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Commentary: The violent universal baby sitter
Published on April 10, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Sean Rose

Many parents and policy makers in the Caribbean seem oblivious to the psychosocial, socio-economic and cultural impacts of the television (s) in their homes. Unaware, many seem to be, about the potential downsides of an ever increasing dependence on, or use of the television as a form of babysitting for children in homes across our region. But can we afford to disregard the likelihood of negative repercussions caused by the invasive, violent images, radiating through television shows targeted at children? Can we sow seeds of violence and reap fruits of peace?

Sean Rose is a media and communication practitioner and may be contacted at
Since discussing this topic in 2013, published on Caribbean News Now, I continue to observe the excessive levels of violent verbal and non-verbal expressions emanating from various media. They come, expressly, from North and South American television channels, including the cartoon networks. I am of the view that these images can negatively affect the impressionable minds of Caribbean children. We may have already begun to feel the brunt of this dilemma. I believe the consequential negative impact on children age 12 and under, merits urgent, yet equally appropriate and sustained responses.

Admittedly, there is no clear link between television violence and aggression among viewers, but several studies prescribe less TV for kids and none for those younger than age two. You may argue that television images can’t shape a child’s behaviour or even cognitive development. Understandably, it is difficult to measure this likely impact quantitatively. Nevertheless, a March 10, 2014 article in the UK Telegraph titled, “People who watch violent television more likely to be aggressive”, warns that people exposed to violent television, films or video games are more likely to be aggressive, as they interpret the mildest of triviality as provocation. The International Society for Research on Aggression (IRSA) also concluded that media violence consumption can act as a trigger for aggressive thoughts or feelings already stored. They advise parents to keep an eye on what our children are watching, and to use a "you are what you eat [watch] approach.”

Admittedly, media sources are not unto themselves the solitary device of cultural penetration and ought not to shoulder all blame for any deterioration in core values in any society, and the Caribbean is no exception. Even our vital tourism industry has the potential to act as one such non-media source that alters the psycho-social relations of our people. This alteration often occurs when non-Caribbean cultures interlock or clash, with our home-grown values and traditions. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) affirms this view. It says, “Tourism can cause change or loss of local identity and values, brought about by several closely related influences. Among those concerns is economic inequality.”

UNEP observes that “many tourists come from societies with different consumption patterns and lifestyles than what is current at the destination, seeking pleasure, spending large amounts of money and at times displaying behaviour that even they would not accept at home.” According to the report, “Local people that come in contact with these tourists may develop a sort of copying behaviour, as they want to live and behave in the same way. Especially in less developed countries, there is likely to be a growing distinction between the 'haves' and 'have-nots', which may increase social and sometimes ethnic tensions. At resorts in destination countries such as Jamaica, Indonesia and Brazil, tourism employees with average yearly salaries of US$1,200 to $3,000 spend their working hours in close contact with guests whose yearly income is well over US$80,000.”

The aforementioned is not intended to devalue the role of tourism in the economic development of the Caribbean. Divergently, the data authenticates the need for improved awareness and action to help lessen any likely negative influences on our youth. It is imperative that we take action to better inform and guide our young impressionable minds so they can benefit and not suffer further identity crises brought on by cultural penetration, whether through direct contact or indirectly through Media content. After all, won’t you agree that our cultures are priceless artifacts within our tourism product?

Admittedly, books, magazines, brochures and newspapers also contribute blocks of influence that become imbedded in the beliefs, customs and values of readers across the world. However, television shows and advertisements are very potent sources of the culturally penetrative content from North America and Europe permeating our contemporary Caribbean.

Parents also have a critical role to play in reducing the impact of TV violence on our youth. This role is even more acute because the ‘violent universal baby sitter’ can directly influence gender socialization. You may recall, for instance, seeing a hundred times over where men are portrayed in movies and even cartoon shows, as having unlimited sexual prowess and being sexually aggressive towards women. Most movies and so called family channels serve a regular brew of grisly female deaths. Truth be told, there is an abundant supply of violent television series to last a ‘Life Time’. But so too is violence in the home, or even on the streets; all of which further qualifies the need for a new approach to the scourge of violence in our societies. As mentioned in my first article on this subject, “Violence implies behavior, says Von Feilitizen (2009), but in addition to behavior it also implies aggressive feelings, ideas, values and norms.”

A 2009 report from Amnesty International, says weak national legislation and deeply entrenched social and cultural attitudes encourage gender discrimination and violence against women. The YWCA regional director for the Americas and Caribbean, Marie-Claude Julsaint, says despite the fact that all Caribbean countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), violence against women -- particularly sexual violence, violence linked to sex tourism and trafficking -- is on the rise in the region.

The Guyanese proverb “Tie the heifer, loose the bull” is but a metaphoric description in our Caribbean of how boys are socialized differently from girls. Or as the late University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona, Professor Rex Nettleford puts it, “The self image of the Caribbean persona long crafted in terms of fertility functions and gender specificity.” The heifer and the bull scenario was also the site for scholarly intervention by Janet Brown, then head of the Caribbean Child Development Centre (CCDC) and former Dean of the Faculty of Social Science at the UWI-Mona, Professor Barrington Chevannes.

