With television violence expert Dr. Gregory Fouts
In a Miami courtroom last month, 15-year-old Ronny Zamora was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of an elderly widow. What set the Zamora case apart was the plea entered by the boy’s lawyer—not guilty by reason
of insanity caused by “television violence intoxication." The Zamora case attracted worldwide attention and again raised the question of the effects of violent television on children. Dr. Gregory Fouts, an associate professor at the University of Calgary specializing in developmental psychology, has spent much of his career studying the relationship between television and children. He has found that violent television can have “pro-social" benefits on children by alerting them to the reality of aggressive behavior in the world around them. Dr. Fouts, 34, was born in the American Midwest and has lived in Canada for three years. He was interviewed for Maclean's by Suzanne Zwarun in Calgary.
Maclean’s: TV is considered an exciting, cheap and informative entertainment. Now everyone seems to be blaming it for everything. What happened?
Fouts: I think several things happened. One was that TV producers and especially sponsors of television have emphasized the entertainment value of TV and have not paid attention to what the viewers need. They usually produce the cheapest kinds of entertainment, meaning production costs. It is much cheaper, for example, to produce a crime show than a good drama. And as long as you’re into a profit motivation, you’re going to produce those programs that realize the largest profit. Maclean’s: You’ve divided TV contents into two categories: pro-social and violent. Violent we know; how do you define pro-social? Fouts: Pro-social contents are those that are specifically designed to help a viewer. That is help them psychologically, emotionally or even behaviorally. For example, on the psychological level, pro-social programs may be designed to increase a person’s feelings of self-worth. Feeling good about his abilities. Behaviorally, it may increase their skills or give them actions by which they can help other people. And sensitize them to differences among people to help them understand one another too.
Maclean’s: But you also believe that vio-
The more TV-watching is discouraged, the happier and less aggressive the child
le nee can be a learning experience too? Fouts: Well, in some ways, violence in general on TV has been found not to be helpful to a viewer and has been quite harmful. However, there are occasions in the family when TV violence can be used in the context of the family and the parents be used by the child pro-socially to help them. Maclean’s: A nd what does it help them do? Fouts: For example, if you have a home environment in which the parents encourage solutions to personal problems, then the child is getting pro-social modeling in the home, and when he sees violent contents he may go to his parents and say, “I saw such and such violence on TV.” And the parents sit down and talk to the child, then he can use that model on TV as a point to diverge from rather than to imitate. He can certainly watch various kinds of violence and realize that this is a part of our society and he can intellectualize it and understand the criminal element in society. Maclean’s: In your study for the Royal Commission on Violence, how many children were considered? How were they studied and what shows did they watch?
Fouts: We looked at close to 400 children and eventually used 300 of them. We ex-
tensively interviewed the children in their homes. We interviewed their parents. We were particularly interested in not just what children watch, but why they watch TV. We were looking at the complexity of what’s going on in the family rather than simply asking whether the child imitates violence. We know that, but we want to know under what circumstances he does that if he does it. And secondly, not only did we interview children and parents, we actually showed them real TV programs. That is things like Starsky And Hutch, S. W.A.T., The Waltons, cartoons, a whole range of programs Canadians watch. Maclean’s: What age were the children? Fouts: Six to 14.
Maclean’s: What guidelines did you find parents have for their children’s viewing? Fouts: We found that most parents in fact do discourage some TV programs. In fact it was 91% of them. The guidelines usually centre around the type of program. We found that the most discouraged kinds of programs were in fact crime oriented programs. The second most were sexually oriented programs and third were soap operas. Interesting to me was that I don’t think we found a single parent who discouraged game shows like Let’s Make a Deal, and personally that does the violence to me.
Maclean’s: What effect does this parental guidance have on children, if children are left on their own? Do they have a different reaction to violence on television than if parents are in there guiding the whole process? Fouts: Generally what we found was that
the more TV programs are discouraged by parents, the happier the child, the less aggressive he is in the home, the better the relationship with the parents, the more use of books for example. We also found that parents who buy children TV sets for their bedrooms, for example, those kids generally are unhappier. They are more aggressive in the home.
Maclean’s: How do children come to see police and criminals and do they detect a moral in television violence if there is one? Fouts: We found that watching televised violence does increase the positive perception of the police and the negative perceptions of criminals. That is, police are seen as human, they do make mistakes. But they are also seen more positively as someone to look to for help as opposed to criminals who are usually given all kinds of negative characteristics; children would call them “stupid.” And they don’t get along with people and they hurt people. Children understand that police can hurt people and they are more likely to say because they have to, because they have to restrain them in some way. And we found the older the child the more accurate the perceptions of police and criminals.
