Stillwater Gazette

Stillwater Gazette

11-30-05

By KARI VANDERVEEN

Mann guides ‘media-wise’ children

STILLWATER — More than a decade ago, Michael Mann’s daughter came home from school and said her assignment was to turn off the television for a whole week. Mann and his wife decided the assignment was the perfect opportunity for a family experiment. They not only turned off the TV, but removed it from their living room entirely. “We discovered we had a lot more time,” Mann said. “TV had been playing such a large role in our life and our time.”

Instead of just one week, the family left the TV turned off for three years. They filled the space where the TV had been with a bookcase, which prompted everyone in the house to read more and led Mann to take up a career in storytelling.

But Mann isn’t advocating that everyone trash their TVs. He and his wife eventually realized that their children live in such a media-saturated culture that it is better to have a TV in their house, where they know and can help explain what their children are watching.

Yet Mann is still concerned with what his children — and all children — are seeing on TV, in movies, in video games and on the Internet. He began volunteering at the National Institute on Media and the Family in 1997, rating media ranging from TV shows to video games.

And, he told audience members at a lecture Tuesday night at FamilyMeans in Stillwater titled “Raising Media Wise Kids,” what he sees while rating children’s media is often disturbing. Just yesterday the institute released its report card on video games — a report card that included the “Dirty Dozen,” or 12 most violent video games. The games that made this list included such titles as “Far Cry,” “True Crime: New York City” and “Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories.” Even though these games are exceptionally violent, Mann said they remain on the shelves for one very important reason: they make money.

“Today, the overarching question for society is no longer ‘What is good for our children? What is good for our families?’” Mann said. “Today the overarching question is ‘What makes money?’”

Mann also showed a clip from “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” a game that explicitly shows characters murdering cops and soliciting prostitutes and, until July, was the most popular video game on the market. The clip Mann played showed one character solicit a prostitute, have sex with her in a car and then chase her down and cut her to pieces with a chain saw.

The clip prompted one disturbed audience member to ask in frustration, “Why would ANYBODY want to play that?”

Mann couldn’t answer that question, but he could say that these types of games and TV shows do impact children.

“The ability of television to influence group norms is extremely powerful,” Mann said.

Suzanne Pollack, a Marine on St. Croix resident and community services worker who attended the lecture, said she has seen the influence violent television programs and video games have had on children.

“I even see it with my own kids,” she said, adding that the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” cartoon is something she’s noticed has had an influence on her children. “My kids and I talk about this kind of thing constantly.”

In the United States, 99 percent of households have a TV set. In addition, 68 percent of school-age children have TV sets in their own bedrooms, and 25 percent of babies under the age of 2 have TVs in their bedrooms. “There are more households with TV sets than with flush toilets,” Mann said.

Children now watch TV, play video games or spend non-school related time on the computer 44 hours a week. The responses the institute has received from children asked what they would do without a TV has been powerful.

“If I had no TV for two weeks, I would get my casket ready and start inviting my relatives to my funeral. I love TV. No TV — No Tim,” fourth-grader Tim R. wrote.

Today’s children might be addicted to media such as television and video games, but Mann said they can be made media-wise with education and guidance from parents. “This is stuff that can be used for good,” Mann said. “Our children really deserve access to healthy media.”

He urged audience members to get connected with the National Institute on Media and Family. For more information visit www.mediawise.org.

Kari VanDerVeen covers education and the cities of Oak Park Heights and Lake Elmo for the Gazette.