It's time to tame the TV!

On an average day, your child spends more than two hours watching television.

The amount of time children are watching television has many educationalists and child development specialists worried. A study of Wellington and Wairarapa children (by the NZ Council for Educational Research and funded by the Ministry of Ed.), showed an irrefutable link between increased TV viewing and lower cognitive skills. Six years ago the then Minister for Social Services, Roger Sowry, launched a book which showed that excessive or unsupervised television viewing by New Zealand children is leading to developmental problems, obesity and poor social skills.

Getting in the Picture

The book Getting in the Picture, by Australian and New Zealand Paediatricians, cites research which suggests that babies only 4 months old are already watching an average of 44 minutes a day of TV. By the time a child reaches adolescence, he or she has spent more time watching TV than attending school. Dr Peter Watson, who assisted with the New Zealand version of the book, said research has shown that often excessive television viewing by children is an indicator of wider family or social problems.

Other research findings in the book include:
* By 30 months of age many NZ children are watching an average of 84 minutes a day of TV, extending to 2 1/2 hours a day by the time the child is four years of age;
* The more TV children watch, the less sporting activities they undertake;
* Children lose weight by reducing TV watching and increasing their physical activity:
* From 2-3 years children can understand, in a very basic sense, and memorise the literal aspects of what they see - the features, the action, the dialogue.

This lines up with what American researchers have found ... that children under two should not watch television because it increases their chances of suffering attention disorders as they get older. And a study published in the US journal Pediatrics, found that each hour spent in front of the TV set every day increased the risk of attention deficit disorders at age 7, by 10 per cent. Dr Dimitri Christakis of the Children's Hospital in Seattle says, "The newborn brain develops very rapidly during the first two to three years of life. It's really being wired." He believes the brain changes brought about by looking at television at this age may be permanent.

US educationalist Jane Healy has made a study of How Television Affects the Developing Mind. She believes television can impinge negatively on young minds in several different ways. For instance:
Higher levels of television viewing correlate with lowered academic performance , especially reading scores.

Research suggests that the brain's executive control system which is responsible for planning, organising and sequencing behaviour for self-control, moral judgment and attention is affected by 'mindless' television or video games. This may 'idle' this part of the brain and impoverish its development.

So just what they are watching is of even more concern.

What is being watched?

New Zealand has one of the most liberal regimes in the world for what it permits on Free-to-Air TV. We have programmes here that would be shown only on cable TV in the U.S. Media Matters in NZ - formerly Viewers for TV Excellence Inc. - is most concerned about the amount and severity of violence being shown. But there are many other programmes with adult or inappropriate content which our children are seeing.

In December 2002, Broadcasting Minister appointed a working group (including Media Matters President John Terris), to review the amount of violence on TV in New Zealand and to determine what effect this had on our society. Reporting back, the working group said that not only was it concerned about the overall high incidence of violent content on New Zealand TV, there are some aspects of the incidence of violence on New Zealand TV that were of particular concern. One issue is the apparent high incidence of violence in promotions for upcoming programmes on some channels.

"While much of the violent content in promotions and programmes may be relatively innocuous," the group said, "we are concerned that many incidents of serious violence are still screened each week. We also note the emerging role of women as both perpetrators and victims of violence and that children may be more likely to feature as victims of violence in the AUT study than in comparative US studies from the mid to late 1990s.

" We conclude that the current level of TV violence in New Zealand may pose a risk for some individuals and vulnerable groups including children and young people, especially those who are also exposed to other major risk factors for violence. We consider it likely that there are a variety of additional adverse consequences..."

A team from the Centre for Communication Research at Auckland University of Technology, helped the group with research. Director Professor Allan Bell, said the researchers found that promotions for adult programmes might feature several violent incidents and be broadcast in children's viewing time before 8.30pm. The research also showed that cartoons were the genre with the most violent content on New Zealand television, (similar to results in earlier local and international research).

New Zealand's TV channels are constantly pushing the boundaries, and seldom acknowledge fault even when complaints are upheld by the Broadcasting Standards Authority. Media Matters was successful in a complaint to the BSA over a news item on TV One about the child soldiers in the Ugandan 'Lord's Resistance Army'. The item contained violence that was not appropriate at 6pm when children are watching, and would have been traumatic for many. TV One responded by taking Media Matters to the High Court on appeal. Fortunately, the Court ruled that TV does not have unfettered right of free speech. But one small victory hasn't changed anything. The channels march on, pushing violence, inappropriate content, horrific cartoons, trailers with adult themes in peak time, AO rated programmes in the daytime and questionable ads.

Exposure to media violence increases risk of aggressive behaviour

Watching just one hour of television a day can make people more violent, according to the magazine New Scientist. A team led by Jeffrey Johnson at Columbia University (New York), found a significant link between watching a lot of television and later aggression -even if a person had not been violent at the start of the study. This was true even after accounting for other risk factors, such as childhood neglect, growing up in a dangerous neighbourhood, low parental education and psychiatric problems.

