Mar 212014

This article first appeared in the Boston Globe and again in the Telegram.

by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D. and Diane E. Levin, Ph.D.

If people are shocked by the killings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, which follow the killings in Stamps, Arkansas, which follow the killings in West Paducah, Kentucky, and Pearl, Mississippi, which follow on the heels of a more than doubling in violent crimes among youth since the mid-1980’s, then they haven’t been paying attention.

Children in the United States are swimming in a culture of violence which has its effects from subtle to deadly on every child. The violence comes in many forms–family abuse, violence on the streets, in the community, violence in the news. Every 10 seconds a child in this country is abused or neglected. Every 2 hours a child is killed by a firearm.

And then there is entertainment violence–every child’s automatic membership in a media-saturated, popular culture that glorifies violence through images, actions, and models marketed to children via television, toys and other products, videos, video games, and Hollywood films. On television alone, children see 32 acts of violence every hour and over 1,000 murders a year. Teachers and researchers have been warning for more than a decade that this violent culture marketed to children has harmful effects, both in the present and for the long term.

Most people don’t realize, perhaps because it could hurt the interests of those who perpetuate and profit most from media violence-namely big business, that there is an obvious explanation for why these concerns were voiced; this situation didn’t always exist. It began in 1984 when the Federal Communications Commission deregulated children’s television. With deregulation it became possible to market toys and other products with TV programs. Before that time it would’ve been illegal to sell the more than one billion dollars worth of products with the Power Ranger logo on them tied into the TV show, videos, and Hollywood film. Quickly after deregulation, the kid culture from the earliest stages of play became saturated with violence and teachers soon began reporting increases in violence in children’s behavior and play in the classroom. From that time until today,, the violent culture has grown in intensity with each new marketing ploy, media-product link up, and violent innovation.

Gruesomely violent video games and episodes of cartoons show children what the world is like. Violence is fun. We do it for play. Toy weapons add to the fun. No one gets hurt. This is how we treat each other. Children take these messages and incorporate them into their behavior and play, trying them out with each other, using them as building blocks for their social development.

Children are innocent victims to these messages. They believe what they see. In the early years, they learn from what is in front of them, and much less from what’s beneath the surface. They don’t easily understand logical cause and effect. They see violence glamorously portrayed without harmful effects and they accept it at face value. Glamorized violence conveyed to them repeatedly at this developmental stage exploits their vulnerability and establishes the roots of desensitization to violence.

Efforts to limit violence in children’s media never get past the violation of free speech argument. But whose free speech are we talking about? Corporate America profits by the millions off children by marketing the violence. What about the millions of parents who deplore the violent culture marketed to their children but can’t find a vehicle for expression? You don’t have free speech when corporations control the air waves and the public has little or no access.

Children can’t speak for themselves. They don’t understand about motives, profits, and corporate responsibility. They just want the toy they saw explode on an exciting TV show or ad. Children are a special group among us. They need protection.

Whatever special circumstances describe the lives of the youths dressed in combat with real guns in Jonesboro, we need to step back and face the fact that all children are affected by violence in this society and that adults have to do something to change that. Some of the forms of violence, ingrained in the fabric of our society, will be very hard to change. But media violence promoted to young children? That could change quickly if people were willing to act. Corporations will never do it on their own. Government seems paralyzed on the issue. It’s the rest of us who have to demand an end to irresponsible marketing practices and profiteering that end up hurting all of us.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Ed.D., is a Professor of Education at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA where she has taught teachers for 30 years, and a research affiliate at Lesley’s Center for Children, Families, and Public Policy. She has co-authored four books and written numerous articles on media violence, conflict resolution, peaceable classrooms and global education. Nancy is a consultant for public television, and has worked on shows for Arthur, Postcards from Buster, Zoom and Fetch. Her latest work is a book for parents and all adults concerned about children today called Taking Back Childhood.

Diane E. Levin is Professor of Education at Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts, where she teaches about children’s play; a service learning course in Northern Ireland on how schools can promote peacebuilding in communities affected by war and conflict; and, a summer institute, “Media Madness.” Her new book is: Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood: Teaching Young Children in the Media Age. She has written nine other books including: So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and How Parents Can Protect Their Kids (with Jean Kilbourne), The War Play Dilemma, and Teaching Young Children in Violent Times. She speaks around the world on the impact of violence and peacebuilding, media and other societal issues on children, families and schools.