straightforward question. But when I asked the Sommers-Flanagans to cite causes of aggressive behavior in young people, they listed, first, real-life factors such as poverty, abuse, alcoholism in parents, overcrowded schools and stressful environments.
Which is not to say that TV violence doesnt count.
Perhaps the most salient MTV message is, whether you are male or female, act sexual, the Sommers-Flanagan study reports. Viewers are clearly given the message that romance, sexual attraction and sexually suggestive activity are central human activities.
The Sommers-Flanagans MTV study focuses on what is on the screen; it doesnt attempt to link television viewing and social behavior. But similar studies dealing specifically with aggression show that heavy viewers of television in general behave more aggressively than light viewers. And, regardless of education, social class, attitudes, parental behavior and sex-role identity, those viewers who watch a lot of aggressive TV programs tend to favor the use of aggression to solve conflicts.
And when it comes to those TV westerns many of us viewed as children, Rita is not especially sanguine. They didnt make me go out and kill Indians, no, she says, but the continuous images of the easy loss of Indians lives had to have devalued their life for me.
Television: Kill it or Curb it?
Selling your television at a garage sale is one approach to managing its effects, and the Sommers-Flanagans list it as a possible solution. But it might be a stopgap measure. So the Sommers-Flanagans have come up with some more pragmatic guidelines for parents, including these:
Watch television with your child and discuss what you see.
Recognize and control the addictive powers of television by
Set clear limits on the amount of viewing.
Dont allow a child to have a television in his or her own room.
Teach children to be smart about the persuasive effects of advertising.
Be stronger and more interesting than television.