Theodore Shapiro

The Impact of Entertainment Violence on Our Youngsters

VTR Date: June 30, 1998

Guest: Shapiro, Theodore


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Theodore Shapiro, M.D.
Title: The Impact of Entertainment Violence on Our Youngsters
VTR: 6/30/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. About my guest today, let me note that ever since he joined me at this table ten years ago I’ve wanted to press him on a matter we never quite got to at that time. Violence in our families was our subject in 1988. Indeed, the very week we recorded that program, Newsweek magazine’s cover story, titled “A Tale of Abuse,” dealt with the horrifying Joel Steinberg trial in particular, and more generally with the psychology of violent family relationships that seemed then to be epidemic in our nation. But I also wanted to discuss the role that violence in our entertainment media may play in begetting the violence in our daily lives. And we just never had the time to do so. We will today.

Dr. Theodore Shapiro was then and is now professor of psychiatry at the Cornell University Medical College, and head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. I was then, but no longer am, chairman of the board that assigns G’s, PG’s, PG-13’s, R’s, or X’s, now called NC-17’s, to films whose makers voluntarily participate in the theatrical movie-rating system. For 20 years I commuted between New York and Hollywood, trying to make the ratings work as best I could. Unfortunately, when it comes to violence, I didn’t and don’t think the system works well, mostly because when, even on a level playing field — and that isn’t always the case — its judgments are designed only to reflect what film content most parents will accept in the various rating categories. And I’m afraid that most parents accept too much violence. Not sex, but violence. Indeed, I was once tempted to ask Dr. Shapiro to offer expert witness at an appeal brought against the X rating my fellow parents on the rating board and I had given to Scarface for that film’s extreme violence. Most of Hollywood seemed to rate against us, however, as the studio summoned its own psychiatric consultants to insist that entertainment violence most likely is cathartic for youngsters. Along with critics like Roger Ebert and Jay Cox, to praise its esthetic qualities.

Well, for many reasons I didn’t invite Dr. Shapiro. Let’s just say that isn’t the way the rating game is played. And we were skunked. Our X was overturned by a huge majority of the all-industry appeals board, and that very violent film was distributed with an R rating instead, placing it right smack among most other rated films.

Of course, I don’t know to this very day whether Dr. Shapiro would’ve accepted my invitation, or what he would’ve said. But perhaps now, years later, I can finally find out what this disinterested, truly reasonable and fair-minded expert in child and adolescent psychiatry really does think about the impact of entertainment-media violence on our youngsters.

That’s a mouthful, Dr. Shapiro. And may I find out finally what you think?

SHAPIRO: Insofar as I’m an expert, I may be able to tell you some things that I know about the effect of violence on children of varying ages, but I’m also a private citizen and have personal opinions also. And when I think about the rating board that you were on, I’m impressed by the fact that you voted, so that suggests that there are no absolutes in this business, and that there really only are judgments about what is too violent. And to some degree I’m afraid in our culture these days that’s a matter of taste.

I do remember a transition in my own moviegoing when I came home one summer to see “Bonnie and Clyde”, or Sam Peckinpah’s film, which was similarly violent, it seemed to me. But those were the first times in my memory where shootings were accompanied by spurting blood and matters of that sort. And that seemed to be a real transition from the earlier days when we would see Cagney and others involved in shootings, and certainly children imitate those things. But the experience of violence in regard to spurting blood, brains flying here and there, that’s a very different kind of violence, it seems to me, and somewhat frightening to children.

HEFFNER: But, now, you say, “Frightening to children.” I guess the thing that, well, I remember when we rated “Jaws”, and that was a hullabaloo about the fact that we did not put a restricted rating on it. And our response on the board, when we voted — and the vote there was very close, and I must admit I voted for PG — was that no shark sticks you up on the street, no shark is likely to be imitated by children or others. Isn’t the question whether this provokes and stimulates violence?

SHAPIRO: Well, we certainly have known from time immemorial that theater of any sort will stimulate imitation in developing children. The question about the tolerance for and the understanding of the irreversibility of being shot or matters of that sort is really one of understanding the developmental process. That’s why your rating scale has PG-13, 17, whatever. Somebody was wise enough to make the judgment: for what age, for what kind of child.

However, there’s also the violence that’s portrayed even in cartoons, and that’s certainly been pointed to over and over again as being a particular area that might be of concern to some parents.