Of boys who watched three hours or more of TV each day in their early teens, 45% went on to commit an aggressive act against another person, compared with 9% of those who spent less than an hour in front of the box. Almost a quarter went on to commit robbery, threaten to injure someone or use a weapon to commit a crime.

Today the data linking violence in the media to violence in society are superior to those linking cancer and tobacco. Hundreds of sound scientific studies demonstrate the social impact of brutalisation by the media.

The American Academy of Paediatrics concluded that more than 1,000 scientific studies and reviews showed significant exposure to media violence increases the risk of aggressive behaviour in certain children and adolescents, and desensitizes them to violence.

A study of population data covering various countries done for the American Medical Association showed homicide rates doubling within the 10 to 15 years after the introduction of television. While television might be only one of many factors, nonetheless murder and assault rates in New Zealand have been increasing every decade since the 1960s. Violence and sex seem to go hand-in-hand on TV today.

Exposure to sexuality in movies and TV

Even if they wanted to, kids can't escape sex. In film, television, and music, sexual messages are becoming more explicit in dialogue, lyrics, and behaviour. In addition, these messages contain unrealistic, inaccurate, and misleading information that young people accept as fact. Teens rank the media second only to school sex education programs as a leading source of information about sex. For every hour of television watched by teens, on average, there's 6.7 scenes including sexual topics, and about 10% of these scenes show couples engaged in sexual intercourse. An American survey in 2002 showed that 68% of all TV shows and 89%of TV movies had some sexual content. So every year US teenagers see 15,000 sexual references, innuendos and jokes through the media - compared with 10,000 acts of violence. As the NZ broadcasting group's report pointed out, the situation is much the same here.

Music television and other sources of music videos often display suggestive sexual imagery. In one content analysis, 75% of concept videos (videos telling a story) involved sexual imagery, and more than half involved violence, usually against women. The sex is nearly all casual. Issues such as birth control, protection, or safer sex generally don't get mentioned, let alone keeping it to a committed relationship. These don't talk about the risks and consequences of having sex - STDs and pregnancy. One survey showed that 76% of teenagers indicated that one reason young people have sex is because TV, shows and movies make it seem more normal for their age.

This is not a minor problem. Recent studies have found children who view sexual content on television are twice as likely to act sexually as those who do not. Casual sex is a contributing factor to what health professionals call an epidemic of sexual diseases in NZ. Chlamydia is now the most common infectious illness after influenza, and it's considered to be under-reported because it's not a notifiable disease.

Massey University midwifery director Cheryl Benn says the reason New Zealand has such high teen rates (of pregnancy) could have something to do with exposure to sexuality in movies and TV. Some people dispute that sex and violence have an effect on behaviour. But if it does not, why do advertisers spend millions of dollars believing they can have an effect?

Change the current watershed time from 8:30pm to 9:30pm

The current watershed time in New Zealand is 8.30pm. Under the broadcasting rules, shows before 8.30 should not contain adult material. That is commonly breached. But broadcasters don't see the time from 8.30 to 9.30 as a time to ease towards more adult material. They simply throw a switch so that now "anything goes".

This is completely irresponsible. The majority of children are still watching TV well beyond 8.30. That was confirmed by the Broadcasting Standards Authority in their 1999 -2000 surveys. On Friday nights, just over half of the children interviewed reported watching TV beyond the 8.30pm watershed. On Saturday nights 44% of the children said they watched TV until 9.30pm and a third were still watching at 10.00. The research also found that over half of the parents were present only sporadically while their children watched. One child in six had a television set in their bedroom.

The 8.30 watershed time is one of the most liberal in the world. In the UK and Canada, adult material is not allowed till 9.00pm. In the USA, it's even later - 10.00pm. The watershed in Australia is the same as New Zealand, but the restrictions are tighter, not allowing AO material at all.

We are brutalising our children with our TV. It's time to change this. That is why Media Matters is launching this campaign to move the watershed to 9.30pm. Research shows clearly how children are being harmed by violence on television.

The BBC rules are particularly worth noting, and would be a good model for New Zealand.

Write to MPs

When any Election is approaching, it is an ideal time to ask MPs for a pledge to move the watershed time. Please write to the Minister of Broadcasting and the broadcasting spokespeople for other parties, encouraging them to follow up on this. Letters do not require a stamp if they are addressed to the MP c/- of Parliament.

We encourage you to tell others about this campaign. To help you:

Write to Media Matters for a copy of our promotional video (7min 30sec long). This is ideal to show small groups, friends, MPs etc. When you write, state if you want a version for computer, DVD, or video. A donation to cover copying and postage costs would be appreciated. Suggested donation $15.00. Also order copies of the promotional A4 poster. Prices on request.

To order , contact us at:
Media Matters, PO Box 31618, Lower Hutt 5040, New Zealand

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