By Margot Pepper
Source: Rethinking Schools, Spring 2008
For the last decade, I’ve had my students at Rosa Parks Elementary in Berkeley, California analyze television shows preceding National TV-Off week organized by the TV-Turnoff Network, which this year is April 21-27. I ask the seven and eight-year-old students to collect all the data themselves, since I’ve never owned a television. For seven days, students study a random sampling of about 35 English and Spanish-language children’s television shows—and one or two soap operas or reality shows.
The first day of the study, as homework, students shade in a square on a special graph sheet each time they see hitting, hurting or killing on half-hour segments of the shows they regularly watch, viewed from beginning to end. The second day, they focus on acts of selfishness; the third day, on instances of put-downs and the fourth day, on the number of times a typical class rule is broken. Finally, in class, four groups of students compile the data produced by the homework, each focusing on one of the four variables in the study. But in April of 2007, when I pulled out model graphs compiled by a class in April of 2002—year one of President Bush’s “war on terror”—the contrasts between their graphs and those produced five years prior shocked my students.
“In a half hour of [the cartoon] ‘Jackie Chan’ in 2002 you would see hitting 10 times at most,” wrote seven-year-old Flynn Michael-Legg in the essay I assigned summarizing the findings of our study. “In 2007, shows of ‘Jackie Chan’ had [up to] 34 hitting scenes.” For the 2001/2002 season, nearly one fourth of the television shows my students watched had one or no acts of violence at all in one half-hour. Now of the shows they watch, only That’s So Raven continues to have no violence, and all other shows have at least three instances of hitting or violence in one half-hour. Today, nearly half the shows randomly viewed by my students contain 7 to 34 instances of hitting or other violent acts each half hour.
The maximum number of put-downs or insults has nearly doubled since 2002, going from 10 in That’s So Raven to 18 in Dumb and Dumber — over one put-down every two minutes. In Sponge Bob Square Pants, Flynn pointed out, one would hear at most two put-downs in 2002. Today it’s 16. No shows had more than 10 put-downs in 2002. Now three shows did — Sponge Bob: 16; Dumb and Dumber: 18; Letty La Fea: 13. Very few shows have no insults at all any more.
All the shows my students watched in 2007 showed people or characters being selfish at least once per half-hour segment. From our class rule to “be considerate and cooperative,” my students interpreted “selfish” to mean any time a character did something that put him or herself first at the expense of someone else. In 2002, only three shows had more than three acts of selfishness in a half hour. Now, 10 did. Half of the 2007 shows contained five to nine instances of selfishness in each episode.
Students also found that in April of 2002, only one show depicted the violation of ordinary class rules — making good decisions: no hitting, put downs, being unsafe, etc. — 12 or more times. In April of 2007, the number of such programs rose to six. In 2002, the maximum times class rules were broken on a given half-hour show was 17. In 2007 the number of such shows quadrupled with the maximum number of rules broken on a given show doubling or reaching over 35. The worst offenders with 18 or more broken rules were Sponge Bob; Dumb & Dumber; Jackie Chan and Phil of the Future—the latter two topping the hitting and selfishness categories as well.
Whenever students exhibit disruptive behavior, appearing to ape television—pretend shooting, arms flailing, mouth ceaselessly chattering gibberish, etc.— I ask them to please turn off the television in their head if they happen to have left it running. Students often chuckle and, following my lead, turn off an imaginary knob around their ear. Now, as we embarked on our study, many of these students seemed eager to learn more about the television implants I implied existed in their brains; others appeared enchanted with the excuse to watch the boob tube as homework. (Every year, one or two students are excused from the homework due to parental objections to television viewing or, like their teacher, the absence of a set at home. They serve as positive roll models and still participate in the class data analysis.)
After sorting the completed television homework graphs into four piles, I assigned one variable or “change” (e.g., “violence”) to one of the four student groups to compile into one of four large rainbow-colored graphs like the 2001/2 model I had on the board in front of them.
“Which homework graph sheet recorded the highest number of hitting or hurting instances?” I asked the “blue group” in Spanish. Students sifted through to find the greatest number of shaded in squares.
“¡Mira! ¡Jackie Chan tiene 34!”(“Look! Jackie Chan has 34!”) Leah Abramsom voiced her discovery in perfect Spanish, though her multi-ethnic roots, which include African American and Jewish, do not include Latina.
For the sake of easy comparison, I wrote “Jackie Chan” on our Violence Graph in the same color and position relative to its appearance on the 2002 graph. Then, I had a student take a turn to color in 34 squares.
