Sunday, October 01, 2006

A Change in Behavior

As a member of the Blog Exchange, I invite a guest blogger here to 24/7 on the first of each month for a little variety (being, as it is, the spice of life). Please welcome this month's guest blogger, Christina, who will be participating in a sort-of debate with yours truly on the issue of violence in the media. You can find me over at her site today. More info about this whole blog exchange thing can be accessed at the bottom of this post. Without further ado, here's Christina. . .

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I know I'm not the perfect mother, who doesn't let her child watch any TV until 2 years old, and then after two, only a very limited amount and only educational programming. OK, I've got the last part, at least. Cordy has watched some TV since she was very little, but we limit her TV to only Playhouse Disney or Noggin. I admit that she probably watches too much TV. She can quote parts of Blue's Clues, she sings and dances to the Wiggles, and she adores Pablo of the Backyardigans.

But at least all of the programming she watches is nonviolent, promotes positive behaviors, and contains no commercials. I've seen her learn things from watching TV, such as songs and some basic things like shapes and colors (which we reinforce - we're usually watching it right with her). So it makes sense to me that by watching TV she could just as easily learn behavior. That's why we do not show her any TV containing violence or sex or anything else intended for an older audience. If she can pick up the saying "A pirate says Arrrr" from Backyardigans, she could just as easily pick up "You suck" from teen programming.

While I've always thought that TV could influence a child's level of violence, it wasn't until a month ago that I was certain of it. I am now certain that violent programming can affect a child's behavior. Allow me to give you my proof in the study of a single child. Sure, it's a lousy study group for a scientific study, but for this mom it is enough.

One of my friends babysits for Cordy once a week. She also has a toddler, and he's 5 months older than Cordy. I've always thought of him as a quiet, shy, and sweet little boy. Before a month ago, the most violent thing he would do was knock Cordy over accidentally by hugging her too hard. Like Cordy, he was obsessed with Wiggles and Blue's Clues. I was always in awe of how my friend had such an even-tempered child compared to my tempest.

Enter Spiderman.

I only know the beginning details through my friend's description. He met a little boy down the street, older than him, who had a Spiderman toy. At that point, he was curious, and wanted to know more about Spiderman. She says his dad let him watch Spiderman the Movie to see the swinging parts, but eventually he started watching the entire movie. Wait. Think about that for a second. Spiderman the Frikken Movie. Sure, the swinging is pretty cool, but there is a lot of violence in that movie. People having their heads bashed through glass windows, punches thrown, throats grabbed, and people dying. It's not a movie for kids, especially not for toddlers. My friend says that she tries to remember to fast forward through the violent parts of the movie, but that sometimes she forgets or is busy doing something else.

My friend's son was immediately entranced. In just a month, he now has all sorts of Spiderman toys, pajamas, clothing, etc. He insists on watching Spiderman or Spiderman 2 every single day. And in just a month of this new obsession, I've seen his personality change dramatically. Spiderman is his hero (he even occasionally insists people call him Spiderman), and anything Spiderman does is considered OK. Instead of playing with his cars and racing them around the house, he picks up two figures (usually Spidy and something else, maybe even a Little People figure), then smashes them together over and over to simulate them fighting, adding lots of fighting noises like "ugh, bam, pow". Spiderman now fights with every toy in the house. Last week I even watched my friend draw a picture of Spiderman, which he took and then made the picture "fight" with other toys. This Spiderman fella doesn't seem like a very nice guy to me.

But there are other changes in his behavior now, also. He's started pushing and hitting Cordy, and last week I witnessed him bite her on her hand. What provoked it? She dared to touch his Spiderman figure as he was walking past her. She made no effort to take it - just touched it. He now hits his mother when she upsets him, too. This sweet, mild-mannered little boy has suddenly become a fightin' man. And while I know all toddlers go through hitting stages (Cordy did before 18 months), this sudden change can really only be linked to Spiderman. He tries to mimic what he sees Spiderman do, and if Spiderman can be aggressive and fight others, then it must be OK.

My friend tries her best to discipline him when he acts out like this, but by continuing to let him view this movie, I don't think she's going to get far. He is punished for acting like his hero, but then is allowed to watch the movie again, where he learns that violence is OK. He's simply too young to understand the concept of fighting only against evil, and only when necessary. It must be a very confusing message for such a little person. It upsets me because I see him practicing his new aggression on Cordy. I think any parent wouldn't like their child to be a punching bag, and I worry that he will eventually teach her to be violent as well. I really don't want to look for a different babysitter, but the thought has crossed my mind that if my friend's son becomes more violent, I may need to consider alternative options. It is my hope that this issue doesn't affect our friendship, but there is the chance that it could if things get worse.

