Child Development Central

Practical, evidence-based information for parents and professionals.

Who’s Got the Remote?

Available now and everywhere, scary images and visual violence for all ages.

At five o’clock in the morning, a bleary-eyed crowd awaits our Delta flight, immersed in the sounds of a news report on the week-old Newtown tragedy.  From eighty-four to forty-four to four years old, each person hears the same devastating story blaring from a television, sees the same horrendous images, and is forced to process it all right now, whether they’d like to or not.   Not that a four–year-old child has any capacity to do that, nor should he be asked to try.  Yet short of physically turning him away from the screen and covering his ears, there's little for parents to do but concoct a distraction, monitor their child’s reactions and cross their own fingers.

Two hours later and at 30000 feet, Delta Airlines has chosen the Bourne Legacy as the overhead, in-flight entertainment.  Guns and point-blank executions, start to finish.  Not even a week after unspeakable disaster, a parent has no way to turn it off, no opportunity to decide whether their child is ready for Bourne.

Over the last few years televisions and computers have been placed everywhere, without time yet for any specific research about the effects of these constant background images on child development.  Personally, I was raised on Clint Eastwood (whose movies were, in retrospect, tame compared with those of today) but my parents allowed me to watch his films only after reaching an age when they felt I could put the violent content into context.   Right now, as I write, a woman in the movie cowers behind a table, stalked by a man with a handgun.  Only a few weeks ago several families waited in line with me for Sunday morning bagels, while the kids were “entertained” from behind the cash register by a 9/11 documentary showing the collapsing buildings—a never ending fabric of visual violence.

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Someone is onscreen again, this time stalking his prey with an automatic weapon.   Maybe that’s OK for me to watch right now, and maybe it is for that teen over there, too.  How about that toddler, her parents trying to distract her as her eyes are drawn again to the screen?  How about that seven-year-old boy enthralled even though he hasn’t been given a headset?   We can do better for our children than simply enveloping them in a culture of violence from birth.

Without censorship or sheltering kids from real life, it is time to step back and make intentional choices not just as parents but as a society.  In the midst of countless avenues that potentially influence the incidence of gun violence, basic child development should be considered.  What should children see and when is it appropriate for them to see it?   And should it be Delta Airlines or the owner of that bagel store who decides?

With effort and decisive action we can turn away from the path of least resistance and define a more balanced approach.  How has it become the norm that televisions are ubiquitous in the public sphere at any time of day, displaying content frequently meant for adults?   How do we allow parents some reasonable opportunity to guide their own children?  We can allow progress and mature entertainment while still emphasizing healthy experiences that protect the future of our children.  We can fashion basic guidelines with intention instead of passivity, honoring freedom of expression while allowing kids to still be kids.

Mark Bertin, M.D.,is a developmental behavioral pediatrician, an assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College, and the author of The Family ADHD Solution.

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