I wish I could say that my children never watch television, but there is a certain truthfulness required in a newspaper column, so here it is: my children have watched cartoons on Saturday morning and "M.A.S.H." after 7:30 at night and the "Dukes of Hazzard," and "CHiPs," and the "Greatest American Hero" and "Wonder Woman," and "Magnum P.I." They have watched "The Incredible Hulk" and the "Six Million Dollar Man" and "Battlestar Galactica", and they have occasionally, dare I say it?, even been allowed to watch monster movies in the afternoon. There you have it.
Now comes a government report on a 10-year study concluding that violence on television can lead to aggressive behavior among children and teen-agers. This, I have to tell you, comes as no surprise. I am the mother of a six-year-old, who at the height of the popularity of the "Incredible Hulk," thought that leaping from sofa to sofa while making fierce growls and scary faces was a completely appropriate form of behavior. Needless to say, his sister, who was somewhere between one and two years old at the time, did the same thing.
CBS and NBC are already trying to take shots at the scientific validity of the study. But the empirical evidence available to any parent is that children are influenced by television and will emulate what they see to some extent, whether they dance across the room after watching the beginning of "Fame" or take up boxing as a way of dealing with life's setbacks after watching the "Dukes of Hazzard."
The conventional thinking about T television and children has been that it is up to parents to regulate their children's viewing, and if there is a show inappropriate for children they should turn the set off. That is nice in theory. But in fact, the average family has its television on some six hours a day, according to a recent statement by a cable television executive.
You can argue all day that you shouldn't plant children in front of the television and expect it to be a baby sitter, but the reality is that for many parents it is. Parents who work all week can make a reasonable argument that they would like to sleep in on Saturday mornings with the knowledge that their children are watching television in the family room instead of lighting matches in the kitchen.
Parents who don't get home from work until after their children get home from school find a certain sense of security in knowing their children can watch television inside instead of being out on the street. This may not be the ideal child-care arrangement, but it's the best many families can afford.
"The Serious Business of Growing Up," a study recently published by the University of California Press, found that television watching is the most frequent family activity: 35 percent of their survey households had the set on from afternoon through evening. Given the importance of the industry in American life, it seems perfectly appropriate to begin expecting it to deliver entertainment that doesn't pollute children's minds, much as we now expect the auto industry to deliver cars that don't pollute the air.
Television is a source of T information, education, inexpensive entertainment and relaxation. It is an industry that uses public airwaves. Instead of parents having to turn off sets they paid good money for in order to protect their children from violent influences, it seems much more realistic to hold the industry accountable for more responsible children's programming. There is no reason why the industry should be excused for saturating children's minds with violence during Saturday morning cartoons.
Television programming for children has been the industry's lowest priority. It hit a record low this year when CBS relegated "Captain Kangaroo," one of the few excellent, entertaining and educational shows for children, to a half-hour time slot beginning at 6:30 a.m., when many elementary schoolchildren aren't even up.
Citizens' groups have sprung up in recent years to protest violence and perceived immorality in television. So far, they have not had much success. This new study, however, formalizes findings many parents have made on their own. This is the kind of ammunition consumer groups have been waiting for. It rings true, no matter what the networks try to say.
The responsible network response to the study will be for the industry to begin regulating its product so that it does not damage consumers. If it does not, then consumers ought to begin finding ways to regulate the industry so it does not damage society.