Maclean’s: One study showed that by the time a child was 14, he or she had seen 11,000 television murders. But you found that children who watched the most violence often were brightest in school and least aggressive in real life. Can you explain that? Fouts: Yes, this refers to why you’re watching TV. For example, if you watch TV for intellectual stimulation to figure out plots on crime shows, to try to guess what’s going to happen next or in terms of the flashbacks on most of the crime shows, to try to figure out backwards in time what happened, those children are less susceptible. They also seem to have the best marks in school. They’re more likely to recognize TV violence as entertainment rather than something to do. And the chances are that they likely came from home environments that discouraged violence or aggression as a solution to problems. Yes, we did find that some of the brightest viewers were also the heaviest viewers but the least aggressive. But other studies have shown this too and many people have forgotten to look at that kind of literature. Whereas, those kids who watch TV to avoid homework, to avoid social interaction, and in fact do not have the social skills, I suspect are more susceptible to TV violence because they are less able to evaluate what’s going on.
Maclean’s: Many children admit to being frightened by television and some have nightmares.
Fouts: Yes, most parents are most concerned about nightmares or just dreams about violence. Yes, we have found that over half of our children, between the ages of six and 14, have some experience with dreams of that kind. It is a problem, and one of the implications of this problem is that there are strong forces in the TV indus-
try and elsewhere who argue we should give more realism to our TV productions. If you are going to show a person punished, you should give all the gory details. Maclean’s: Your study found that children were happier after watching violent television as opposed to cartoons. Are they getting off on murder?
Fouts: I think some kids are. I mean we did find, for example, some children are becoming desensitized. That is, they become more hardened in terms of watching vio-
If you’re not going to allow TV for your child you should do the same for yourself
lence on TV. Certainly, their nightmares decrease with age with the more violence they see.
Maclean’s: You’re saying, then, that there are advantages to being desensitized.
Fouts: Well, again, 1 can’t make a blackand-white statement like that. If you were to see a robbery going on or some act of violence in real life, you would not want to be so terrified as to be incapacitated so you wouldn’t do anything, just stand there numb. So you would have to have some desensitization to act upon it—either to call the police or actively try to stop the violent act. On the other hand, you could become too desensitized and you become apathetic and you don’t care.
Maclean’s: I found it funny that all kids know that if they’re being robbed, they should put their hands up .. .
Fouts: Yes, and it is also true that these are victim-like behaviors we acquire by watching media. For instance, some people will call the police and say, “I’ve been robbed” and they give all the nice details. And in fact, those details match exactly a story that they saw on TV. And yet it’s attention getting, some people pretend that they’re
victims when they’re not really victims. But they learn these behaviors via TV. Maclean’s: So are we raising a whole generation of victims?
Fouts: Well, I think some people are more susceptible to wanting to use victim-like behaviors as attention getting, and yet most of us know how to be victims; but we don’t because we have other ways by which to gain attention and satisfaction. Maclean’s: I’m intrigued with your discovery that parents felt that not having a television would be detrimental to their children. Do you agree?
Fouts: I think there is some truth to that. That is, we live in a society in which TV is a major aspect of it. It is a basic instrument of learning, that is learning about our world, learning about other peoples, different parts of our society, and those parents who forbid the TV in the home—if they’re going to do that then they’re going to have to make up that deficit, either through encouraging reading or through more effective interaction with other childrerr and one another and through discussion. Maclean’s: Well, if kids are going to see violence, if there’s a television in the house, no matter how closely regulated, they’re going to see either physical violence or psychological violence. If kids do see violence, what advantages are there going to be for them? Fouts: Then there maybe some positive things. For example, for a child watching particular aspects of á violent program and then using it as a springboard for discussion with the parents and saying: “I don’t understand why he did such and such.” And the parents sit down and talk to the child and point out the motives for it and where he went wrong. That can be a very positive thing. Certainly that is what you do—what they do on TV but you do not do that in the home. Pointing out that— look, that criminal, in fact, had victims, that that victim was really hurt. Parents can talk about particular violent episodes and say that in our home we don’t do that. That is not the solution. And remember when you had a problem where you wanted to hit your younger brother or whatever and you didn’t do it and in fact you decided to take turns, for example, rather than grab the toy. If parents do that, then it can be used to the child’s benefit.
Maclean’s: But what are the benefits to the child if the parent does this?
Fouts: The benefits are that he learns that there is in fact a violent part of our society. Fie may be sensitized to a possibility of being victimized. That is, we found that the more TV violence children watch the more likely they believe that there may be crime. That they have to watch out for it in their neighborhood. For example, the parents are more likely to lock the doors on their homes and their cars. They’re sensitized to criminal aspects.
Maclean’s: Do you have a television and do you have kids?
Fouts: Yes, I have a small black and white TV set. I will not buy color or a large screen.
And yes, I have two children, five and seven.
Maclean’s: What do you let them watch? Fouts: We let them watch children’s programs. We let them watch violence or such crime-adventure programs as Emergency, Bionic Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man. We never let them watch programs like Kojak, Starsky And Hutch, 5. W.A.T. Maclean’s: Why not?
Fouts: Because they’re too young. They’re five and seven. There are times when even on Bionic Woman they do see violence but yet we try to talk to our children and help them understand that. But they’re quite young and yet I think that our seven-yearold is still more discriminating than mos4 seven-year-olds because in fact we take the time to do this. That is, I would never advocate encouraging your child to watch violence. But if they do happen to see violence then you have to put it in the right context for them and talk to them; and yet the problem is that most parents do not talk to their kids in any constant way about what they see.
