The Tribune - Spectrum

, June 16, 2002
Lead Article

by Juhi Bakhshi

VIOLENCE on television was not an issue with which Sandhus concerned themselves much. Not until their own three-year-old daughter, Anushka, was grown up enough to comprehend what the blue screen beamed. It was then that the young couple began to notice how much trash they actually watched on the TV. "Its only when our two- year- old started questioning us on details about every thing she watched, every murder, every act of molestation, every shooting scene and when she started clinging to us in fear on every science fiction and every horror movie that we realised how much there was on TV that we did not actually want our child to see," recollects Rohit Sandhu, an avid TV-watcher. There were days when every single channel, but for sports or news, was beaming nothing but psychopathic or horror movies and crime thrillers, the Sandhus recall.


Violence on the small screen, a hotly debated issue in the western world, has been demanding the attention of many a reputed political figure. However, in India it is still not a matter that would ruffle too many feathers. Merely a decade old, satellite TV itself is a recent phenomenon in India. Cable TV has made television viewing a prime leisure activity in which an average adult spends an average of two to three hours daily in front of the TV set. More and more parents are adopting television as a convenient baby-sitter. Now-a-days TV watching begins as the favourite activity of most kids right from their second or third year onwards. Studies show that each year most kids spend an average of about 1000 hours in school and nearly 1500 hours in front of the television.

An increase in viewing time and the number of channels have changed the content of programmes. Social redemption and societal reconstruction no longer form the main themes of the serials and soaps. Action, mystery, chills and thrills are fast becoming the money-raking mantra and there has been a steady increase in the amount of violence depicted on the Indian small screens. However, leaving aside certain isolated protests by teachers in Kolkata and certain southern states on the issue, not many seem to take note of this darker, violent manifestation of our entertaining deity.

A study conducted by the Centre for Advocacy and Research for UNESCO’s publication The Killing Screen documented the extent of violence shown on television. The researchers studied programmes across five channels (DD1, DD2, Zee, Sony and Star Plus) for a period of nine days monitoring 56 hours 20 minutes of soaps, horror and suspense dramas, current affairs programmes and a documentary.

In all, the study counted as many as 759 distinct acts of violence during the specified period. Of these, the most common were extreme acts like threatening, slapping, screaming, shooting, assaulting, expletives, pushing, clobbering, stabbing, mental torture, eerie soundtracks, threatening music and the like.

Highly popular ‘family drama serials’ and child-specific programmes were found to be no less violent and scenes of violence and physical pain were often unduly prolonged. Even in ‘mythological serials’ parents complained of scenes depicting atrocities of the wicked being overly stretched and at times in bad taste. Nearly 17 acts of violence were noted in a single episode of the child-specific programme, Shaktiman. This figure compares pretty unfavourably to the internationally accepted standards of five to six violent acts in a half-hour episode. In certain serials, figures go even as high as 22 to 24 acts of violence per half-hour, portraying even such extreme acts like bombing, torching, torture and burning.

Repeated use of eerie sound tracks, occasional hallucinations, nightmares, and paranoia were also the tools used by many producers to build an atmosphere of fear. Violent psychopathic behaviour was found to account for 26 to 50 per cent of on screen violence on a given day in a specific channel. Docu-dramas and reconstructions of real life crimes, with the supposed motive of catching criminals and preventing crimes, too contributed largely to on-screen violence.

Left untouched by the study was the role of violent promos and movies on television. Several promos on popular music channels feature acts of gross violence. The popular MTV in one of its ads features a man beheading chicken. The chicken in turn beheads the man and carries the head into the logo. The Etc music channel’s advertisement for its music cassette features no less than half a dozen murders. There is at least one extremely violent movie on television each day, especially in the English language movie channels.