HEFFNER: When you talked about “matter of taste” before. But if we moved away from taste, I mean, my colleagues and I were simply making guesses as to what most parents would accept in a particular rating. You deal with children. You’ve dealt with them professionally for a long, long time. Has there been any indication, in your professional judgment, that there is a negative impact of violence on the screen upon the children?

SHAPIRO: There are some sources of data on this with respect to fear in the community and fear in children. There’s a recent study done in New Haven, interestingly enough, in their school system, which was done on sixth-, eighth-, and I think tenth-graders. And the material of real life was so vividly upsetting that I wonder about whether or not anything in the theater could be imitative of what they experience. Something like 40 percent of those children had seen a gunfire or someone stabbed within the last year. Seventy-five percent of those children found themselves anxious about street violence as they were going to school. Now, you may say that’s one community, but similar studies were done in Washington and New York. And let’s look to the expansion of this in the recent killings by children in rural West and rural Southwest. And we’re really up against a puzzling issue here of, “Where do they get it from?”

Most of the best information we have is that children do imitate. But to carry through from a play situation to an actual, violent outburst using a weapon is yet another story. And you have to be vulnerable in many ways before those experiences are translated into real actions. And one of the things that I find most striking is that, in all those instances, access to firearms was really a central theme with those kids.

HEFFNER: You say one has to be vulnerable, the child presumably has to be vulnerable. And one of the things that the industries, the media themselves have done over the years — and I know because I’ve participated in it (mea culpa) — has been to make the point, “That doesn’t happen to your children or to mine. That doesn’t happen to kids who are brought up right. Etcetera.” But we have so many dysfunctional kids who are not brought up right. I mean, if you posit the notion that a child brought up in the Fifties notion of “Ozzie and Harriet”, for instance, whatever the realities were then, will not be badly affected by violence on the screen, what proportion of children today don’t have the advantage of balanced families?

SHAPIRO: That’s why I brought up the issue of how much violence there is in children’s lives in general rather than what they only see on the screen. And there’s where your vulnerability begins. Because it is known–even– from people who are hardened criminals or in prison that they had violence done to them as children, and they themselves end up doing violence. So there is some learned effect in regard to the disposition towards letting those barriers down and doing violence.

The notion that it doesn’t happen to us is an old argument. It’s an old argument that Erikson very keenly noted in the concept he used called “pseudospeciation”: “They’re a different species.”

HEFFNER: Others.

SHAPIRO: “We don’t have to worry about them.” Do we have to worry about the wars going on on the borders of other countries? They’re not us. We function a little bit like Athens as a city-state, and the rest of the world can go to hell. In regard to the notion that we…we are not vulnerable to this.

Now, I think the recent killings by children have certainly wakened up the community to the fact that these things do happen. And these are not urban children who are exposed to daily violence in the way in which we think about it. They’re subjected to other kinds of traumatic effects, maybe from family life, maybe from access to firearms in itself as a means of dispute solution. And one of the things we ought to offer our children, it seems to me, is alternative ways of settling disputes than using weapons or using their fists. One of the cries in most nursery schools is, “Use your words; not your hands.” And that has to be carried out in regard to any assault weapon that a child may get his hands on.

HEFFNER: But, of course, so many people make the point that our children spend so much time not in nursery school where they’re told to use their words, not their hands, but rather before a screen, a television screen, a movie screen, a video screen, a virtual-reality-game screen, that more and more of their life experience can be summed up in terms of what the imagery is on those screens. Wouldn’t you say that that, almost by definition, must add… And I don’t want to, I mean, I’m a bug on this. I don’t want to push you into saying anything. That’s why I don’t know what you would have said had you come to that appeal.

SHAPIRO: I believe that you’re correct. I think too much time is spent in that kind of passive entertainment. In fact, the American Pediatric Association has put out a directive which says not so much that we encourage the film and the video industry to wipe out the violence that’s there, but to add and reschedule programming which would be more pro-social than antisocial, and that that might be a way of dealing with it. They didn’t want to get into the civil liberties issues, I guess, in regard to the right of expression and how people in the industry make their money.

HEFFNER: That’s too bad, isn’t it?

SHAPIRO: It is too bad.

HEFFNER: Because Gresham’s Law, as far as I know, has now been repealed: The bad drives the good out of existence.

SHAPIRO: But the bad drives the good out of existence only if somebody is making money from it, and we have a public who says they want it. If the public didn’t watch, if the public, as — and Robert Coles does this very nicely — says, “Why don’t we tell our children what we want of them? Why do we let other people direct our children’s observations?” Why don’t we have some limit-setting in regard to what they look at?”

