CORVALLIS, Ore. - One of the most promising intervention programs aimed at curbing the effects of television violence on children is finding success through developing "TV literacy" in the early grades.
A major research program at Oregon State University has found that changing children's attitudes about TV may be easier - and more effective - than directly trying to change their viewing habits.
"It's kind of a new strategy," said Larry Rosenkoetter, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at OSU. "If we can't get industry to tone down the violence on television, then we need to provide kids with greater 'TV literacy' so that they understand what they are seeing and make wise viewing choices.
"Media issues for children go beyond violence," Rosenkoetter added. "They encompass gender and disability stereotypes, ethnic slurs, and ageism. But violence is our main focus and we're beginning to see some promising results."
Rosenkoetter and his wife, Sharon Rosenkoetter, an associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences, are co-principal investigators for the study, which was initially funded by a two-year, $120,000 grant from the Northwest Health Foundation. The program is now supported by a three-year, $730,571 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
The Rosenkoetters, four licensed teachers, and 60-70 OSU undergraduate students worked with more than 400 third- and fourth-graders in 10 different Oregon schools during the past year. Known to the children as the "TV doctors," the project leaders helped students become television detectives so they could identify appropriate and inappropriate activities, and logical and illogical consequences.
"We try to teach the children to be critical viewers instead of preaching right answers to them," said Sharon Rosenkoetter. "In an animated show, when someone gets pushed off a 20-story building and bounces right back up, we ask the children if that would happen in real life. In many TV shows, the good guys are almost as violent as the bad guys, yet half of the time there is no punishment for either. And when people get hurt, they recover quickly and show no pain. When you point that out to children, the light goes on and then they begin to critique TV events themselves.
"In one classroom, the children began to say, 'That's Bogus!' every time one of those illogical portrayals came on," she added. "We even did an 'autopsy' on a Donald Duck episode, stopping it every 20 seconds to allow the children to analyze what was on the screen. It really makes them think a bit about what they're viewing."
When the Rosenkoetters examined the data from the first year of their study they found that, overall, students who received the lessons in the OSU project were watching fewer television shows containing violence by the end of the year, compared both with control subjects and with their own previous viewing patterns.
Among girls, there was a dramatic reduction. Boys, as a group, however, continued to watch violence-packed shows - such as Batman, Digimon and Dragon Ball Z - at about the same rate as before.
But in follow-up interviews, the level of reported violence and aggression on the playground and in the classroom dropped significantly for the boys - and especially for the more aggressive boys, the researchers found.
"We also heard a lot of anecdotal evidence from parents that their kids were less likely to mimic violent behavior after participating in the TV curriculum," said Larry Rosenkoetter. "Perhaps what we've done is create a better climate for watching television where, even if the boys are watching as much violence, they are less likely to be affected by it."
Additional research, including follow-up testing next year, will help define the actual outcomes, he added.
The intervention program is called Project REViEW - for "Reducing Early Violence: Education Works." The Rosenkoetters and their team visited the elementary school classrooms twice a week from September through January, then once a week after that. It is that prolonged exposure that gives their program a leg up over other efforts that have failed, the researchers believe.
"In some ways, the curriculum comes at the same theme in 30 different ways," said Larry Rosenkoetter. "That theme is 'all TV teaches, so what do you want to learn? Violence? Or more helpful strategies for dealing with problems?'
"One effective strategy is to bring in people from the outside to reinforce what we say in our first class sessions," he added. "A number of OSU athletes have come into the classrooms and talked about their experiences as a wonderful alternative to television. Physicians bring in their stethoscopes and talk about changes in heart rate when people view violence, and share statements of concern from the American Academy of Pediatrics that recommend no more than 10 hours of carefully selected TV viewing per week for children.
"One of the most effective moments came when a police officer told the children that he hadn't shot a criminal in his 15 years on the force," he pointed out. "This came as quite a surprise to the children and made them question the reality of what they see on TV."
Sharon Rosenkoetter said the curriculum they developed also includes insider looks at the industry, so the children understand how directors create scenes, and use computer animation and digital enhancement to simulate some of the actions that seem so lifelike on television.
"Parental involvement also is an important component of our program because it reinforces the messages the children get in our sessions," she said.
The researchers say their study is important because it shows that intervention to mitigate the effects of TV violence can be effective. Before embarking on their project, the Rosenkoetters looked at previously published studies that had little impact on attitudes or behavior.
"All of the interventions were brief, totaling less than four hours," said Larry Rosenkoetter. "Our conclusion was that they didn't work because they didn't go at it seriously enough. We decided to make ours a yearlong effort, with a series of 20-minute sessions and intensive reinforcement of the major points. "And, for the first time, it works," he added, "so in that sense, this could be a landmark study."
The Rosenkoetters and their team plan to continue the project for at least two more years, refining the curriculum and attempt to pinpoint exactly why it works. Next year, they will teach another 400 children - probably at the first- and second-grade levels. One of their goals is to determine at what age this type of intervention is most likely to succeed. They also hope to build a curriculum for families of preschool-aged children because, they believe, family viewing habits begin when children are young.
In the future, the Rosenkoetters also hope to study the impact of violent video games on children.
"You know, we're not against television," said Sharon Rosenkoetter. "It's our basic belief that all TV teaches. Television can be a great educational tool, but children need to learn to the difference between junk food TV and nutritious TV. Good television gives you something useful for life. Junk food TV can be unhealthy, or it can just give you empty calories that aren't harmful, but the viewer ends up wasting three or four hours of every day.
"For young children, such a loss is tragic because those lost hours are times for learning new concepts, growing healthy bodies, and having fun with friends."