Even cartoons, which are generally believed to be safe for children and which parents let their children watch unhindered, too have their share of violence. A study conducted by National Cable Television Association of America and supported by American Academy of Pediatrics detailing the adverse affect of screen violence on children concluded that a typical preschooler, who watches cartoons for an average of two hours daily, is exposed to 10,000 violent incidents per year. Of these, the study suggests, at least 500 pose a high risk of modelling aggressive attitudes and violence.

Studies indicate that children on an average watch three to four hours of television every day with holiday-time televisions viewing going up even to seven to eight hours per day. In many nuclear families, especially in homes where both the parents have constricted work schedules, the parents themselves encourage television-viewing habits. Television in such homes takes on the role of a ‘foster parent’ as inculcating other habits like reading, playing, drawing painting demands time and effort on part of the parents. Watching television is considered to be the easiest and the safest past time for the child to indulge in.

However, it is important for the parents to realise that television viewing is not all that safe and innocent, as we would like to believe. Real-life crimes by teenagers modelled on what they watch on the telly is a cold fact that jolts us out of our smugness every now and then. Children waking up sweating and screaming in the middle of the night as an aftermath of a horror movie or serial is also a common occurrence with which many others are familiar as is the incidents of our young ones walking home injured after a WWF -style wrestling match.

Psychologists and researchers point out that viewing too much of violence on TV has a definite negative impact on the psyche of our young ones. Viewers tend to learn aggressive attitudes and behaviour from watching violence as Archana Parmar, mother of four- year- old Sameer, learnt for herself. "There was a sudden increase in my child’s vocabulary of expletives going on from stupid, idiot to Ku***-Ka****", recollects Archana. Talks with the schoolteacher regarding the cause of the same yielded no result. Till one day she accidentally happened to be in the same room as her son, watching cartoons and commercials.It was then that she realised that these were the words being used by various cartoon character in the Hindi translation of the show. Kiran, mother of another two- and- a- half- year- old, narrates how her child’s expression transforms completely as she watches a movie like Terminator or Matrix. "She actually delights in the gun and fist fights which these movies feature and her behaviour till at least half hour after the show tends to be violent as she goes about brandishing her toy gun at all and sundry," she states.

The children can become desensitised to the seriousness of violence. Studies suggest that TV violence that is glamourised i.e. perpetuated by an attractive role model, trivialised i.e. included humour, or sanitised i.e. eradicated pain clues taught to the viewers that violence is a solution. Studies also suggest that too much cartoon violence might give the preschoolers, who have difficulty in distinguishing the fantasy from reality, the lesson that violence is "desirable, necessary and painless."

Young viewers watching too much violence might develop an unhealthy world-view, learning that the world is actually a mean place, devoid of all beauty and goodness. Such a view would prevent them from forming healthy, happy association as they would constantly be frightened of becoming victims of real-life violence.

Keeping all these factors in mind, it is important that the elders in family take on the responsibility of monitoring as well as moulding our children’s TV-viewing habits. Researchers suggest that the first step towards inculcating positive and healthy TV habits is restricting the television watching hours to a maximum of two hours. About these two hours also the parents should be well aware of what their child is watching.

Taking out time to watch television together is also not a bad idea as it give the adults an opportunity to present all that the child is watching in a correct perspective. The adult can perhaps explain to the young ones how the violence featured on the screens belongs to the world of fantasy and make-believe and similar kind of acts if perpetuated in real life could cause untold suffering and misery. Probably, if parents had taken time to provide such explanation to their children, the unfortunate episodes of children losing their lives and limbs in attempts to emulate Shaktiman or episodes from Ramayana or Mahabharata could have been avoided.

Also important is to keep television out of the bedroom of children as well as keep the mealtimes free of this intruder. Parents should gently guide their children towards more positive and socially useful programmes and encourage watching of channels like Animal Planet, Discovery kids and the like. Tele-viewing habits should be balanced by other indoor and outdoors activities like reading, swimming, athletics and the like. Parents should encourage the children to talk and express their views about what they see on the screen. Their attitudes and ideas should be given a patient, serious hearing to ensure that what our children watch is what is good for them.