Concern over the harmful effects of televised violence on children has prompted the development of antiviolence interventions to prevent these negative outcomes. These interventions have taken many different forms, from formal television literacy curricula implemented by schools to smaller-scale research efforts designed by individual researchers.
Television literacy curricula were first developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s to provide systematic instruction in how to watch television. Since then, many different organizations and individuals have developed television literacy materials, including the major television networks and organizations funded by the U.S. Office of Education. Television literacy programs have been used with children as early as kindergarten and as late as high school. They have been implemented in many different locations around the globe, including the United States, Sweden, South Africa, Great Britain, France, Canada, and Australia.
Advocates of television literacy curricula argue that, just as children need schooling to learn how to read, children must be taught how to watch television so they can become literate television viewers. According to this perspective, children who lack television literacy are at a greater risk of misunderstanding television and experiencing negative effects from exposure to it. As a result, they require intensive instruction in television literacy.
To prevent negative effects (including the imitation of televised violence) from occurring, television literacy curricula involve teaching children a number of skills and lessons regarding television. For example, children are often taught about the technical and economic aspects of producing television programs, the purpose of televised commercials, and the difference between the fantasy world of television and the real world. Some curricula may also include units that address certain types of televised portrayals, such as those featuring stereotypes and violence.
Often, the effectiveness of television literacy curricula is not empirically tested. As a result, it is difficult to determine how well the various programs work in protecting children from the negative effects of television. However, as Dorothy G. Singer and Jerome L. Singer (1998) noted, the empirical assessments that have been made indicate that television literacy curricula do help in successfully teaching children about television. For example, children who have participated in these kinds of programs can identify special effects, more easily distinguish between reality and the fantasy world of television, know more about advertising, and understand more television-specific vocabulary (e.g., "sponsor," "animation") than other children. It is often assumed that children who have developed these kinds of critical viewing skills will be less vulnerable to experiencing negative effects from viewing harmful media content, such as violence.
Unfortunately, many of the television literacy programs do not assess whether participating children are less affected by the violent television they view. However, there is some limited evidence that children who receive in-school lessons about television violence are less likely to be affected by this content than other children. For example, Marcel W. Vooijs and Tom H. A. van der Voort (1993) found in their study that children who are taught about the seriousness of violence became more critical viewers of televised violence. Likewise, L. Rowell Huesmann and his colleagues (1983) found in their study that children who participate in television literacy programs that highlight the undesirability of watching and imitating violent acts shown on television have more negative attitudes toward television violence and are less aggressive than other youngsters. It could be, then, that curricula aimed at decreasing the negative effects of televised violence need to encourage teaching children explicitly about this content rather than simply providing instruction about television in general.
Other efforts to intervene in the media violence-aggression relationship among children have taken different forms. For example, some efforts target parents rather than children and involve workshops, brochures, and videos. These materials often seek both to educate parents about the potential negative effects of television and to teach parents strategies for promoting critical viewing skills among their children. The assumption is that by educating parents about the harmful effects of television and teaching them skills for mitigating these effects, parents will "mediate" their children's television viewing. Unfortunately, as Singer and her colleagues (1980) noted, many parents are not interested in this kind of instruction, perhaps because they perceive television to be a problem for other children, not their own.
Although relatively few of the major efforts at teaching television literacy have included specific instruction about television violence, smaller-scale interventions designed to combat the effects of this particular content have been developed. These interventions are typically implemented by individual researchers who have designed very brief messages that they believe will counteract the negative effects of violent television on children. During the experiment, one group of children usually watches a clip from a violent television program with an experimenter who makes negative comments during the program, and another group usually watches the clip with an experimenter who either does not make any comments or makes very neutral comments. In both cases, after the program has been shown, the aggression levels of all of the children are assessed. It is expected that children who hear the negative comments during viewing will be less aggressive after exposure than will be children who do not hear negative comments. The assumption of this research appears to be that children need an adult to condemn the glamorous depiction of violence on television so that they will not experience negative effects from viewing this content. It should be noted that many of these experiments are conducted with the goal of developing strategies that parents could use when they watch violent television with their children. As a result, this research is very relevant to the work conducted on parental mediation.
Although there have only been a handful of studies that evaluate the effectiveness of these smaller-scale interventions, the research that has been conducted has yielded promising results. For example, David J. Hicks (1968) found in his experiment that children who hear an experimenter make negative comments about the television violence they are watching (e.g., "He shouldn't do that," "That's wrong," and so on) have less-aggressive attitudes and display less-aggressive behavior than do other children. Further, Amy I. Nathanson and Joanne Cantor (2000) found from their experiment that asking children to empathize with the victims of televised violence is also successful in reducing the likelihood that children will experience negative effects from watching television violence. It seems, then, that children can benefit from hearing very simple, straightforward messages regarding television violence.
Overall, research on antiviolence interventions suggests that children can learn to resist the negative messages they receive from violent television. Although the effectiveness of many of the formal television literacy programs is unknown, the available research indicates that instruction— whether it occurs as part of a formal curriculum or whether it occurs only as children view televised violence—should highlight the undesirability of the behavior that is being depicted. When faced with the often glamorous depictions of television violence, children may need adults to help them critically view this material and process it in a way that reduces the harmful effects.
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Amy I. Nathanson