Alluding to the Chevanes-Brown study is not a parenthesis. It offers another angle for us to assess other prevailing societal challenges. It further establishes that TV cannot alone face trial for violent behaviour among our youth. Nonetheless, the proliferation of violent images via the silver screen versus the limited availability of educational material can’t be ignored. Viewing media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life and entertainment violence feeds a perception that the world is a violent and mean place.

Information from over 1,000 studies and 30 years of research by six major public health organizations in the USA, including the American Medical Association, found that “viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior, particularly in children.” The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood also recorded its concerns saying: “Children who view a lot of media violence are more likely to view violence as an effective way of settling conflicts. Children exposed to violent programming at a young age have a higher tendency for violent and aggressive behaviour later in life than children who are not so exposed.”

The data also suggest that violence is prevalent in TV shows and movies watched by children. It also indicates that two out of three television shows contain some form of violence, averaging about six violent acts per hour, while violence in children’s shows, average 14 violent acts per hour.

Furthermore, many studies show that children, on average, will witness 200,000 acts of violence on television, including 40,000 murders, by the time they are 18. The Seattle Children’s Hospital in the US conducted a 40-year study, which concluded that, by age 12, a child in the US will witness 12,000 violent deaths on TV. Yet the criteria for rating movies has become less stringent within recent times and movies with the same rating can differ significantly in the amount of violence, sex, profanity, and other content.

Despite the usage of rating systems throughout the entertainment industry, violent media content is frequently marketed to children too. Violent toys, such as swords and guns, often tied to violent media, are commonly marketed to young children. And movies with ratings for older children are often marketed with toys rated for younger children. A 2007 report by the Federal Trade Commission (USA) found that 90% R-rated movies are advertised on websites where one third or more of the audience is under age17.

Other contributing factors to violence triggered by over exposure to TV also include self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, mental laziness and disorders, promiscuity, alternative sexual life styles. The University of Michigan in 2009 said TV viewing among kids is at an eight-year high. It also says, on average, children ages 2-5 spend 32 hours a week watching television and children ages 6-11 spend about 28 hours a week in front of the TV; 97% of which include wrestling, boxing and action movies. Among other things, the report postulates that children see their favorite characters smoking, drinking, and involved in sexual situations and other risky behaviors in the shows and movies on TV.

A 2009 Kaiser Foundation study said African-American and Hispanic children consume 4½ hours more media daily than their Caucasian/white peers. Another study by Nicole Martins, Assistant Professor in Telecommunications at the IU College of Arts and Sciences, and Kristen Harrison, Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, reported that African-American children spent, on average, an extra 10 hours a week watching television in one year. The Harrison-Martin study also suggests that “Children who are not doing other things besides watching television are likely to compare themselves to what they see on the screen.” This establishes the link to the copying behavior we discussed earlier based on the UNEP report.

The Martins-Harrison longitudinal panel study published in Communication Research, March, 2011, said, “Regardless of what show you're watching, if you're a white male, things in life are pretty good for you… because you tend to be in positions of power; you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, and a beautiful wife, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there”.

You can make your own deductions from the successes attributed to white people via television images and assess objectively, their psychological effects on the mind of your two or twelve year old. I can only advise that parents talk to their child/children frequently to determine what their own views are about the images and information they are consuming via TV etc.

Another concern is the way black boys are criminalized in many programs, either as hoodlums and buffoons, or without much variety in the kinds of roles they occupy. In an earlier study (Martins & Harrison) posited that video games “are the worst offenders when it comes to representation of ethnicity and gender. So yes, we are entertained by the pain and suffering of others on TV.

But we should we be guided by a Seattle Children’s Hospital study that says children become unattached emotionally and completely desensitized to the pain and suffering of others when exposed to violence. We must begin to limit the amount of television time for children down to one or two hours each day. Parents should also pay closer attention to the programs children watch and restrict their viewing of violent programs. The same effort should be made for music videos and films seen by children while actively teaching and talking to them about alternatives to violence. Learning to embrace conflict resolution skills can start from a young age.

My concluding proposition aligned with the message in these articles recognizes the challenges in curbing the amount of time children spend watching TV. I am not suggesting that we throw away our TV sets. Neither am I calling for a hasty approach in addressing the matter. After all, it took years before the behaviour became problematic. On the contrary, the TV set should be seen as a source of education, entertainment and comfort and even a multifunctional babysitting tool for many.

However, these articles aim to promote vigilance, especially among policy makers, parents and those who own and or supervise media content to be cognizant of the cultural, psychosocial and socio-economic impacts of television violence on the impressionable minds of our toddlers and youth within our societies. This cultural sensitization and development process goes beyond media platforms to encompass other agents of cultural penetration, such as the global travel and leisure industry and even the socialisation process within the home.

There is a dearth of educational and positive entertainment content to help promote positive and analytical thinking skills among our youth. Instead the minds of our children, the future entrepreneurs, peace keepers, teachers, parents and policy makers of the Caribbean are consistently intoxicated with violent content flashing across the silver screen of the universal baby sitter that commands their undivided attention.
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