Screening Out the Garbage: How to Teach “Correct Principles” about Television in the Home


Let’s not get the TV fixed—it’s just great without it.”

These were not the words of a concerned mother but the straightforward thinking of a teenager who realized the negative influences that can come into a home through television. Of course, some television programs are outstanding. History appears before our eyes. Many of the wonders of science, nature, language, and countless other things can be learned in our homes from television. A living prophet can be seen and heard. Occasionally excellent entertainment is offered. Yet, unfortunately, more and more immorality, violence, and other negative behaviors are being portrayed as typical and normal ways to act. Behaviors that we so much want our children to avoid appear repeatedly on the screen in ways that eventually influence thinking and behavior.

What Is TV Teaching Our Children?

Harmless-appearing comedies often teach that dad is a “dunce” to be tolerated but not respected. Violence is made to seem acceptable. Children are taught: “When there is a problem with a person, get rid of him.” Techniques of how to do this are vividly demonstrated.

But does just watching murders, muggings, arsons, burglaries, and other violent acts on television really influence behavior? Although seeing something once might seem innocuous, most of us can remember “once” seeing something terrible that we can’t seem to erase from our memory. And steady doses of particular influences affect thinking even more.

In a 1976 report to the people of Canada, the Royal Commission on Violence in the Communications Industry concluded that “the evidence from more than 100 studies of screen (and TV) violence and aggressive behavior considered by the Royal Commission is fairly conclusive. The presentation of media violence can lead to an increase in the level of aggression.”

The Royal Commission further commented: “There seems to be a rapidly expanding dossier of crimes which have been copied from media presentations. In California, a seventy-one-year-old man tried to rob a bank with a toy gun because he had seen it done on TV and it looked so easy. In Alberta, a youth hanged himself trying to copy a mock hanging performed by rock star Alice Cooper in his television act. Television dramas describing extortion attempts based on planting a pressure-sensitive bomb on an airplane led to an outbreak of real extortion attempts based on this threat. After the media coverage of Evel Knievel’s various jumps, a rash of injuries resulted from children’s attempts to copy his actions. In other words modeling or imitative learning does affect children’s behavior, and can instigate anti-social or self destructive acts.”

Albert Bandura, a Stanford psychologist, studied five groups of nursery school children. The first group observed adult models behaving aggressively toward a plastic, human-like doll. The second group saw a film of the same thing. A third group saw a cartoon cat enacting these same aggressive acts on a TV screen. Two control groups of comparable children were also included, one group being exposed to calm, nonaggressive filmed models, and the other to no models. The children in all of the groups were then mildly frustrated and brought individually into a room that contained a variety of play toys, including the human-like doll, where their behavior was observed and recorded.

The results of this research showed that exposure to aggressive models had two important effects on the children. First, it taught them new ways of aggressing: the children imitated the novel assaultive behavior of the models (whereas children in the control group almost never participated in this type of aggression). Secondly, the aggressive models also reduced the children’s inhibitions against performing aggressive acts they had previously learned that were not modeled in the experiment, such as spanking and shooting dolls, killing animals, and smashing automobiles.

Children learn best by imitative learning—“monkey see, monkey do”—at home, at school; through television, and in other settings. A tremendously effective way to teach someone to adopt a new behavior is to show a live or filmed model under attractive conditions. Countless people have changed their lives for good by seeing films such as Man’s Search for Happiness and Johnny Lingo, or stage productions like Promised Valley and Saturday’s Warrior. But this method can also be used to teach negative behaviors such as smoking cigarettes, fighting, and even participating in immoral sexual activities. The method works. Satan’s R and X movies are no joke. Even movies and programs with so-called acceptable ratings often teach violence and immorality.

A steady diet of television has a powerful influence. Television may subtly brainwash us by shaping the way we and our children understand the world and how people live and act.

Even some programs specially prepared for children may teach negative behaviors and cause nightmares. For instance, in the average cartoon a violent act occurs every two minutes. A mother writes: “My ten-year-old boy went into a slump at school. He daydreamed. He didn’t do his work. His grades dropped so markedly he was failing. At the suggestion of an observant teacher, television cartoon watching was stopped. Within a few weeks Richard was back to his is usual excellent study habits. He was reading, doing his work, and was a different boy.” This is not an isolated example. The improvement in Richard’s attitude and behavior was more than coincidence. Television cartoons teach violence and confusion, and waste valuable time.