HEFFNER: How do you answer those questions?

SHAPIRO: I encourage limit-setting, and the… There is an illusion that family life is like a democracy. But you don’t permit little children the democratic right to vote, because they don’t have the means and the wit with which to do it. So that you sometimes along the way have to direct them. In fact, education, the root of the word “education” is: “to direct, to guide.” And I think we have a responsibility throughout the early years, until such time as these children can make judgments themselves.

Now, that would place me in a conservative camp with regard to the idea that I am for directing children rather than letting them grow. But I don’t think we can just let children grow and that they’ll find their way. I think we’ve got to find some middle ground between the old authoritarian notions and also, and the laissez-faire notion that, “If you leave them alone, they’ll just sprout well.”

HEFFNER: Aren’t you addressing yourself, though, essentially to those, A) who care, to the parents who care, to the parents who have the wit and the learning and the understanding to be involved in following what it is you’re suggesting, and to parents who have the resources, not just intellectual and educational, but the material resources to be willing and able to come home after a hard day’s work and do the things you think they should do?

SHAPIRO: I think you’re correct. And the majority of the children that I’ve seen over my professional career, having spent 18 years at Bellevue when it was the old Bellevue, not even the new one, and in dealing with underserved children and indigent children and children of minority and other ethnic groups, we find that the family structure is not the same as the upper-middle class, we find that sometimes we have an impoverished mother who’s overloaded with too many children, we find many children in foster care, and the guidance is certainly not easily available. And I think what you’re suggesting is something that I truly believe is true, which is that if you only use the television as a babysitter, and it’s only going to have violent themes on it and nothing as an alternative, that you are going to have a serious influence on children.

HEFFNER: Let me ask you to make a guess or make a bet. What do you think is going to, and indeed, what do you see is happening to us along these lines of developing or losing out on the development of responsible, thoughtful parenting? Which way are we going?

SHAPIRO: I think we’ve gone through a period of time somewhere around the Second World War where hands-off on parenting was more the rule than it is now. I think we’re heading more in a direction toward sensible guidance rather than authoritarian interference. But, on the other hand, we’re no longer at a juncture where the notion is that—you know– children are noble savages and we certainly shouldn’t be interfering too much with their development. I think we’re somewhere between understanding that different developmental stages require different kinds of imposition of parental guidance, but that parental guidance is important.

HEFFNER: Do you think the question of parental guidance is dealt with differently? You talked before about the fact that we find in rural areas horrendous activities on the part of children, many of those shootings have taken place. Do you find any difference now in parental willingness to exercise its responsibilities, parental responsibilities between different parts of the country? Do you have any information about that?

SHAPIRO: I don’t have any real solid information about that. But I do have information from direct observation and also cultural studies that different communities certainly handle discipline quite differently. And the matter, for example, of hands-on spanking and so forth is a very important means of disciplining when you have many children and you don’t have the time or the effort. On the other hand, talking a child to death is also an equally silly kind of, or bad way of dealing with it, because the child ends up going in the other direction. You have to have a somewhat solid understanding of the contingencies that a child might consider important to him in order to make a disciplinary move useful to the child. You can’t tell a two-year-old who’s going to run into the street, “Watch out, you’ll get run over.” He doesn’t understand getting run over. You’ve got to detain him.

HEFFNER: Ten years ago when you sat at this table, we were talking about violence generally in American families. Has the question of child abuse, which we read about constantly, has it impacted upon the willingness, the ability, the concern about parental use of discipline?

SHAPIRO: Oh, it certainly has impacted on it from the vantage point of greater education, understanding of its importance. But, you know, the fantasy of hitting somebody or hurting somebody or getting so out of sorts with an infant or a baby or a child that you really feel like you’re going to lose control is one which is highly dependent upon the capacity of the individual to get, number one, respite from his own tension, or her own tension, more likely, and also to be able to contain themselves. And some people just can’t contain themselves because they have clear problems or even psychiatric problems.

HEFFNER: You think this is becoming a larger problem today, again thinking about ten years ago when we discussed this?

SHAPIRO: I don’t really think it’s larger. I think we’re much more alert to it, and I really think that we’re taking much greater and easier notice of it. The rules, for example, for physicians and nurses, or teachers even, where abuse is suspected, it becomes a mandatory call. You’ve got to use some judgment in it, but you’ve got to call the Committee on Child Care in order to see whether or not an investigation is necessary.

