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Our Kids' Innocence, Unprotected

The battle over sex and violence in TV and movies has heated up anew, but where children are involved, the rules should be perfectly clear.

October 01, 2000|DENNIS PRAGER | Dennis Prager hosts a talk show on KABC radio, and is an author and lecturer. His latest book is "Happiness Is a Serious Problem." (HarperCollins)

Despite the fact that some of the current anti-Hollywood rhetoric is politically motivated and that some of Hollywood's response is merely self-serving self-defense, the debate about the effects of movies, television, music and other media on young people is extremely valuable. Some very important truths lie between the two extreme positions--that watching violence causes violence or that watching violence and sex has no effect on children.

Virtually every aspect of this issue is more complex than is acknowledged. For example, the general perception is that the battle lines can be fairly easily drawn--parents of young children versus Hollywood. As a parent, I used to think this way. But speaking with callers on my radio show, I have learned the far more disturbing truth that many parents have no problem with almost anything their children hear or see.

I learned this when I discussed the presence of young children at theaters showing "Titanic." I noted on my radio show that I was amazed, even appalled, that parents would bring kids to a movie that featured a nude scene, not to mention an hourlong, utterly realistic portrayal of a thousand men, women, and children going to their watery graves. Even I, at 50 years of age, had trouble falling asleep the night I saw the movie.

Parent after parent--mother after mother, in fact--called to strongly disagree with me. The gist of their argument was that "Titanic" portrayed real life, and that it is not a parent's task to hide reality from their children, but rather to expose them to it. This accords with what Marie Winn, author of "Children Without Childhood," perceptively noted years ago: whereas parents used to believe that their task was to protect their children, many parents today believe that it is their task to prepare their children.


Little can be done about children and potentially destructive media influences until most parents and the society at large decide that protecting children's innocence is of utmost importance. I am increasingly convinced that robbing children of their innocence is at the root of much later maladjustment in many Americans' lives. There is a time to be a child and a time to be an adult, and when you are deprived of the time to be a child, your adulthood will be adversely affected. Destroying a child's innocence destroys his love of life, enthusiasm and optimism.

There are moral ramifications as well. Jadedness--the opposite of innocence--ought to be regarded as a national epidemic. We are seeing more and more young people at younger and younger ages who have already left behind childhood. Young girls who should have been playing house are instead watching Britney Spears take off much of her clothing at the MTV awards. Parents who would be horrified at their child watching a Joe Camel ad are quite at peace with their child watching a veritable striptease by one of the child's idols.

No wonder the New York Times reported that it is common for sophisticated Long Island preteens to engage in oral sex. They are, in the words of child experts repeatedly quoted in the article, jaded. And jaded children cause the havoc that we see so regularly.

Yet, parents who would panic at the thought of their child being exposed to five minutes of secondhand smoke, allow them to ingest hours a day of firsthand soul pollution. Do we really need studies to tell us that what children watch affects them? How can children not be affected seeing people tortured, blown up or shot? How can this not make them more scared of life or regard human life as less than infinitely precious?

The idea that watching gratuitous violence and sex has no effect on a child is so preposterous that anyone who believes this only testifies to the human ability to deceive oneself. If companies believed this, all advertising would end, and with it television itself. Children watching murders doesn't cause them to murder. But is that now our parental and societal standard for what we should feed our children's souls--asking whether it causes them to murder? Are there no other adverse effects? Of course there are.

But while the adverse effects on children of watching films and TV containing sex, violence or profanity are, I believe, indisputable, the issue is more complex than parents merely banning all such entertainment. While all sex scenes will compromise a child's innocence, many, but not all, scenes of violence will have that effect.

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