Madeline Levine

Viewing Violence

VTR Date: August 6, 1996

Guest: Levine, Madeline


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Madeline Levine
Title: “Viewing Violence”
VTR: 8/6/1996

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I don’t think I’ve ever before been able to introduce a guest simply by reading from my own comments about her new book. My guest is clinical psychologist Madeline Levine. Published by Doubleday, her book is titled “Viewing Violence: How Media Violence Affects Your Child’s and Adolescent’s Development”. Well, what I wrote about viewing violence is that Dr. Levine is right on target in the very first words of her provocative and eminently readable volume. “The debate is over”, she writes, “Violence on TV and in the movies is damaging children.” Nor does this skilled professional let our attention lag as she goes about documenting and elaborating upon this evermore challenging fact of American life, with equal parts of important information, common sense, humor, and real insight into parents, children, and the media. Indeed Dr. Levine brings together here what doctors and psychologists know about child development and what researchers tell us about the role media plays in our youngsters’ daily lives. In this way she provides an intelligent guide to American parents in their ever greater concern for children viewing violence. Well, the author puts it best: “The media, as major disseminators of attitudes, assumptions and values can ill afford to ignore their responsibilities while asserting their rights. Television doesn’t kill people, but it provides the ideas and social sanction and often even the instruction that encourages anti-social behavior”. So, the question I should put today to Dr. Levine is whether media mavens are paying enough attention to this singular insight. What do you think?

LEVINE: No, I don’t think they’re paying enough attention at all. I think we have seen 30-40 years of research studies. There are over 3,000 studies on the media, there are 1,000 studies documenting the effects of media violence on children. 996 of those studies say that media violence encourages aggression in children, it encourages desensitization in children, and it encourages fear and pessimism. And these are things we don’t want for our children. I’m the mother of 3 sons. I don’t want desensitized, angry, fearful children. And I think that the media has not responded to these concerns of parents, and for the most part parents haven’t been aware of this huge body of research. They have not responded adequately. They’ve responded when a gun has been held to their head, and even at that, you know, their response has been weak. There was just a White House summit, which President Clinton had called asking for a pathetically anemic 3-hour children’s television on the networks, and while that was passed, it was passed with many stipulations. It said we will do 3 hours of television, but if we don’t want to do 3 hours, we can do community service, we can do public service announcements at 7 o’clock in the morning, we can go into communities and do programs for kids in their communities, and if we don’t want to do that, then we can pay somebody else to do it.

HEFFNER: A bounty fee in a sense.

LEVINE: That’s right. Which will actually end up with less children’s programming because PBS, which already does an enormous amount of children’s programming, and does a very good job, will be paid to execute what other channels should be doing, which is children’s programming. So, I think the sum effect will be negligible. I applaud President Clinton in the sense that he has changed the agenda from this sort of overworked “is violence bad for children” to “what can we do about it?” And I do think that’s a step in the right direction.

HEFFNER: Now wait a minute. You say he’s changed the agenda…

LEVINE: Uh huh.

HEFFNER: …from “is it bad for children?” And you establish that with your compendium of research studies…

LEVINE: Uh huh.

HEFFNER: Ah, but what can we do about it? In what way has the president moved the focus to “what can we do about it?” Haven’t you described now in this most recent White House agreement…

LEVINE: Uh huh.

HEFFNER: …no legislation was passed…


HEFFNER: …agreement among the broadcasters has simply established that they’re going to try to do, or what they will do presumably, is 3 hours more of good stuff. You’ve been talking about the bad stuff. I don’t see, do you, any agreement about limiting the bad stuff, that is, if you put on “A”, you don’t have room to put on “B”.

LEVINE: Well, that’s right! So…if this really was carried out appropriately in the spirit of Representative Markey’s bill, it would lesson some of the violence on television. I am not in the least bit optimistic that it really…I think when I say I’m pleased with the move, I think I’m really saying that I’m pleased with leaving behind the debate about whether or not television violence is bad for children.

HEFFNER: Well, wait a minute. I really want to argue that out with you. What you’re saying is something, I guess, that everyone would agree upon, that it’s good for children…that programming is good for children. Put on more “Sesame Street”, put on more “Mr. Rogers”, if you like these things and think they’re productive, and that’s a plus. How does that address the very real question of what the scores and scores and scores of negative input in terms of programming is doing, or are doing, to our youngsters?

