Just this week, President Bush said it's the responsibility of parents, not government, to protect children from indecency. But with so many programs in the TV universe to choose from, it's nearly impossible to always know and keep track of what's on. “Today” show anchor Katie Couric reports on what your kids are really watching, and learning, on television.
Live television has had its controversial surprises — just think back to last year’s Super Bowl. Incidents like this may grab the attention of the Federal Communications Commission, but for some children it's nothing more than a momentary oops!
“It was a good song, and I was just like, ‘Whoa!’ ” said Gwen, a 12-year-old who saw Janet Jackson’s breast-baring episode.
A Kaiser Family Foundation study says parents are less concerned with outrageous live TV moments than with the undercurrent of sex, violence and adult themes in TV programming.
“Today” asked some children at the Ridgewood, N.J. "Y" what they watch:
Claire: I like “Law and Order.”
Robbie: I like “Viva La Bam.”
Alexandra: I like “CSI.”
Jason: I like “Family Guy.”
Jonathan: I like “Stargate.”
It's no secret — sex and violence are a big part of prime-time programming. Even shows that air as early as 8 p.m. can occasionally slip in lines that leave parents with some explaining to do.
“I think you have to be very aware, even in the 8 o'clock time zone, of those shows where the sexual theme of the jokes is the basic theme of the show, because kids get messages from that,” said Jim Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, an independent organization that reviews entertainment for families.
“Do I think we have seen much of a change in TV programming and content since the famous Super Bowl incident? No way, no way! Just look at your TV tonight at 8 or 9 o’clock.”
More than 1 million kids between the ages of 6 and 14 catch up with "Desperate Housewives" each week. One of the program’s story lines: a wife's affair with a high-school senior.
“You've got 12-, 13-year-old kids watching [it], thinking that's OK,” Steyer said. “A lot of teen shows are following ‘The OC’ model. ‘Life As We Know It,’ is an ABC show, which I think Entertainment Weekly called a teenage boink-a-thon. The whole theme of these shows is teen sex.”
Click over to premium cable, where the shows are even racier. HBO's “Sex and the City” brought provocative content into living rooms like never before. Over on Showtime, “The ‘L’ Word” pushes the envelope, too.
Sex documentaries may air late at night on HBO in one time zone, but with some cable services, kids can access adult shows earlier.
Even on regular TV, the most wholesome reality shows may send kids harmful messages.
Each episode of “Fear Factor” is watched by 1.2 million elementary school kids, and 1.5 million tune in to “Survivor.”
Claire: Some of the people can be really rude to the other people.
The singing contest “American Idol” captures the attention of 4.2 million grade-schoolers, who also soak up judge Simon Cowell's caustic comments.
Emma: It depends on how they sing, but when they are crying and stuff, you feel kind of bad for them.
Steyer said this kind of onscreen behavior can teach children the wrong way to act. "Don't think the kids aren't learning from that, and that some of the more nasty humor and cyber-bullying that we see on the Internet isn't affected by some of these reality shows where humiliation is essentially the humor of the show."
Kids still want their MTV, but unless you're stuck in 1985, it's not just music videos anymore. Everyone's now used to the language of “The Osbournes.”
Justin: If you took out all the curses, then he wouldn't say anything.
But did you know that at 3 p.m., children can catch an episode of a dating show called "Room Raiders?"
Alexandra: They have a black light and they scan the rooms to see if any sexual interactions have gone on.
And after that, MTV airs another show called "Wanna Come In?"
Chloe: When they bring the girl home, they have to ask if they can come in, or if the girls ask “Do you wanna come in,” they win money.
The major TV networks encourage parents to be responsible when it comes to knowing what their kids are watching. Every program is rated — from TV-Y, for all children, to MA, for mature audiences only and unsuitable for kids under 17.
The V-Chip is a useful tool for parents. All TVs made after the year 2000 include the V-Chip to help parents filter out inappropriate programming. But the Kaiser study says only 15 percent of those who have it actually use it.
“Enter a pin number, and block out ‘our movie ratings,’ ” said Tim Collings, the inventor of the V-Chip. “Go under ‘our TV ratings’ and block out everything above PG, and also take out ‘fantasy violence’ for TV-Y7, and you're done.
“But I think the best thing you can do is sit down and watch television programming with your children,” he said. “Even when the V-Chip screen comes on and says ‘this program is blocked,’ there is a teaching moment.”
How do kids feel about it?
Robbie: If my parents had a V-Chip, I could not live!
Joey: I would be like, “Dad, take it out; Dad, take it out; Dad, take it out.”
Alexandra: If they think they are being good parents by putting the V-Chip in, then the V-Chip is parenting, not them.
So what's a parent to do?
- Set clear limits for your child as early as possible
- No TV set in the bedroom. “If they have it in there with the door closed they can watch anything at anytime,” said Steyer.
- Know the show before you go to it.
- And finally, watch and listen with your kids. “When you get those nasty surprises with TV, use it as a teachable moment, stop and talk with your kids about it,” said Steyer. “Then they'll learn what to tune out.”