Don't Try This at Home
By David Flegel
Aug. 13, 2001 -- Don't adjust your set.
Yes, indeed, those are teens setting themselves on fire to capture it all on video.
And sure enough, the survival games continue, where people eat toasted rats -- and face living ones by the tankful.
Plus, at any given minute, at least six channels feature the exploits of Spandexed giants pummeling each other in wild, albeit scripted, abandon.
It's "reality" TV, and experts tell WebMD the luridness is here to stay. Meanwhile, there you are left to contend with the flashing disclaimers telling you it's your job to be sure that nobody tries any of the stunts at your home. What do you do?
For Starters, Stay Calm
There have been reports of Kentucky teens videotaping how they ran down their friend with a car, just like on the MTV show "Jackass." Other kids have been hurt when they set their clothes on fire or tried to jump over an oncoming car. But frankly, experts say, most kids have better sense than to copy what they see on TV.
"You have to remember that that these things are being shown to millions and millions of people," says Robert Thompson, PhD, professor of television, radio, and film at Syracuse University, N.Y., where he directs the Center for the Study of Popular Television. More kids are at risk of child abuse or bad nutrition than what happens on television, he says.
There have been a handful of incidents where kids actually made reality TV a reality, but for the most part, these events are rare, agrees Leon Hoffman, MD, co-director of the Parent-Child Center of the New York Psychoanalytic Society. "You see it in the newspapers and start thinking it must be all over the place," he says.
Still, such events are a concern.
"These are rare occurrences," says Peggy Fitch, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Central College in Pella, Iowa, and a researcher of TV's impact on kids. "But that doesn't mean they don't matter."
Aggressive Kids Most Likely to Go Ape
Any kid is apt to imitate TV stunts and get into trouble, Fitch says -- even the most docile one. But investigators think the ones most likely to do so are kids who are fairly aggressive.
These are the children who are already getting into trouble for fighting in school or have been known to hit, scratch, bite, or become violent in other ways. If they break things or seem to be dealing with a lot of frustration, she says, such sensational programming might be too stimulating.
It helps to know a bit about child development, says Fitch. Around age 4 or 5, she says, children know the images on TV are just pictures and stop walking around the set looking for the rest of Mr. Rogers.
By age 8 or 9, they first realize that people on a TV show are actors, playing out scenes according to a script. And by the time they are 10 or 12, they learn to assess if what they see on the tube is likely to happen in their neighborhood, in real life.
On TV today, however, the lines between real and fantasy get enthusiastically blown to smithereens.
On TV wrestling shows, for example, viewers see huge, living people flipping, crashing, and bleeding all over the place, and parents may have to help their children sort out what's real from what's fake.
The 'Cool' Rule
The new wave of TV reality programming brings up special concerns for parents of teens, says Hoffman.
"With adolescents, there is tremendous pressure to be like other kids -- to be cool," he says. "They want to be individuals, but in essence, they are the most conformist people there are."
So parents will want to think of what is going on in their teens' life in general. If they seem to be having a lot of trouble fitting in, for instance, pay special attention. That might be a kid less likely to walk away when their peers are getting action shots with the video camera.
Be aware what your kids are doing, too, Hoffman says. If they are looking for the photography equipment and the gas can, it's time to put your foot down.
"Parents are teaching [teens] to make their own decisions, but they don't need permission to say 'no,'" Hoffman says.
Look for Red Flags
Kids may look to their parents for acceptance, too, dropping hints of their plans to act out something they saw on television.
"You'd be surprised how many kids are leaving signals around -- intentionally -- to show parents what they are up to," Hoffman says. "Things don't happen out of the blue."
Tell your kids you are there for them to come talk about what they see on TV. And whenever possible, try to watch television with your kids.
Those two recommendations have been around for a long time. But Thompson tells parents to go one step further. Don't just be aware of what your kids are watching. Talk with your kids and find out why they watch particular shows.
"At least try to understand what your kids like about this stuff," he advises.
"There is a tremendous variance of what parents know about today's TV shows," says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University and chief psychologist at the Grady Health System, both in Atlanta. "Some are savvy and others are clueless. But you have to know the shows your kids want to watch."
It's a tough job, says Fitch, especially when parents have meals to prepare and jobs to do all day. The ideal is to be an active "co-viewer" where parents and kids can talk about the show as they are happening or shortly after they end.
"Tell your kids you are making yourself available to them," Hoffman urges. "That's really very, very critical."
Some Tips From the Experts
- Plan how much time your kids will watch TV.
- Know what your kids will watch. And watch the shows yourself before passing judgment.
- Don't allow TV to be a babysitter or a playmate -- get kids into constructive activities like hobbies and sports.
- Educate your kids about healthy ways to cope with frustration. It's not acceptable to slam siblings to the ground like a pro wrestler in the ring, as happened in one recent incident.
- Watch out for the signals that you as parents send to your kids -- for instance, sending them to bed so you can watch programs you don't want them to see. This sends a message that you still approve of the shows enough to watch them yourself.
- Pay attention to how your kids are responding to a particular program. Use TV as an opportunity to see how and what your kids are learning.
- Help your kids be selective about what they watch. This is a tough one, particularly if you have cable TV and your kids have a television in their own room. One approach is to tell your kids you would prefer they don't watch a particular show you find offensive. Set limits, but remember if you block certain shows from the TV, or forbid a show outright, you might be making the program the forbidden fruit.
It's All Up to ... You
WebMD asked MTV and World Wrestling Federation Entertainment Inc., for their tips on how parents can help keep kids from imitating their programming, but they did not respond to the requests.
So -- big surprise -- things are still up to you. Reality TV is not going away anytime soon, experts say, so you are going to have to find a strategy that works in your home.
"Reality TV is going to be a TV genre just like the police show or the sitcom or the doctor show," says Thompson. "There are thousands of people who want to participate, millions of people who want to watch, and hundreds of people who want to get them together."
Start with the above tips, Kaslow says. The recommendations may sound pretty basic, she says, but they often don't get followed.
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