A made-for-television movie about child abuse may have led to the murder of one infant and a "near miss" in another case, the journal Pediatrics reports.
The cases are the first published reports of TV child abuse apparently leading to real child abuse, write Drs. Robert Wharton and Frederick Mandell of Boston.
In the 1977 CBS movie "Mary Jane Harper Cried Last Night," re-aired by a Boston station in 1983, the mother engages in increasingly severe forms of child abuse. In the last scene, as the child cries incessantly, she is shown heading for the child's room with a pillow, "and you know that she's going to kill this kid," Wharton said in an interview.
In both cases at Boston Children's Hospital's emergency room, the mother was a single parent, as in the film. One told authorities that she put a pillow over her infant's face to stop it from crying. An autopsy showed the baby was strangled.
In the other case, the mother brought her baby to the emergency room complaining that it would not stop crying and saying she was afraid she would "put a pillow over the child's face."
Both mothers had watched the movie.
"At the time, we didn't make much of it," Wharton says. But after reviewing the records, they noticed the connection. And a call to a local parents' hotline showed that the number of calls from "stressed" parents increased after the program.
The doctors point out three reasons to believe the television program led to the violence:
The real mothers were "socially isolated," as in the film.
In the program, the decision to use violence was depicted as a "very effective solution."
"Finally, the aggressive behavior, by its position as the last scene in the film, is obviously not punished."
"With television, there is a kind of imitative behavior," Wharton says. And he notes, "Kids are learning to be parents from what they watch on TV."