What Can Parents Do?

How can TV trash be sorted out? Is throwing out the television the answer? Should absolute censorship be employed? Where should parents begin?

One of the most effective things for parents to do is to set an example. If viewing (or reading) a story with the lead characters relishing immorality is harmful to young children, is it suitable for teenagers? Of course not. Then is it good for parents? Certainly not. When we read or watch stories, we momentarily escape from our world and vicariously live the life of the hero or heroine. It certainly cannot be pleasing to God when a viewer or reader vicariously lives immorality in an imaginative situation.

Thus, the first step in controlling television and reading habits in a family is for parents themselves to read and view only that which edifies. There are excellent productions on television, screen, and stage—even though they may have to be searched out and waited for.

Have you ever thought about the location of the TV set? In our own experience problems have occurred when a TV was in the parents’ bedroom. The “let’s see what’s on next” pattern keeps the set on longer than planned, while communication deteriorates between husband and wife. Problems go undiscussed and unresolved, and sleeping time is shortened. The solution is simple—no bedroom television. The results? More sleep, better communication, less wasted time, and less trash seen.

Perhaps the following problem is familiar in your home. It’s Saturday morning, and your children sit mesmerized in front of the television set, watching cartoons. Chores remain undone. The more they watch, the more irritable they become. What are the options? The first is to do nothing—to remain a tolerant, permissive parent. The second is to break the habit. A plan might be formulated in a private mom-and-dad meeting. Then the family needs to understand the principles behind the plan. Perhaps an assignment can be given one or more of the children to report in family night about harmful effects of some television programs, magazine articles, books, and movies. After the problems are explained thoroughly, the question, “What should we do about it?” might be asked.

Since television watching seems to be almost an addiction, the “cure” may require drastic action. In some families an absolute television blackout might be a temporary necessity. Various things can be done to accomplish the blackout, ranging from disabling the set, removing the power cord or antenna cable, installing an electrical lock on the power cord, or even sending the set on a vacation. An honor system may work—if absolute commitments are made by a very disciplined family.

When the television is first blacked out, amazing things happen. Chores get done, games are played, children actually talk to each other, and good books are opened and read by everyone from dad to second graders. Usually by the end of the first week even the dissenters are convinced, although it might take several weeks for a lasting family rehabilitation to occur.

If a successful balance of television time is to continue, viewing rules and guidelines probably should be worked out by the family. The following are samples from our family rules:

1. Unless there is something really worthwhile “ON,” the TV will be “OFF.”

2. If a program does not meet gospel standards for children, it is not appropriate for parents either.

3. Parents won’t use the TV as a babysitter to get the kids out of the way.

4. Certain types of programs do not justify watching at all, such as those that are immoral or promote violence.

5. Children’s shows will be checked frequently by parents, because not all children’s educational programs meet gospel standards. Is poor or insulting language used? Is there hitting, shouting, or disruption? Are characters and situations likely to lead to nightmares? Are inappropriate materials discussed or shown? Are gospel principles compromised? If so, then that program is not turned on—even if it has widespread acclaim.

6. Selected sports events are viewed in moderation.

7. When a particularly excellent television special is scheduled, it should be put on the family calendar so that the family can enjoy it together.

8. On the Sabbath, if the television is turned on at all, the program must be in keeping with the Sabbath Day.

9. Programs are reviewed in family night before being scheduled.

10. The house must be tidy and schoolwork done or under control before the television is turned on.

In actual practice, there are so many worthwhile activities to substitute for TV viewing that television addiction doesn’t need to be hard to break at all. It is a matter of balance. Choices about the use of time make a big difference in a person’s life. Many television programs are excellent choices for one’s time such as general conference, news, historical documentaries, an occasional sporting event, music, or drama productions. But many programs waste time and might teach incorrect principles. “Let’s not let ourselves or our families become habituated to watching unselected television. There is so much that is more worthwhile for us to do.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Parry Merkley

Glen C. Griffin, a pediatrician and consultant to the Developing Welfare Services Department of the Church, serves on the Adult Writing Committee of the Church.

Victor B. Cline, a psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Utah, serves as a Sunday School teacher in the Valley View Fifth Ward, Salt Lake Valley View Stake. Dr. Cline’s writings on the psychological effects of pornography and media violence have been internationally recognized.