LEVINE: Well, I think that in shifting the debate from “Does television cause violence?” to “is it bad for children?”…Part of what I spent a lot of time looking at are these studies. There are, as I said, thousands of studies. They all point in a direction that say it makes children aggressive, it desensitizes them, it makes them less creative, it makes them fatter, it makes them read less, it makes them less reflective, and I think in bringing that to parents’ attention, rather than saying “Well, gee, we really don’t know if it’s a problem or not”, we can say “Yes, it is a problem that changes the agenda for parents”, rather than whether or not this is a trivial issue.

HEFFNER: Madeline Levine, I’m an old man now and not just years ago, but decades ago, that same research was done with more or less the same results in terms of what the researchers tabulated. But no real results in terms of what broadcasters did. What makes you think there are going to be fewer negative inputs now? Except for this very interesting hypothesis, if you put something good in at 7am, or whatever it may be, you can’t put in something that’s negative.

LEVINE: Okay. I don’t mean to give the impression that I think the solution to this will come from the government. I absolutely do NOT think the government will be the solution. And you’re absolutely right, that in ’74 the FCC mandated that television served the special needs of children. That was 20 some odd years ago, Fowler came along in deregulation and decided television was only a poster with pictures, another appliance in the house, and all of that work that children’s television…was undone. And here we are in 1996 back where we were in ’74 saying “Well children are a special audience and they have special needs.” You’re right…22 years with essentially no change from the government, and certainly no change from the industry itself which has such an enormous stake in it. My feeling is that if parents were really aware of the risks that their children run by excessive viewing, that on a grass-roots level, on a parenting level, and on a citizenship level, that parents will be more active and pro-active in watching what their children watch and making demands and using economic power to see that those demands are met.

HEFFNER: Well, it seems to me that that’s the great importance of your book “Viewing Violence”, because you do summarize what I don’t think parents know up to this point. Maybe the early they know it, but the broadcasters and others are very good at pooh-poohing what the researchers came up with and I suspect that you’ll admit that at times researchers come up with rather out-of-this-world concepts, and numbers and theories. Our mutual friend George Gerbner has been attacked I think perhaps unfairly although he opens himself up in some ways to this attack for making assertions about certain programs, that they’re particularly violent. Those assertions get laughed off the face of the earth.

LEVINE: Well, as you well know, I have nothing but respect for Dr. Gerbner. I think that his work is seminal. The fact that people have chosen to pick one or two television shows that he used early on like “I Dream of Jeannie” and say that this throws out a body of work of 30 or 40 years is idiotic. The entertainment industry is well aware of the research that’s been done. And by the way, you said you’ve been around for a long time, and that maybe true (laughter), but the best majority of this has been done in the last 10-15 years. Though in 1980 we only had 500 studies. We now have 3,000. So the evidence has really accelerated and accumulated and using minor differences in studies is a ploy to discredit the studies and the entertainment industry has been wonderful at manipulating the data and distorting the data, but mostly at ignoring the data. I came to this in a very serendipitous way. My son, who at the time was 12, wanted to see the movie “The Silence of the Lambs”. And I had seen it. I thought it was incredibly inappropriate for a 12-year-old. I told him no. He told me that the majority of his friends had, in fact, seen it. I live in Marin County. It’s an involved, upper middle class county, and in fact, all these children HAD seen it. So I became interested, this was 3 or 4 years ago, how was it that parents had so little appreciation that developmentally a child of 12 isn’t served by a movie that fuses sex, and violence and cannibalism and all that sort of nonsense. And so I went to do some research. I went to a local bookstore, “do you have a book on child development, on the research on children watching violent movies?” And there was nothing! And I went to every bookstore in town, and found nothing. And then drove down to Stanford, which has a wonderful library. Couldn’t leave, spent 3 days in Palo Alto finally reading study after study after study pointing to he information…I consider myself a reasonably educated well-read person…that I had NO idea existed…No idea, as it turns out, that there were 3,000 studies pointing in this direction.

HEFFNER: All right. Now, if anyone reads “Viewing Violence” they’re going to know that. But let me ask you a question. How much difference is that really going to make to the parents you surveyed when your son wanted to see that particular film?

LEVINE: You know, I think that’s really the heart of the question. And I think it will make an enormous difference.

HEFFNER: You do.

