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The Pied Piper of Violent Media Has a Hold on Our Children

September 15, 2000|PATRICIA RAMSEY | Patricia Ramsey, a professor of psychology and education, is director of the Gorse Child Study Center at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass

Iwas stunned when my son, then a 9-year-old in fourth grade, started clamoring to rent R-rated movies. "Everyone in my class gets to see them!" he wailed as we trudged the aisles of our local video store. To my disgust, I found myself trying to tempt him with action-oriented PG-13 movies, which I had vowed we would not let him see until he was at least 11 or 12, in order to distract him from the even more repulsive R-rated ones.

Early in his fifth-grade year, my son passionately declared that he was the only kid in his entire grade who had not seen "Matrix." I began to sidle up to parents at soccer games and basketball games to find out what they were allowing their children to see. They all bewailed their children's obsession with R-rated movies, but some admitted that they had given in a few times. "I just couldn't stand the arguments anymore," one father sighed. Indeed, based on the conversations I heard while driving children around town, having seen R-rated movies (or being able to pretend that one had) was the lingua franca of the fifth grade.

Last spring, my son's attention turned to "parental advisory CDs"--music with such violent or sexually explicit lyrics that it is considered unsuitable for children under 17. According to my son and several of his friends, everyone in the fifth grade was buying and listening to them.

And I won't even talk about the constant pleas for "mature" computer and video games. Our younger son, who at the age of 7 had already seen more PG-13 movies than I would care to admit, adamantly claimed that lots of his friends in the second grade had "teen" rated video games and parental advisory CDs.

This fall, my sons started sixth and third grades respectively, and we can only wonder what will come next.

This week, after learning of Monday's Federal Trade Commission report on selling violence to kids, I understood what we were up against. It was not that we had especially blood-thirsty children (as I had secretly feared) or that we lived in a town of violence-prone children and irresponsible parents. Our children, like their peers all across the country--and probably the world--have been the targets of deliberate marketing strategies. They are displaying completely logical and predictable responses to advertising campaigns skillfully pitched to their specific needs and interests.

Cynically, the purveyors of violence have turned the rating system into an advertising advantage. By making these products so violent and/or sexually explicit that they are officially restricted, yet advertising them to children under 17, they create an extremely attractive forbidden fruit that dangles enticingly in front of ever-younger children.

According to the FTC report, the marketing strategies target the 12- to 17-year-old audience by advertising in teen magazines and on television shows. However, as every parent, teacher and market strategist knows, advertising trickles down to the younger ages through neighborhood and sibling networks. Movies, video games and music that teens find appealing quickly grab the attention of the preteens and on down.

The FTC report is careful not to blame violent media for specific acts of violence. It is true that most of our children, despite their exposure to increasingly violent media, will probably not become serial killers or perpetrate the next Columbine-like tragedy. But the imagery seeps into their conversations and peppers their play. Children imitate these models because they offer the illusion of power and strength. And as trash talk and "might is right" increasingly pervades the peer culture, each child has to ratchet up his own facade of bravado in order to maintain his position, and the cycle goes on.

Of course, we know that children, especially boys, always have played aggressive games. But instead of inventing their own themes and weapons and using them to play out their issues surrounding power, they are immersed in and stimulated by imagery that is far more brutal than anything that they could conjure up themselves.

As parents, we are caught between a rock and a hard place. If we resist, our children become angry. If we give in, we compromise our values and expose our children to experiences and information that they are not ready for.

For now, my husband and I, feeling ever more beleaguered, are standing firm: no R-rated movies, no M-rated video games and no parental-advisory CDs.

But the cost is high--many confrontations and the end of our pleasurable Friday evening ritual of renting and watching movies, because our kids are no longer interested in the kind of movies that we prefer that they see.

I know we are not alone--many parents describe themselves as "holding back the tide" and "being swamped" by the pressures of advertising directed at children.

I have a dream--a vision of all of us parents linking arms and shouting, "No!"

Let's do it!

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