Maclean’s: What about the violence of sitcoms, not physical, but all those people screaming nasty thing at each other for half an hour. Isn’t that violence?
Fouts: Yes it is. Violence is defined as some kind of pain that is done intentionally. And yes, we were particularly interested in this particular issue, that is, the controversy on TV violence has totally focused on physical violence—shootings, stabbings, killings and whatever. And we were also interested in psychological forms of violence. And those are usually in situation comedies where you have sarcasm, name-calling, verbal aggression, even passive aggression like the silent treatment. We were interested in whether situation comedies are also possibly harmful to children. And yes, in the sense that whatever kinds of violence a child prefers on TV is what he’ll show in the home. That is, if he watches a heavy diet of physical violence he will, in fact, be more physically violent in the home. He will hit other children more, kick them, break their toys. If he watches a heavy diet of situation comedies, he is more likely to be verbally aggressive. Maclean’s: And can it also be channeled otherwise by lots of talk from parents? Fouts: Meaning if you are a heavy watcher of physical violence, sure. If the parents take the time and point out that this is not an appropriate way when you are angry with someone, and if you will sit down and talk to them—but the parents have to model it—I mean if the parents say, “You should sit down and negotiate, whatever the problems, take turns.” But if the parents, at the same time, model just the opposite, what they say won’t have much influence.
Maclean’s: There have been protests particularly from churches over the sex in Soap, ABC’s new fall series. They seem most concerned that TV producers will replace violence with sex. Is sex a bigger threat?
Fouts: Well, all I can say is that parents perceive sexual programs as a great threat. They’re very worried about it. And yes, I suspect there is that trend to try to replace violence with something supposedly equally attractive and attention getting so he can hook the viewer and can sell them things through the commercials. There’s not much research on that.
Maclean’s: How can parents tell whether their children are being emotionally harmed by too much television?
Game shows like ‘Let’s Make A Deal’ do violence to me;my psyche Is really done harm
Fouts: Well, I think one of the ways is first to see if they are addicted. That is, if you have children who are watching TV and you call them to dinner and they say “no,” that’s an indication of addiction. Maclean’s: A n awful lot of adults don’t like to be interrupted before the show is over. Is that addiction?
Fouts: Sure, it’s addiction. I think certainly that if parents plan their lives around TV, that shows the family is becoming addicted. I know parents who go to the store or whatever, and if a child says, “I want to get home by seven o’clock” and the parent says, “Why?”—“Well, because I want to see such and such a program,” I think that’s a small indicant that the child is becoming too dependent upon the TV as opposed to being able to enjoy what he is doing at that particular time. If the child spends three or four hours in front of that TV set, that’s probably too much. If that child watches alone, if the parents don’t talk to the child, all these things are indicants of addiction to TV.
Maclean’s: If you couldn’t or wouldn’t eliminate all the violence on television, how do you suggest parents cope with it?
Fouts: By taking an active concern in guiding their children when watching TV. That is, setting up standards and keeping to them despite the protests of the child, but by telling the child why you don’t think it’s appropriate. And when the child does watch violence and hopefully it’s not hardcore crime programs, if they do watch things like that then you have to take on the responsibility of talking to your child and seeing how much he understands, how much he remembers, and put it in the right context for him.
Maclean’s: Are you saying that violence is not the real danger, it’s how television is used in its entirety?
Fouts: Y es, in fact the important things are not just the contents of TV but how they’re used in the context of the family. Remember we had a lot of violence before TV and movies. And at that time before we had Tv and movies some people would say it was the books. Well, before we had books we still had violence.
Maclean’s: How do parents stop their kids from watching television? You make it sound so easy—just turn off the TV set. I’ve seen children who could argue this point. Fouts: No, I think it’s very difficult to do it. But the main source of difficulty, though, the one I mentioned before, is parents turn off the TV or switch the channel rather than replacing it with something attractive. If you can replace it with something equally attractive, you’ve got half the battle won. But the thing is, you have to make the home environment attractive. You also should not have the TV set as a major centre of attraction. That is, there are parents who, for example, have that TV set in the middle of the living room and/or maybe in the family room and they eat their lunch around it. The first thing you do is don’t make anything particularly attractive about watching TV. That is, don’t eat while watching TV. In fact, we found that the more you eat while watching TV, the more you’re influenced by it. It’s as simple as that. If your life is centred around that TV, the first thing is don’t eat around the TV. Don’t actively stare at that TV. If you’re going to watch TV, put it in a situation where there are more distractions where the child can play. Where there is noise around him so he doesn’t become or isn’t glued to that TV set. Put it in a small corner of a room rather than as a prominence in the living room and definitely don’t put it in his bedroom where he’s unsupervised. But the problem is most parents do one thing at a time rather than hitting a child with every technique, that is removing it and replacing it with something attractive. At the same time you have to be consistent. If you are going to have the TV off for the child, I think the parents should also decrease their viewing or have it off for themselves. If you’re not going to allow TV for your child, I think you should do the same for yourself too. And yes, you’ll go through withdrawal too. But give yourself three or four days ...