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May 19, 1985|TOM SHALES | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — If there were such a thing as phobophobia, the fear of developing a phobia, might it not be induced by watching a TV talk show on which phobics discuss their fears? Or maybe the alternate reaction would occur in some viewers: They would become fearful because they had no unreasonable fears and worry that there was nothing in their lives interesting enough to be worthy of a TV talk show.

Phil Donahue recently did an hour on phobias, with recovered phobics and a therapist who has had success controlling if not curing such modern problems as agoraphobia, the fear of leaving the house.

It's not far-fetched to theorize that except for programs like Phil's, TV may be an agoraphobe's worst enemy, since it encourages staying home and living vicariously through the tube. Nobody ever comes on the screen and says, "OK, you've had enough TV, now go out and face the world."

Dr. George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania has statistics to prove that heavy viewers of television violence have an exaggerated fear of the real world and the possibilities of encountering violence in it. Could there be a link between what Gerbner calls the "mean world syndrome" and the seeming rise in cases of agoraphobia? He hasn't said so.

At first glance it would appear that Phil Donahue is doing a tremendous public service, in addition to providing a fascinating hour of TV, with programs such as that on the phobics.

People with similar problems can look in and see others who share the phobias and, in most cases, have shown that the problems can be beaten or at least managed. They can see that they are not alone and that there is hope. No one will ever know how many minds are set at ease by simple exposure to topics such as phobias that have, for the most part, gone undiscussed in popular forums.

Then at second glance, you wonder about the people watching Donahue and feeling a little guilty that they have no Donahue-worthy syndromes. They may wonder if there isn't something suspect about the fact that they are level-headed and well-adjusted and pretty much able to cope. They may even begin imagining they have the symptoms being discussed on the program.

Obviously, if Phil Donahue or anyone else worried too much about possibilities such as this, the range of topics that can be dealt with openly on television would shrink to a peanut. But the persuasive capacities of television to induce imitative behavior are certainly not insignificant. If they were, Bristol-Myers wouldn't spend all those billions training you to want their products.

More worrisome than Donahue are the TV movies portraying social and psychological problems, usually in the guise of national group therapy, but really in the quest for ratings.

After a recent ABC movie about teen-age suicide, there was at least one reported case of an adolescent who took her life in precisely the manner depicted on the program. The usual answer in such cases is that the idea was already in her head. But what if something in that film activated the dormant thought, and increased, if only by a critical millimeter, the likelihood something horrible would occur?

Another ABC movie, "Love Lives On," portrayed a young woman who was first addicted to drugs, then diagnosed as having terminal cancer, and then became pregnant. She was made a heroine in the film because she elected to give birth even though doctors warned it would shorten her life and that the child was at risk of being born with birth defects and addicted to morphine. Her response: "Let's go for it." This was romanticized as bravery.

That film was just a simple-minded tear-jerker. But it could have served some useful function. The parents of the young woman could have pointed out to her the wisdom of using birth-control devices. More than 3,000 teen-age girls become pregnant every day, it has been estimated, and of these, 42% have abortions. Yet the networks are terrified of the subject of birth control. They love presenting titillating sex stories, and refuse to accept advertising for contraceptives.

The power of television is often discussed, but can never be scientifically calibrated. No regulation can remove the possibility that some programming will lead to adverse social effects and even personal tragedies.

The most we can hope for is a sense of responsibility in those who make and control programming. Every time they err, especially in the pursuit of sensationalism and ratings, we should let them know, and loudly, so they can hear it over the din of the applause.

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