LEVINE: I do. I think in the context of the social crisis that’s going on in this country, the fact that we are the industrialized nation with the highest rate of interpersonal violence, we lose 10 for every 100,000 people…in the inner cities the homicide rate is 10 times that rate, and just for some perspective, we lose 10 or 100 per 100,000…Japan loses 1, Canada loses 3, England loses 3, so our homicide rate is unconscionable and it is the second leading cause of death of adolescents in this country. A quarter of adolescents who are killed are killed by guns.

HEFFNER: Yes, but somebody’s going to say “Dr. Levine, are you also saying that television is the killer here?” And what’s your reply going to be?

LEVINE: You know, one can never say that television causes crime. All you can say is that television is one significant factor in the multiple causation of crime. And we’re very aware of other causes of crime. We know about poverty, we know about alcoholism, we know about child abuse, we know about drug abuse, but television has been found to be an equally significant factor in the multiple causation of crime. And I think that when parents really come to believe that television can be lethal, not in the sense of like cigarette smoke, but lethal in the sense of the attitudes that are taken by their children, by this sort of celebratory violence, once parents are convinced that it really makes a difference, my experience of 20 years as psychologist tells me that parents, once they are convinced that their children are in harm’s way or in danger, are quick to act.

HEFFNER: And what will that action be? What CAN that action be within the context of our political system? Although you seem to think that it’s not a political issue.

LEVINE: I think it’s a citizenship issue. I don’t think this is a left-wing or a right-wing issue. I think that this is an issue that all people have to attend to. And I think that there are things people do in their capacity as parents, in their capacity as entertainer, in their capacity as government official, in their capacity as citizen.

HEFFNER: Dr. Levine, we don’t vote now…we don’t vote now when it comes to the major issue of choosing a President of the United States in the numbers that others do. What do you see as the direction that your reader can turn…


HEFFNER: …his or her attention?

LEVINE: I think that there are several things depending on which level we look at. So let’s look at my home, the average parents’ home with children. What can I do? I can do many things. The first thing I can do is watch with my children, to not use the television simply as a babysitter.

HEFFNER: Oh come on now, Dr. Levine, you know as well as I do that if we’re talking about the average American home, we’re talking about a home in which the 2 parents are not present. One parent is off running somewhere else. And when both parents are home…both are so frequently working, not available for providing the “let’s do something about this situation”.

LEVINE: Well, I don’t know if we can say single parents, or separated parents or divorce parents aren’t as able to be concerned and watchful over their children. I think that we don’t send our children to a school that we haven’t looked at, we don’t hire a babysitter…I know you have children…would you ever have hired a babysitter without meeting them, taking a look at them and a chat with them?

HEFFNER: You’re talking about 40 years ago.

LEVINE: And I’m talking about now, too. I don’t think that most parents, I mean I really believe that most parents care, love, and are responsible toward their children.

HEFFNER: The last word “responsible”. You’re talking about Marin County, aren’t you?

LEVINE: No, I don’t believe I am. I believe that the vast majority of parents in this country are concerned about their children. There was a very interesting survey on what were the values that parents wanted to see in their children. And across socio-economic groups, across ethnic groups, across political spectrum, they wanted to see children who were caring and who were cooperative and non-violent and who were trustworthy. So there really a tremendous difference in what we want for our children.

HEFFNER: You’re the first person, I would think as a trained psychologist, that there’s a vast difference between what we want, or what we say we want, what we REALLY want, and what we do about achieving what we want even for our children.

LEVINE: Okay. But I think that what I am saying is that the time has come to stop treating this as a trivial issue, to treat it with as much seriousness as choosing a school for a child, deciding whether they can drink and drive on Saturday night, deciding whether or not jelly donuts are a breakfast food. Some effort has to go into the monitoring of children’s television.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m glad you put it that way. You say some effort has to…but certainly, a survey of the last generation would indicate that less and less effort is going into those things, including jelly donuts.

LEVINE: Well, that may be, but in terms of media violence I would argue that the reason there is less effort is that there is less information. The kind of information that would make parents alert to this has not been made available. Cigarette smoking…actually, there’s a lag between what we learn, and when we pay attention to it, so the Surgeon General’s report on cigarette smoking in the 60s came out…it took 10 years, until the mid-70s before we saw a drop in cigarette smoking. So research findings come first and then public policy changes with a lot of public education, public service announcements, and things like that. With media violence, we’ve had this information for 30 and 40 years and it has not reached the American public. The American public does not know that there are entire counties of children that have been studied. It doesn’t know that there are thousands and thousands of children who have been looked at over time. In one of the most important studies in the field, children were looked at at eight. And Heron, who did the study at eight…one could predict criminality at 30 by the amount of television that was watched. This was not done on a small group of people. This was done on an entire county in upstate New York over 30 years. So there is a body of information that parents need to have that has not been made accessible. I really do believe that once they are in possession of that kind of information…

HEFFNER: They’ll do what?