“Let’s put a check by every ‘Jackie Chan’ you see on other homework sheets because we’re done looking at that program,” I reminded them. “Now which homework has the next largest number to 34 of violent acts?”
Just as my students had in 2002, the students proceeded through the pile under my supervision to record the top 16 violent shows, assigning each a particular color. Regardless of discrepancies in student perceptions of violence of up to three instances for the same program, date and variable (the margin of error over the years), just as in 2002, students recorded the highest number of aggressive acts for each of these shows. After each group of five students completed its specific group bar graph of findings, and students saw it next to the colorful 2002 graph of the same variable, they were visibly horrified. Gisell González clasped hands over mouth to refrain from completing an exclamation of, “Oh my—”; while others gasped, “Ieeew!”
Ever since the first month of school when we studied opposing points of view about the so-called discovery (or not) of the Americas, I’ve encouraged my students to turn to other sources like library books and the internet to answer questions or prove social studies and science hypotheses and, the most skilled, to question the sources of their answers. So when I proposed the internet to support our findings, many were delighted.
The next day, I rotated each group of five through my English internet research station around a large computer. The class had decided on the preliminary Google search terms: “television violence increase.” Though students controlled the mouse and keyboard, I helped weed out irrelevant sites and urged them to explore promising ones. We’d scroll through these until we found something which either the students or I thought related to our hypothesis about increased violence. Next, I’d give them time to read paragraphs on the screen to each other. “Puppies” (native Standard-English speakers) would read the material to the “Kittens” (Standard-English Language Learners), explaining if necessary. When they got to a finding, they would let me know so I could record it on chart paper in the color corresponding to their group.
Traditionally, in this way, virtually all students have been able to discover something to share with their group. Usually two students in each group alight on juicy, complex information and, perhaps because of the immersion program’s need for translation, are able to simplify explanations for the rest. The overall quality of research and writing vocabulary has been extraordinary in part, I think, because of each group’s heterogeneous composition ranging from one to two high-skilled students to one or two who are currently performing well below grade level. Typically, my two-Way Spanish Immersion classes have been comprised of one-third children of college-educated professionals, while half qualify for free lunches. About a third are native Spanish-speakers or Latino children; up to one-fifth African American children and the rest Euro-American and other minorities.
I had the “green group” explore the TV-Turnoff Network site. The students clicked on the Real Vision study. “Wow! Kids will have seen ‘200,000 violent acts on television by age 18… and 16,000 murders,’” Maeve Gallagher was shocked. Some wondered if the increase in television violence highlighted on the site had led to more real life killing.
“What words do you think you might see in a report that says killing is related to television?”
They decided on “television + violence + killing.”
“Oh my gosh! ‘TV shows and Video Games Teach Children to Kill!’ Look, down there!” Ceilidh Welsh was pointing to the screen of search results. The note turned out to be a footnote in a report on the Parents Television Council (PTC.) I showed the group how important it was to trace primary sources and helped them type in the name of the author of the study, which turned up in a Senate Judiciary Report.
“This is a report by our own government!” Now I was excited, too. We typed in the report’s title and got the full report entitled “Children, Violence and the Media.”
“Video Games and TV are ‘teaching kids to kill,’ and ‘teaching them to like it!” Maeve read aloud for us from the report.
“Violence on TV is over 300 times more than before the war!” Students in the subsequent yellow group were jumping up and down. Well, not exactly. I darted to the board and shaded parts of pizzas to explain percentages. This made the concept more understandable to some, but for most, I had to translate. Using both the internet and fact sheets, children in the “yellow group” found that according to a 2007 study by the PTC called “Dying to Entertain,” since 1998, violence on ABC TV has quadrupled (a 309 percent increase — a huge rise, though not quite the “300 times” increase students had mistakenly proclaimed.) They found that in 1998 the network had about one act of violence per hour (.93). By 2007, it was almost four (3.8) on average. CBS, according to the PTC study, had the highest percentage of deaths during 2005-6, with over 66 percent of violent scenes after 8 pm depicting death (http://www.parentstv.org/). Incidentally, the study points out that, in general, violence in all television shows has shifted to being more central to the story — with more graphic autopsy or torture scenes — than it was over five years ago. It indicates that the 2005-6 season was one of the most violent ever recorded by the PTC.
