Media That Really Frighten Teenagers

An excerpt from the book Grand Theft Childhood, which is being marketed as a message to parents that video games aren’t the problem. As one of several supporting points, the artists argue in the following passage that it’s not videogames that teach teenagers to think of the world as a place where violence and fear are normal:

Parents don’t generally think about news as harmful to children, or that children even watch news programs. But surveys show that children and teens watch TV news regularly; sometimes, they just happen to be in the room when an adult turns the news on.  A child who sees a lot of violence on television, whether it’s Law & Order reruns or news programs, is more likely to see the world as a scary place with lurking dangers far out of proportion to reality. But realistic depictions of violence, such as those on the news, are thought to be more likely to scare or desensitize children. As one child told us, “In video games, you know it’s fake.”

Given that older children and teens believe that news represents reality, and that TV news programs increasingly show graphic or sensationalized violence, there is a real risk of harm. Parents can help by keeping track of their kids’ exposure to TV news, and helping them put it into context–for example, that stories get on the news because they are rare, and that events on the news–whether it’s losing your house to a tornado or winning the lottery–are not likely to happen to them.

Research on television coverage of war shows that children of different ages are upset by different aspects, with younger ones more bothered by the visual images and teens by the complex issues, such as morality and justice, that are raised by news events.

In the business of journalism, there’s a saying — “If it bleeds, it leads.”  That’s a somewhat cynical recognition of the attention that people pay to unusual things — car crashes, school shootings, and plane wrecks. And visuals — such as security camera footage, a chase seen through a police officer’s dashboard camera, a journalist clinging to a telephone pole as a hurricane blows in from the ocean — make good TV, because the images speak to our emotions.

TV is all about making an emotional connection with the viewer, but it’s so one-sided.

Is too much weather bad for our children?  Coming up, we’ll have a LIVE report from our own Slick Goodhair, who is outside, facing the weather, so that you can stay safe in your homes. He’ll tell you the three simple ways you can save your family from the effects of too much weather. We’ll also have a preview of a made-for-TV movie about a family that didn’t trust their local TV journalists enough, went out into the weather completely unprepared, AND DIED! But first, these messages from our sponsors, who also don’t want you to die. Have we mentioned lately that the internet is scary, that TV and movie stars are your only true friends, and that because we love you so much, and you’ve been so obedient good to us, we’ll show you footage of adorable puppies!  Tonight! Live footage of yellow police tape at a completely deserted site where some event ended 12 hours ago!  Anchors infusing even the most routine story with tension and drama! Verbs disappearing from TV newscasts!  Present participles taking their place! Grammarians continuing to investigate!

Okay, I’m exaggerating. Television projects a distorted image of the world, in which the only thing that matters is being on TV… but there’s a significant sliver of good, in that today’s young people who watch The Daily Show or the Colbert Report, are at least familiar with comic riffs on the news.  And they can post their own opinions on blogs or on YouTube.

Now, much of this self-published material is dreck, but I’d rather my students create drek — and learn from the process — than passively absorb only what the media elite decide is worthy of attention.

I watch less and less TV these days, and more and more YouTube.  Of course, much of the content of YouTube is excerpts of footage from TV shows, or DVDs… when I heard the news that Harvey Korman had died, it was great to view some of my favorite clips of his performances on the Carol Burnett show and Blazing Saddles. The availability of archival material on YouTube let me put together my own retrospective clips show, drawing from material that fans of Harvey Korman had already decided to post online.  Composing my own personal playlist is an exercise in interpreting, evaluating, and re-contextualizing material that was created for a business model that favors linear distribution and passive consumption.

George Lucas, who recognized how much Star Wars fans wanted to participate in the universe he created, organized a short film contest.  Joe Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, posted on the internet every step of his creative journey towards building a science fiction series that played a huge part in revolutionizing the way science fiction stories are told. Now, practically every SF series works each individual episodes into a season-long arc, giving hints and planting clues that online fan clubs dissect and argue about. Of course, the soap operas have been doing this for decades. And even Paramount Pictures, which has a reputation for not being nearly as welcoming of fan interest in Star Trek, has in recent years given the OK for fan-produced amateur shows (some of them even involving the original actors).  I’m far more interested in what online communities do with TV than in the TV itself.

Gonzalo Frasca touched on a crucial difference between video games and linear drama when he pointed out “Hamlet’s dilemma would be irrelevant in a videogame, simply because he would be able ‘to be’ and ‘not to be'” (“Ephemeral Games“)  The creators of Peacemaker took useful advantage of this feature of the medium, encouraging players to role-play the leadership decision of both Israel and Palestine, in order to explore the depths of a complex and multifaceted environment.

In games in general, I really appreciate that illusion of player agency — when I know the PC so well that I willingly choose options that I might not necessarily choose myself, but which I know are likely to advance the story in a direction that supports the goals of my PC.

But I’m really blogging all this in order to point out how important it is to cast your net widely when you do research.

The prevalence of TV, and the prominence of TV journalism in the construction of a network’s public identity has also burned into my memory some events that would have had little impact on my life if I hadn’t happened to be watching them on TV, such as the US Federal assault on the Branch Davidian compound, the OJ Simpson verdict. And whenever I’m back in the Washington D.C. area and catch some of the local news, I’m reminded of how easy it is to tire of hearing about yet another drug-related shooting, yet another protest on the Mall, and yet another example of incompetence or scandal in the D.C. local government.

But my criticism of shallow local TV news shouldn’t be extended to the international gravitas associated with the power of TV to provide an
emotional message that unites.  I’m thinking of the American coverage of the JFK assassination and funeral, the Apollo 11 moon landing (my
mother took a photo of the TV set, and I grew up looking at it in my photo album) and my own memory of watching the launch of the first
space shuttle, scuds being fired in the first Gulf War, and footage of the World Trade Center’s demise.  Someone has to be out there covering
routine events, filling the airwaves with something or other in between the momentous occasions that make TV journalism really shine, and the
reporters who can manage to tell a good story while also maintaining their credibility as journalists have my respect and admiration.

I haven’t read Grand Theft Childhood yet, and I’m not confident that a few isolated quotes are sufficient to counter the findings of researchers who identified correlations between playing violent games and increased displays of aggression. I welcome the introduction into the memestream a popular discussion of videogames that challenges assumptions that I often see perpetuated in TV journalism.  Yet I note with some distress that the book is so usefully organized to supply “So there!” soundbites to defenders of videogames.