May 8, 2001 -- A handful of incidents in which youngsters have injured themselves or their friends imitating stunts they saw on television is a powerful reminder of the effect media can have on children, according to pediatricians and psychologists.
Since the music video channel MTV began airing a program in which a young man carries out absurd stunts that in any adult's mind would earn him the show's title, Jackass, a half-dozen youngsters have suffered serious injuries while — they said — repeating what they saw on television.
"It's cumulative," said Dr. Michael Rich, who serves on the Committee for Public Education of the American Academy of Pediatricians. "It's a stalagmite process, drip, drip, drip and then you get something big. It's a major sea change when you look at the whole population."
Most children are unable to sift through the images presented in media, psychologists say, and are particularly vulnerable to the suggestions in images that are close to their own lives.
In the case of a show like Jackass, children who feel starved for attention or the recognition of their peers see a chance to get it, and many simply are not yet sophisticated enough to understand that the stunts are not being held up for praise but for scorn, experts say.
Images More Compelling Than Words
Among the recent incidents, a pair of boys in New England and another in Florida all set themselves on fire, and a 19-year-old from Minnesota stopped traffic by running around in the rain carrying a chain saw and dressed only in a hospital gown.
In another incident, a 16-year-old from Kentucky broke both his legs trying to jump over a car that was driving at him. He was apparently trying out something he saw on a sneak preview that has since been pulled from the air.
MTV, which is due to receive an achievement award from the International Radio and Television Society on Wednesday, runs a disclaimer on the program warning against attempting the stunts and saying it does not accept videotapes from people who want to get on the show.
But psychologists say that a child's mind does not respond to such disclaimers the way an adult's does. Not only are images much more compelling than words to children, but youngsters' brains have not developed the capacity to weigh the potential long-term consequences of an action, even when those consequences are spelled out.
"Putting a surgeon general's warning on a pack of cigarettes saying smoking kills you is one thing, but there's pretty good evidence it hasn't done an awful lot to change kids' behavior," Rich said. "I'm sitting here in Central Park right now watching all these teenagers walking by smoking cigarettes. Now, they're not all patently stupid kids."
Fanning the Fire
Over the last 40 years, an extensive body of research has accumulated drawing a strong connection between exposure to images of violence in media — from cartoons to music videos and video games — and aggressive, violent behavior in children and teenagers.
In one of the most compelling studies, in the 1960s researchers in Canada were able to study the changes in behavior in a town over the first few months that residents there received television. Teachers reported a marked increase in the number of schoolyard fights over that time.
While few psychologists say that exposure to violence in media alone will create a violent individual, most agree that when children also see violence in their home or community and have little close interaction with a parent or other adult, it increases their tendency to resort to violence themselves.
"There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that violence portrayed in media has an effect on teenage violence," said Dr. Michael Delahunt, a child psychologist. "I don't think it would cause someone who doesn't have a tendency to be violent to be violent, but it can fan the flames."
Children learn by imitating what they see around them, trying things out that look interesting and adapting them to fit themselves. And that includes violence and idiotic stunts.
While MTV, Hollywood and the producers of video games are easy targets for those angered by youth violence, experts say pointing fingers is not as productive as intervention. Parents and educators can do more to increase youngsters' understanding of how media works.
Just as importantly, children need to feel a emotional bond with an adult — preferably a parent, psychologists say. For parents who are feeling more and more pressed by demands of the workplace, that does not necessarily mean they must drastically increase the amount of time they spend with their children, but they need to give all their attention to their family when they are together.
"What that means is that the time you spend with your kid has to be high-quality time," Delahunt said. "If that means all sitting down at the dinner table, that's good. If that means reading a book with your kid, that's good. If it's bath time, that's good. It's all good."