“My sons aged 8 and 12 share a bedroom and have, like their friends, their own TV and Video in their room with Satellite channels too. Although they are not supposed to, they do turn the TV on or use the video late at night. I am very worried about the effect on my younger son in particular, as he has a problem over standing up for himself. But my husband says it will do him good watching such programmes and it will help both boys deal with aggression. What do you think? I never had any brothers so I feel unsure”.
The Broadcasting Standards Council has established that 4 million children regularly watch TV after the 9pm “adult” watershed. At the same time they have found that there are scenes of violence on the news every eight minutes, and four scenes of violence an hour on other programmes. Satellite programmes, in particular, feature twice as many sex scenes as other channels. There has also been an increase in the number of television sets per home with individual children or siblings, like the Ks having their own set. This poses a serious problem for parents, professionals, the British Board of Film Classification Censors and television programmers schedulers (although it must be acknowledged that the BBC has strictly observed the Watershed).
However, providing your children with a television set does not provide them with children’s television. Whilst Television has been insufficiently praised as a source of education and a bulwark against child abuse (by keeping depressed parents and their children occupied) it cannot become a parent and turn itself off when it senses disturbance in its viewers! It must be supervised by a parent.
Consultant Paediatrician in Leeds, Dr Chris Hobbs sees too many parents failing in this task. “The way in which adult programmes and videos crop up in ordinary clinical conversations with parents of primary and early secondary age is very disturbing. Additionally, when children’s behaviour is bizarre or sexualised parents will also comment “they have seen it on a video somewhere”. Whether it is true or not we don’t know, but the way parents speak about it shows that videos are seen as an acceptable way for children learn about these things.”
If parents are unable or unwilling to monitor the programmes who does? James Ferman of the British Board of Film Censors has to weigh up the implications of that thankless task. “From current research it has been established that a far larger number of children than was previously thought are left unsupervised at the mercy of whatever is on the screen. Some of the children society is most concerned about are in that vulnerable group who are left to watch unsupervised. We are therefore in that difficult ethical position of having to determine how much the robust majority have to have their viewing compromised because of a vulnerable group who could be influenced badly.”
Chris Campbell, aged 15, is a school student and amateur film-maker. How does he consider this problem? “There is a big difference between an 8 year old watching a violent film or horror film and a 12 year old. I do not think it would affect a healthy 12 year old so much. When brothers share a bedroom there can be an assumption that they will feel the same about what they watch regardless of their age”.
A boy with an older brother usually has to face more of a rough-and-tumble than a boy with a sister, as Mrs K suspects. In some families, however, the desire for the boys to be “men” can mean that age differentials are not seriously considered. Whilst the biggest issue is to differentiate between the robust healthy viewer (whether child or adult) and the vulnerable one, actual chronological age does influence how imagery is perceived and understood. Infant and junior teachers are well aware of the way children present as “news” something indigestible they have witnessed on an adult film or video.
Dr Duncan McLean, Consultant Psychiatrist at the Anna Freud Centre comments “A boy of 8 I treated became phobic after seeing a violent horror film and couldn’t get the images out of his mind. He was quite a well-adjusted boy in many ways but had a few difficulties in dealing with aggressive feelings and the film overwhelmed his defences so he was unable to cope with the over-stimulation. Violent films and images are overwhelming and confusing and can lead to problems in dealing with both fantasy and reality later on when viewed by a particular kind of child. Whilst Mr K hopes that the films might teach his sons how to manage aggression they only show how to use counter-aggression.”
Mrs K has not provided us with examples of the ways in which her younger son does not stand up for himself or the nature of the way her boys watch television. How much do her and her husband’s conflicting views influence the nature of the boys’ viewing habits?
Psychoanalyst Donald Campbell is Chairman of The Portman Clinic, an NHS Clinic offering assessment, treatment and management for children, adolescents and adults engaged in violent and delinquent behaviour. He comments, “First of all there is a question of why the K children want to watch adult films so regularly when some children don’t. I think it is probably too simple to assume that every child with a TV set in his bedroom will watch late at night as that implies that no self-selection is involved. If the K children are not adversely affected (and we are uncertain about the younger son) they will be making use of it in the same way they would play- they enter a fantasy world and identify with fantasy characters who overcome crises and conflicts. If you look at the themes and symbols that are used in horror films, which are probably the most popular genre for latency age children and young adolescents, you will see that they are about initially weak or vulnerable people who overcome very primitive threats much like the child.
The watching child can identify with the victim who is small and vulnerable to begin with but eventually triumphs over the monster or whatever the threat is. Perhaps Mr K is hoping his sons fit into this category. Out of those who are adversely affected, however, we would find some who watch compulsively to find a solution in a delusional way as they don’t have age-appropriate ways of responding. Such children then rely on violence as a solution and fail to develop more suitable defences. Whilst other children begin to use language and insults to hurl at enemies, these ones, although they may be articulate, do not feel that words are adequate and have to use physical force.”
In the end, worries about violence are far more embedded in vulnerable children’s minds by the physical violence of their parents than by a TV. However, if fears or phobias persist help should be sought.
The Portman Clinic, 8 Fitzjohns Avenue, London NW3 5NA, 0207 794 8262
The Anna Freud Centre, 21 Maresfield Gardens, London NW3 0207 794 2313