The Desensitization of Today's Children
In recent years, there has been a marked increase in the aggressive behavior of modern society's children. This unfortunate circumstance is visible, not only through irrefutable crime statistics, such as the dramatic rise in gun violence among teenagers in the past decade, but also through the now widespread usage of medication to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in younger children. Indeed, such adverse social change cries out for more than an explanation, or worse, a useless justification, but in fact deserves a viable and realistic solution. That being said, it is also quite impossible to determine what the vital remedy will be without a thorough and accurate determination of the causes for the behavioral shift.
There does indeed exist an obvious parallel to the rise of aggressive behavior among today's youth, that being the nearly simultaneous increase in children's exposure to the media, specifically television and advertising, and the subsequent increase in violent behavior during programming and commercials. Beyond that, children are quickly becoming targeted by ad campaigns that utilize violent acts, such as murder and physical altercations as a means of solving problems, to sell any number of products to the younger generation (Shimanovsky, 41).
This continued, and unfortunately unimpeded, exposure to violence directly contributes to the rise in aggressive behavior in that, as children are bombarded with images of murder, fighting, and physical domination, this type of behavior quickly becomes the norm, leaving children, not only in a heightened state of stress, but also desensitized toward similar acts in the real world. In his study of brain development, Evolution's End, author Joseph Chilton Pearce offers some further investigation on the severity of this issue: "While the screen itself prevents neural development, its contents affect behavior".Once one has habituated to violence as a way of life," anything less is boring. There are sixteen acts of violence of violence per hour on children's programming, only eight per hour on adult's” (169). Beyond that, children who are habitual television viewers begin to crave a heightened level of stimulation, in whatever form it's readily available to them, so, if there happens to be no access to television for an extended period of time, such as during school hours, they act out aggressively in order to prompt the familiar dramatic response.
Often parents feel a false sense of comfort by only allowing their children to view age-appropriate programs. However, the danger lies in who exactly determines what content is suitable for which age groups. Specifically, quite a few animated programs on the Cartoon Network are labeled with the rating ‘TV-Y7', meaning that that particular program is geared toward children age seven and above, further noting that the skill of accurately distinguishing between reality and fiction would be beneficial as well (Shimanovsky, 43). However, it's unclear at exactly what age it becomes less of a challenge to recognize television imagery as make-believe.
Beyond that, parents often neglect to realize that their children are exposed to adult levels of violence during the hours when they themselves watch television. Meaning, parents may be enjoying one of their favorite prime-time crime dramas, which are, in fact, largely responsible for the 75% increase in violence between the hours of 8 and 10pm, and mistakingly believe that their children aren't paying attention to the imagery on the screen (Rowland A1). However, children are quite adept at multi-tasking, and their brains, particularly those of children around age 5, are skillful at retaining any and information.
Yet another false sense of security acts a challenge even for parents who recognize the problem of violence during their children's programming and seek to take an active role in decreasing their children's exposure to such aggression. The V-chip, ‘V' standing for violence, is meant to block certain programs from being watched without knowledge of a predetermined code. Ideally, children are effectively kept from viewing programs that hold a rating above PG or PG-13. However, in adherence to FCC regulations, only television programs need to be rated, leaving the opportunity for advertisers to take full advantage of children's susceptibility to violent imagery during advertising. In a block of Saturday morning cartoons, most with a ‘Y' or ‘Youth' rating, there were over one hundred acts of violence during 8 advertisements (Shimanovsky, 43).
The FCC has been asked to enforce rating requirements on advertisers, at the very least advertisers who are targeting children. However, the Supreme Court has determined that advertisers, unless intentionally misleading their audience or using obscene imagery, are protected by the first amendment and can essentially use whatever imagery they like to sell their product. Though this ruling does not specifically indicate that a rating system would infringe on any constitutional rights, such a system has yet to be created.
Indeed, in a world where parents seem to, unfortunately, have less and less control over their children's habits, due to any number of factors such as the increase in the number of households where either the sole parent or both parents are in the workforce, it seems that attempting to mitigate children's television viewing, particularly among older children, is an exercise in futility. However, if it is indeed possible that one or both parents can be present when the television is being viewed, the potential for a solution exists. With violence so prevalent during programming, it would impossible to switch the channel or turn the television off altogether each time a violent act occurs, but, as noted by Marina Krcmar in her article “The Contribution of Family Communication Patters to Children's Interpretations of Television Violence”, parental guidance can act as a sort of buffer to violent imagery: “It is evident, therefore, that parent and other adult interaction about television can impact the way children respond to it". The broader communication environment in the home also seems to affect how children understand and are impacted by what they see on television” (255). So, a potential solution to the modern-day problem of children's desensitization toward violence could simply be to recognize that an adult should be present and actively viewing the programs with children, perhaps talking about any particularly offensive material so as to lessen the damaging effects of the media.
There does exist another, undoubtedly more effective, solution to the social plague of youthful aggression, but it does require an increased sense of parental responsibility. Somehow, in the past two to three decades, it became acceptable to allow young children to mindlessly stare at the television for hours on end, and, as those children grew, the impact from the media not only took a real and viable toll on their minds and behavior, but also became a crucial part of their daily lives. If parents could resist the urge to allow young children to watch television, indeed beginning by not falling prey to the seeming educational programs like Baby Einstein or Sesame Street, the television addiction could never form. Certainly, there is the valid drawback of perhaps the parent not having as much free time during the day, as parent-child interaction would need to increase. However, a habit that has never had the chance to form can easily be replaced through the availability of age-appropriate toys, whose appeal, while it certainly pales in comparison to the sensory-overload of television, is incredibly beneficial and, in fact, essential to brain and social development.
Children that live today enjoy little to no peace and quiet, with constant noise from electronics, television or otherwise. This alone would contribute to a marked rise in the stress response, which is often mistaken for a symptom of ADHD. However, the nonstop stimulation from machines combined with the inappropriate, violent nature of television has unfairly damaged the attitudes of today's youth. Furthermore, aggression levels cannot be allowed to continue their rise, and, ultimately there may be no solution outside of the home. Parents need to recognize the very real danger that is in their living rooms, take the initiative, and refuse to let their children be harmed any further.
Krcmar, Marina. "The Contribution of Family Communication Patterns to Children's Interpretations of Television Violence." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 42.2 (1998): 250+.
Pearce, Joseph Chilton. Evolution's End. San Francisco: Harper, 1993. 169.
Rowland, Kara. "TV Violence Found to Be More Frequent, Graphic; Group Decries Harm to Children." The Washington Times 11 Jan. 2007: A01.
Shimanovsky, Michael, and Barbara Jo Lewis. "Influences Exerted on the Child Viewer When Exposed to Violent Imagery in Television and Print Advertising." Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 29.1-2 (2006): 41+.