After each group read its findings aloud, facts discovered by students in the “red group” persuaded the rest of the class, through a show of hands, to agree to limit their television viewing, turning it off completely during the TV-Turnoff Network’s TV-Off week — something they were reluctant to do when our television unit began. What this group had discovered, thanks largely to the TV-Turnoff Network’s website (http://www.tvturnoff.org/) is that there are more televisions (2.73) in the average home than people (2.55, according to USA Today.) The average home keeps a television turned on eight hours a day, according to Nielsen (2006.) Children who watch six or more hours a day perform worse on reading tests than do those who watch one hour a day or don’t play video games, reports the Center for Screentime Awareness (http://www.screentime.org/). And by the time they finish high school, children will have spent more hours watching TV than in school.
I knew students would brainstorm both absurd and frighteningly astute reasons to justify the increase of violence and selfishness on television. My aim was to get these young philosopher-scientists in the habit of asking ‘why’ about their world instead of merely consuming it — of making educated hypotheses then requiring multiple sources of supporting evidence.
During the group discussion, I learned that they were most troubled by the Senate Report statement that television was teaching them to “like killing.” The Senate report also found that 10 percent of crimes committed are caused by violence seen on television. The study, though predating ours, related the violence they saw on television directly to their present world.
I asked students if they had noticed an increase in violence in their world with the increase in television violence. Jacobo McCarthy and several others fiercely nodded: “Three years ago, I’d only see one or two kids in trouble in the office now and then; now there’s up to six or seven,” Jaboco commented. I too have noticed an increase in behavior problems at the school since 2001, despite better leadership and more effective intervention. However, increasing poverty and less spending on social services leading to a rise in domestic or neighborhood violence could be as equally valid contributors.
“What do you think the reason is behind the increase in television violence?” I asked.
“For brainwashing. TV advertises or sells violence. It influences us to vote for a president who uses war to solve problems,” Flynn said.
“I suspect the increase in television violence has something to do with the war on terror.” English-learner Andres Ventura emulated his classmate Sebastian Anderson’s elevated vocabulary in his summarizing essay. “By scaring kids and parents and pushing violence, people are more likely to vote for war. The TV makes you dumb because if you see a lot, it makes you forget things. It makes parents forget how things were when they were kids.”
One of the most shocking facts my students found was that according to the TV-Turnoff Network’s Real Vision project, parents spend only 38.5 minutes a day with their children in meaningful conversation. And more than half of 4-6 year-olds (54 percent) would rather watch TV than spend time with their parents.
This finding inspired Alejandro González’s conclusion: “I think George Bush wants to make people more scared. We know George Bush likes war. And… TV makes you like more war. What’s scary is kids spend more time seeing TV than being with their dad. Since our study, I turn off the TV more and go play with my dad. Maybe the president used to watch more TV than being with his dad.”
“And if Bush isn’t responsible? Why would television stations or their advertisers want us to like war?” I asked after reading Alejandro’s essay aloud.
“To make money, to sell things and make rich people richer like the people selling guns,” Ceilidh said.
“To steal stuff from other countries to make our own country the richest!” Jacobo asserted.
What impact did the students think this increase in television violence and selfishness was having on the world around them?
“TV makes people want violence by making it seem cool,” Ceilidh said.
Sebastian added, “Then they want to be part of the army. It’s a cycle. TV affects the world, then the world affects the TV, which affects world violence. It’s a ‘chain reaction of evil,’” Sebastian said, borrowing from a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote I had them memorize for Dr. King’s birthday.
“Yeah, TV leads to more fighting. Fighting leads to war,” added Jacobo. He evoked Dr. King to finish his thought: “’Hate begetting hate. Wars producing more wars…’ We need to stop or ‘we shall all be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.’”
It was a peak teaching moment. Students were assimilating valuable things they had learned earlier in the year to shape their thinking about the world. While some of the conclusions tended toward hyperbole, I can’t argue with the soundness of my students’ hypothesis that television selfishness and violence are part of a propaganda campaign to foment war and enrich certain sectors. But more importantly, my students are learning to think for themselves, to question the sources of their information.
One of my former students, Daniel Hernandez-Deras once commented that “watching television replaces your imagination with television thinking and there’s not much space left after that.” Now my current students had begun to turn off the televisions in their own brains and turn on their imagination and curiosity. At last, they had begun to internalize the insight contained in Maeve’s essay:
“If you watch too much T.V, you lose the kid that is inside you,” wherein lies our higher inner wisdom.
Born in Mexico City, Margot Pepper is a journalist, poet author and bilingual educator whose work has been published internationally by the Utne Reader, Counterpunch, Znet, the Monthly Review, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Rethinking Schools, City Lights, Hampton Brown, and others. Her memoir, Through the Wall (Freedom Voices, 2005), was a finalist nomination for the 2006 American Book Award. http://www.margotpepper.com/ and http://www.freedomvoices.org/pepper/index.htm