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We are what we watch

November 3, 2008 - Betsy Bethel
We watch PBS cartoons at our house because 1) We like the shows and 2) It is one of two channels we get (the other is CBS). "Curious George," "DragonTales," "Clifford" and "Caillou" are some of our favorites. Emma likes them, too. (LOL!)

We don't do cable, satellite or digital for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is we don't need or want such instant access to all the violent and sexually explicit content. Commercials also drive us nuts.

As parents, we cannot be too careful about what media our young children consume. Their little brains are sponges. If we are trying to raise level-headed, respectful and non-whiny children, cartoons featuring, for example, that most famous of all sponges should be off limits to them.

But if you want your little ones to be aggressive, hateful, demanding and whiny, by all means, bring on the violent, hateful and disrespectful shows.

"Parents have been socialized to think that cartoon violence is harmless, but it's not," says Dr. Dimitri Christakis, co-author of a report on cartoon violence that appeared in the medical journal Pediatrics. "Speaking broadly, the link between on-screen violence and subsequent violent behavior is as strong as evidence that smoking causes lung cancer," Christakis said.

Why is this so hard for us to understand? Why do we think we aren't what we watch? As an adult, I STILL am affected by what I watch and read and witness.

How can it be that we can expect our little ones -- even infants -- to remain unaffected when they repeatedly witness certain behaviors? Don't we repeatedly show them the positive behaviors we want them to learn? Don't we consistently direct them AWAY from the negative behaviors we want them to avoid, either for their own safety or out of civil propriety?

Aren't we as parents RESPONSIBLE for teaching our children right from wrong?

I have seen how Emma is affected by the PBS shows she watches. She sings and dances happily to the theme songs. When playing with her toys, she acts out whole scenes from some of her favorites. Heck, she even absorbs the promotional messages on the channel. Just this morning, I said to her, "Let's see what's on PBS," and she giggled and said, "PBS dot org!" I'm so glad it was just that, rather than a jingle for the hottest new toy.

I have been saddened when friends have told me they see more and more young elementary school age children at the theaters seeing PG-13 and even R-rated movies.

Newsflash: "King Kong" and "Batman" and "Saw" are not kids' flicks! They are not harmless just because your child's classmates have seen them. You say your child isn't sensitive to that stuff? That he or she has thick skin and can handle it? That she never complains of nightmares?

Maybe so. But parents who allow their children to watch these movies (in addition to violent cartoons and don't even get me started on the video games), should not be surprised if Junior's teacher subsequently requests a meeting about his aggressive behavior.

I'm even concerned about the levels of violence in Disney movies that Emma watches like "Fox and the Hound" and "The Aristocats." I won't even let her watch my two favorites, "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Little Mermaid" because of the violence, let alone sit her down in front of an action movie or horror film!

It's not just little ones but teens also are affected by what they watch. A recent American Academy of Pediatrics study showed "teens exposed to high levels of televised sexual content (in the 90th percentile) were twice as likely to experience a pregnancy during the three-year period, compared to teens with lower levels of exposure (10th percentile)."

Love your weeknight bonding session with your teen watching "Beverly Hills 90210" or "Desperate Housewives"? Just be sure you also spend time talking about healthy sexual attitudes and prevention of pregnancy and STDs.

Having said all this, yes it's true my child is not an angel because she watches "Clifford," nor am I a violent person because I watched Looney Tunes as a kid. But pretending that what we allow into our children's moldable, developing brains has no lasting effect isn't just ignorant, it's downright dangerous.


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