LEVINE: They will do some monitoring. They will shut the television off sometimes. They will work with their children to understand what the messages of television are. Television, after all, has only one product. Us! You and I are…the audience is television’s only product. And television simply rounds us up with something that will hold our attention long enough to sell us cereal, a car, a $200 pair of athletic shoes, or whatever. And children need to become as literate about the media as they are about their own textbooks. And that’s something that a parent can work with their child on. “Why did he kill her? Was there another way he could have solved it? Why is there all this violence on television?” There’s all this violence on television because it’s cheap, it’s reliable, and as our friend Dr. Gerbner says, it travels well. It’s our second largest export at this point. So parents can petition their schools for media literacy. They can use economic power…and it’s not like nothing ever happens! Pepsi-Cola cancelled their 5-million dollar contract with Madonna when people protested her “Like a Prayer” video which showed actual scenes with saints, and many people found it…

HEFFNER: I have no question that when it comes to sex, that’s much easier to achieve. But when it comes to violence, I’m not so sure. Look, I hope…and I would give anything if you turned out to be correct. And certainly one key to that is that you’re going around and selling this book as widely as you can, seriously, because you’re correct in terms of our not knowing, and not having the studies available. Our friends in the media have long known about them and have spent their time denying them.

LEVINE: Right.

HEFFNER: My assumption is that you see SOME connection between government action…and not just parental awareness, and the media change of heart, change of action. But you see some role for government in this. Or maybe you choose not to.

LEVINE: You know, I think the entertainment industry has a responsibility to provide protection, because they profit, as you well know, enormously from the field in which they work.

HEFFNER: It’s our system, isn’t it?

LEVINE: That IS our system. However, take for instance seat belts in cars. We drive carefully, we have our children in our cars, we’re good drivers, we’re careful on the road. But we demand protection from people who profit from the automobile industry. And part…no matter how good a driver I am, I don’t know that the guy coming down the road is an equally good driver. So I demand protection from the people who profit from the money that I spend on the car. Similarly, I think that parents need to demand some kind of protection from the people in the entertainment industry because they profit enormously. And it’s not like this is a crazy idea. There are many, many countries where there are sales tax levied on movies or video tapes that go into an independent fund that assure that there is a greater breadth of images that are brought to the screen.

HEFFNER: Yeah, but once again you’re back to the breadth of images…

LEVINE: Uh huh.

HEFFNER: …to the three-hour network voluntary, supposedly voluntary gift…

LEVINE: Uh huh…

HEFFNER: …to our children. You’re not now addressing yourself to what Gresham’s Law does. It drives the good out of the market. You’re not addressing yourself to what I really think you’re most concerned about, the negative input of television and film and videotape, etc. You were talking about a film and the videotape your son wanted to see.

LEVINE: Right. And I’m, I’m…if I’m understanding you’re saying what role do I see for government…

HEFFNER: Mmm hmm…

LEVINE: …in making sure that happens?

HEFFNER: Nobody I ask sees a role…

LEVINE: You know, all I can do is refer back to your point. We had seen 30 years of government…

HEFFNER: Inactivity.

LEVINE: Worse than inactivity, government refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of this issue. One of the things I mention in my book…I went to see a Constitutional lawyer before I started writing, because I wanted to know just constitutionally what the government had. Of course we had a lot of restriction of laws on our media because of the Bill of Rights, and he looked at me like I was crazy and said “What are you doing, looking to attack it in the most inefficient way possible.” Government is probably not the most efficient way to approach this problem. Because no matter what the government does the industry, the entertainment industry has been able for many years to find loopholes, and in psychology, there is an old saw, which is the best predictor for the future is the past. And what we have seen in the past is that money buys everything, including non-compliance with government regulation.

HEFFNER: Madeline Levine, the notion that the past is an indication of what the future will be in this area is the most discouraging thing I’ve ever heard…which is why I’d go back to the beginning of the program now and recommend that you get that educated audience that you want, that educated electorate, which is parents who know what that research demonstrates, which they find in “Viewing Violence” by Madeline Levine. Thank you very much for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

LEVINE: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. Comments can be sent to this address or via email to Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Thomas & Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and from the corporate community, Ruder-Finn.