Letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)
April 12, 1976
To the Editor:
"The Effect of Television Violence on Children and Youth" by Michael B. Rothenberg, MD, omits two fundamental realities that need facing when one grapples with the television-violence issue.
First is the reality that an overwhelming majority of citizens of all age, racial, ethnic, religious, educational, and economic levels watch television. These citizens determine the success or failure of any program. The more watching, the more advertisers are willing to sponsor a program. Either with enthusiasm or with passionate rejection, the violence objected to by Dr. Rothenberg is viewed by an overwhelming percentage of people. They want to see violence. The Nielsen Index proves it, and all the Ph.D.'s in the television networks know it. Perhaps we all, before we criticize television, should do our own tabulating of what our home sets are turned on to. We protest, but we typically leave the set on.
The second reality is that of tendency to externalize the sources of our problems. For example, when our children or youth act up, we blame someone or something else -- everything and anything possible, including television. In truth, we should be looking in the mirror. What goes on between people in the home has been and will continue to be much more important than what is shown on television sets. The main problem, as I see it, is that television offers scant help to those of us who (we hope) do not create violence in the home.
That children will imitate violence and that the viewing of violence produces an increased aggressive behavior surely point to the need for remedial action, but that action must be realistic and cognizant of the aforementioned realities. Remedial action cannot interfere with what the public demands to be shown, especially when the commercial television stations know it and their existence demands it. In fact, television violence (and sexuality) will continue even more so as the population increases in age, as the importance of child diminishes, and as traditional family people shrink in numbers to irrelevancy in both commercial and political clout.
Realistic remedial action ought to include the following:
1. Cooperation with the television industry in a way livable for all. For example, instead of the "family hour" I would prefer "family minutes" -- about 60 of them randomly inserted in the appropriate programs. The messages would be about television itself, family values, reality, and active involvement in other things. A ten-second sampler: "If you imitate a lot of these TV characters, your family life will be lousy."
2. Pamphleteering is insufficient. "Guidelines available in every doctor's office, hospital clinic, and child health station," also need more positive action from medical personnel. As a repertoire of "stop smoking" approaches have been spontaneously developed for use by physicians, a comparable series of verbal and interactional statements deemphasizing television for patients of all ages needs vigorous promulgation. In other words, "speak up" to your patients.
3. One can embrace energy-conservation efforts with enthusiasm by turning off television sets, if not at the source then at least in his own home, and by developing a repertoire of activities that create action rather than passivity.
Recently, I found myself turning off the set with the proclamation: "If we keep watching this crap, our brains will rot." Then we all had some family togetherness and I found myself hoping that television never gets any better. In fact we might leave the programming alone -- if it becomes so good that we cannot turn it off, then our society will really be in trouble.
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