HEFFNER: But that heightened concern — and this is what I meant before and I didn’t express myself very well — that heightened concern, and you’re talking about the professionals; I’m talking about parents and their concern not to be seen disciplining their children physically. Is that a phenomenon? You occasionally read about that.

SHAPIRO: Oh, you mean to, so that they look as though they are using other means rather than to risk the shame of their peers?

HEFFNER: Exactly. You read about someone who was arrested or detained by the police because he has been seen spanking his child.

SHAPIRO: So they’re closet abusers now?

HEFFNER: Well, what is the…

SHAPIRO: Well, you know, insofar as you can drive something out of the public eye, it means that you can contain yourself at least in certain circumstances. Whether you resort to it in private is yet another story. But the children often tell, or bear the marks of the abuse, and that becomes the sighting which helps you intervene.

We all have trouble controlling our impulses. The notion that, for example, watching violence on a screen or in the theater is a cathartic enterprise is something that most experimental studies do not support at this point. It’s an idea that goes back to Aristotle, that you go to theater for the cathartic experience. We also think that play evolves out of watching others, and you play to master something that’s unpleasant to you or difficult for you or anxious-making. So that we do use the notion that play becomes a vehicle for self-mastery.

On the other hand, the line between play and enactment is really one that you have to have a fairly considerably active and controlling portion of yourself to contain. The…

HEFFNER: Explain that.

SHAPIRO: We all have murderous rage from time to time, if we admit it to ourselves. On the other hand, most of us don’t commit murder. Most of us don’t hit our children. But we look for respite from the situation that creates the tension, or we get somebody else’s help to give us a little bit of time, or we reconsider the situation and we learn how to stop the encounter so that we don’t do it. Now, children don’t have those controls, until they’re an appropriate age. I mean, let’s take the situation of a new sibling in the house, and you have a young child and an older child. Both of them may resent the new baby. On the other hand, it may be easier or harder according to what age you are and what kind of control you have about whether you do something about it.

Now, if you watch something on television where that is enacted, one wonders whether or not there’s some adaptation to watching that. It doesn’t make it better, I don’t think; I think it makes it possible sometimes.

HEFFNER: If you were to make a personal guess — and you spoke before about personal choice versus professional proof or demonstration — what do you think about the media saturation with violence?

SHAPIRO: I think the media saturation with violence is on overkill at this point. But you commented before that you were on a rating board where it was sexuality and aggression which were the themes, and violence.

HEFFNER: And language, but mostly…

SHAPIRO: And language.


SHAPIRO: Okay. Well, language enacts sexuality or aggressive things.


SHAPIRO: It’s so much easier to get agreement, it seems to me, on what is sexually explicit versus what is aggressively and violently provocative. And I think that’s where the problem is, is that, you know, while we all accept some violence within ourselves, I think it’s hard to know what’s okay for those outside. When the judgment is about children we find it a little easier because we can make some judgments for children. But you told me earlier in your opening comments how hard it was to get the group to agree to what kind of rating Scarface should’ve had. And…


SHAPIRO: …for example. And I made the comment that, look, I thought there was a turning point with “Bonnie and Clyde” or movies like that. What moved them to be so explicit when bang-bang, you’re dead was okay in James Cagney’s days?

HEFFNER: Simple. You made more money.

SHAPIRO: But you made more money because there was a new shock effect.

HEFFNER: Absolutely. And you kept raising the ante.

SHAPIRO: And they kept raising the ante, and they keep raising it. So that now what we’ve even done is ridiculed our own violence in films such as “Pulp Fiction” or some of the Cohn Brothers’ films. I mean, these are scenes which are unnecessary. On the other hand, they are self-mockery, in a way, of our own living with violence.

HEFFNER: You know, what would you have done if — we have 20 seconds left — what would you have done if…

SHAPIRO: I can’t believe we have 20 seconds left.

HEFFNER: …if you had come to that appeal? Would you have been willing to put your professional credentials on the line?

SHAPIRO: Sure. But I don’t know that my professional credentials qualify me as an expert in this area. And that’s the tricky part with regard to public judgments about matters which there may be no exact proof on but only judgments about.

HEFFNER: I suppose that’s the fairest, best place at which to say we have no more time. Dr. Theodore Shapiro, thank you so much for joining me today.

SHAPIRO: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.