I don't want to criticize my friend. We all have our different ways of parenting, and I've certainly made my share of parenting mistakes. She is a very attentive, loving, caring mother, and has taught her son a lot of good things. But I feel that letting him watch Spiderman was a serious lapse in judgment, and I worry the effects will be hard to undo. I also don't know if my friend sees how much this is affecting her son. I can't imagine why she would let him continue to watch this movie after seeing the behavior it has produced. I think she can't deal with the disappointment it will cause him to deny him this pleasure. I suggested to her that she look into getting some of the old Spiderman and Friends cartoon episodes, which contain little to no violence. Instead of punching someone, the cartoon Spiderman will simply wrap them in webbing and let the police deal with them. I hope she'll take my suggestion.

If only one movie can change a child's behavior this much, I wonder what a steady diet of programs like this can do to a child? I agree that we as parents are the ultimate decision makers as to what our children should and shouldn't watch. However, we know there are parents out there who don't pay attention to what their children watch, or simply let their children watch whatever they're watching. But I worry about what kind of people will come from being raised by negligent parents who let their children watch things far worse than Spiderman? We know there are many people out there using the TV as babysitters, and letting their children have unlimited access to more adult-oriented programs. Are these kids destined to be the next generation of thugs, vandals, thieves and murderers?

I don't think I'm advocating government action on this issue, but something does need to be done to combat this growing problem. Several groups have published their studies linking violent TV to violent behavior in children, but I don't know if enough is being done to educate parents about how little it takes to affect a child's behavior. All I can do to address the issue is make sure my children only watch age-appropriate TV and encourage those I know to do the same. As Cordy gets older, she will be allowed to watch programs that deal with more complex issues, but I hope to be watching them with her, and be there to answer her questions and explain what she's seeing.

For now, maybe I should start looking for those Spiderman cartoons as an early Christmas gift for my friend?


Christina can usually be found at her blog,
A Mommy Story, where she writes about her warrior princess toddler, Cordelia, and the trials of motherhood.


This month's blog exchange consists of a series of debates on issues that matter. Click here for the other op ed pieces (and their opposing sides) today. And if you'd like to participate next month, send an email to kmei26 at yahoo.com.

8 comments:

TB said...

Your story made my stomach hurt a little bit. I truly believe that children of all ages are affected by violence they witness in the media.
I don't believe it is the government's place to regulate, that's a very slippery slope. But parents need to be hyervigilant on this issue. With the rise of school shootings hitting epidemic proportions, how can we not?

Jerri Ann said...

My kids watch only 1 hour a day and they sleep through most of that. They watch Blues Clues, Dora, Thomas the Train, stuff like that....I have very active active boys. I can't imagine if they were exposed to wild stuff how they would act. I don't want to find out. The influence of kids at daycare are enough.

T. said...

Fric and Frac are ten and almost nine. I haven't let them watch any part of the Spidey movies. I won't let them watch Harry Potter. And television is almost certainly out of the question because of the inappropriate content for kids their age.

I learned a long time ago that what they watch affects who they are.

If I can't stomach the violence of most programs, why would I offer it to my kids?

So, my kids don't get to watch a lot of the boob tube. And they are fine with it. And my friends (and relatives) think I'm nuts.

But that's okay.

Boy, do I miss the Flinstones.

Kristen said...

Yeah. But I just think that's careless parenting.

If my kid was acting like that, the tv would be OFF. Because it has taken over the parenting of my child.

lynsalyns said...

I agree with Kristen, and I totally agree with your point, Christina. We also watch TV, but never grown-up TV. Noggin is our limit, with a dash of PBS. I don't even like Arthur, because I think the kids are a little too sassy.

A really nice piece!

Binkytown said...

It's true. Limiting the exposure is the smart thing to do. The challenge I think, is that violence is all around us in our media and as they grow older this will only be more difficult to navigate.

mothergoosemouse said...

I can't agree that the movie is solely to blame for the change in this boy's behavior. He "insists" on watching the movie every day? He now has all sorts of themed clothes and toys? Who's turning on the TV and buying these items?

Making the toys fight - boys do that. Have his parents sat down to play with him? Engaged in some role-playing with the action figures, including a peace treaty?

Biting - I've been struggling with that recently myself. All of a sudden I've been signing multiple incident reports each week concerning CJ's efforts to eat her classmates. There are many factor that could have triggered her behavior, and the same is likely true for this boy.

I'm not absolving Spiderman or any other violent movies of an impact on children's behavior, but this little guy is still learning how to behave. And while I don't want to criticize your friend, I have to wonder about her indulgence in the Spidey obsession.

Alisyn said...

It is unbelievable to me that people let their children watch stuff like "Spiderman", or even stuff like "The Incredibles" or that Disney Princess bullshit. So sad. So, so sad.