A Wall Street Journal op-ed last week headlined “Why The Democrats Are Losing The Culture Wars” by Dan Gerstein, the former communications director for Senator Joe Lieberman, set the progressive blogosphere abuzz over the extent to which liberals should express concern about the impact on children of the entertainment industry's output. Ed Kilgore, Amy Sullivan, and Matthew Yglesias seemed to reach something of a consensus in agreeing that kids are indeed exposed to lots of media garbage that can't be good for them, and may be bad in a variety of ways. Kilgore laid out the most specific plan of action, arguing that progressive leaders should voice their displeasure with the nature of much media content, push for more research into how children are affected, and explore mechanisms like ratings systems that would help to guide concerned parents.
All of that will probably be useful in improving the favorability ratings of liberals, though it's hard to say how much. But going beyond earning brownie points to making actual progress in addressing this genuine problem in American society will require grappling with a politically precarious reality: Most parents are enablers for the entertainment industry and advertisers in serving mind-altering electronic cocktails to their children.
Across the income spectrum, parents and caregivers use television as a cheap babysitter. Kaiser Family Foundation surveys show that 68 percent of children 8 and older have a TV in their bedroom, as do 36 percent of children 6 and under. Presumably, that privacy enables those kids to surf, without supervision, from soaps to MTV to Jerry Springer to the FOX prime-time lineup to whatever else they find to be stimulating enough to stop and soak in. The average American child between 8 and 18 spends more than three hours a day watching TV -- more than twice that after adding other electronic media like CD players, videos, computers, etc. -- compared with 43 minutes reading.
The same Kaiser surveys show that parents worry about what their kids are absorbing. Sixty-three percent say they are “very concerned” that children are being exposed to too much inappropriate content in entertainment media, and another 26 percent are “somewhat concerned.” Television is decisively considered to be the media source of greatest concern, and sexual content runs slightly ahead of violence as a cause of worry. Yet the latest Kaiser report states, “Despite concerns that parents often express about the impact of media on their children, as well as about the sheer number of hours kids seem to spend with media, the kids themselves do not report much parental effort to monitor or curb their media consumption.”
So why the huge gulf between what the majority of parents think about the media, particularly TV, and the extent to which many of those same parents readily allow their kids to watch the stuff? It's not a hard question to answer. Every hour that a child sits transfixed in front of a television, GameBoy, movie screen, or computer makes the challenging workday of a parent or caregiver more manageable and less demanding. Without those reliably low-stress ways of occupying kids, depending on their age and demeanor, adults in charge end up having to do a lot more planning, reading, physical activities, cajoling, refereeing, cleaning, organizing, arguing, schlepping, and so on. Throw in the pressure that children apply when they are deprived of amenities and privileges that their peers enjoy and it's no wonder that most parents do little to stand in the way of the entertainment and advertising industries' access to their children. (In my own home, our 9-year-old twins and 4-year-old son know that I am much easier to manipulate into flicking on the tube -- usually to watch the Food Channel -- than my resolute wife.)
For all kinds of reasons, new and improved ratings systems wouldn't make much of a difference. Parents who try to limit or at least supervise what their children watch can already pretty easily distinguish programming that they consider to be inappropriate for their children from what they deem to be relatively harmless. But more fundamentally, just about anything a child does short of hanging out on a street corner with a gang is going to be better for his or her development than squatting for hours a day in front of the TV. The kinds of shows I watched regularly during my childhood in the 1970s -- Three Stooges shorts, The Match Game (in which the most popular response to roughly every other question was “boobs”), professional wrestling -- would undoubtedly receive the seal of approval from any new system of standards and practices. But today I really wish I could recover the brain cells that the tube vaporized during that era. The harm isn't just in the content of particular shows, or even the more insidious ads; it's in the vast quantity of time squandered on a passive, unproductive ritual over the course of a child's formative years.
A lot of research has been conducted that associates higher levels of television viewing by children with outcomes like poorer performance in school, lower literacy skills, higher rates of obesity, increased levels of aggressiveness, and so on. That research is alarming, and a lot more is needed to more fully understand how TV and other media affect kids. But so far, the abundant evidence shows pretty decisively that parents are right to be concerned about what their children are watching. Still, that knowledge hasn't made any discernable dent in the extent to which kids have ready access at home to TV, often unsupervised. Smoking causes cancer, seat belts save lives, and too much TV is bad for kids -- we know those things already, and more research will only reinforce what most people understand intellectually and viscerally. The challenge is to change deeply ingrained behavior, and orating on the stump about Hollywood without saying anything constructive about household habits won't make much of a difference.
The only strategy with a real prayer of working would be to emulate as much as possible the public-education campaigns that, over an extended period of time, helped to reduce smoking and increase seat-belt use. The task is even harder in this case: Television viewing isn't a matter of life and death, public-policy tools like cigarette taxes and mandatory seat-belt requirements aren't in the realm of possibility, and TV networks could be expected to resist advertising suggesting that it's not a good idea to help children become hooked on their product.
Politics is another big problem. If progressive leaders say anything that can be remotely interpreted as critical of parents, it would reinforce a stereotype that Howard Dean recently warned against: that of liberals as know-it-alls who talk down to average citizens. That would be especially hypocritical for politicians of any stripe, whose jobs by their nature tend to relegate them to absentee relationships with their children.
But therein may lie the beginning of a response that will resonate with the public. Parenting is a job that, perhaps more than any other, nurtures a sense of inadequacy. Maybe it would be constructive for more politicians with kids to talk in specific ways about how they, their spouses, and -- no use pretending -- their paid caregivers find raising children to be difficult. And maybe they could spend some of that time talking about how seductive the television is in making that challenge a little easier day in and day out. Further, if appropriate, they could talk about anything they may have done in their own household to reduce their dependence on that crutch -- paying closer attention to what their children are watching, rejecting pleas for a television in the bedroom, muting advertisements, initiating other activities to fill time once devoted to the tube, and so on.
Sharing such stories would convey a sense of empathy that parents could relate to; get them to at least think twice about the access to TV that they provide at home; and maybe, over time, fundamentally transform the nature of the debate from one in which the entertainment and advertising industries are to blame to one in which parents reassert greater control in nurturing the development of their own children. Dean himself got a lot of mileage from the phrase, “You have the power,” and parents really do have the power to reduce the extent to which the media influence their children (even if they have to do so through their instructions to caregivers). Support for other progressive causes, like better child care and after-school programs, could be integrated with a new message about how they help promote values by enabling parents to keep their kids away from the TV. Progressive leaders can create momentum, which really should be bipartisan, in creating institutions akin to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which would help convey to parents that their kids will do better in school -- and in life -- if they don't get hooked on television. We can do better than Dan Quayle.
Greg Anrig Jr. is vice president of The Century Foundation and co-editor of Social Security: Beyond the Basics.