Surely "Seinfeld" was safe. Or so thought a mom who once had no qualms about letting her son stay in the room when she and her husband were watching the show. "It's so cerebral," she said. "They never do anything, they just talk about it."
So, they're watching an episode where Jerry and Elaine's best friends sleep together but swear their friends to secrecy when they suddenly hear their 3-year-old ask, "So, why can't they tell each other they had sex?"
The problem, the mother said, was that "we just weren't ready for that conversation." Now "Seinfeld" is off-limits in their home.
What parent can be surprised by a study released this month finding eight sexual messages per hour of programming in the so-called family hour--more than four times the number two decades ago? The report, released by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the children's advocacy group Children Now, warned about hundreds of thousands of cases of unplanned pregnancies and millions of cases of sexually transmitted diseases and lent support for arguments for the V-chip, a TV rating system, or a return to a less sexy "family hour."
Still, there's little consensus about the effects of shows with sexual content on young minds.
That the shows are often tasteless, sometimes obscene or offensive are good enough reasons to turn them off. But there's no evidence that sexual messages by themselves--unlike violent content--affect children's behavior, said child development specialist John C. Wright, co-founder with his wife, Aletha Huston, of CRITC (Center for the Research on the Influences of Television on Children), based at the University of Texas at Austin.
In fact, he said, in one study, juvenile sex offenders were found to be the ones who were the least well-informed.
Interestingly, in the Children Now study more parents (43%) said they worried about how much sex their children see on television than those (39%) who said the same about violence. Often, Wright said, it is because parents are embarrassed when their children are immodest or use sexual language in public.
What has been proven to be harmful, Wright said, are messages that link sex and violence. Those messages are ubiquitous in radio and print as well as on TV, and in advertising as much as the programming, he said.
Wright also cited a recent rise of pornographic comic books for kids who can't read yet. "Even when there is no violence, and you see no changes in their sexual behavior as a result of exposure, surely there is a cumulative effect involved in the denigration of women," he said.
In a sense, Wright said, all television is educational television for children--and the frightening price of laissez faire is that the average child will continue to see 100,000 acts of TV violence, including 8,000 murders, by the time she reaches the sixth grade and 20,000 TV commercials in addition to dozens of numbingly crass portrayals of sex every year.
Pending new technology and policy changes, parents are left to their own coping devices. The Kaiser Family Foundation and Children Now will be offering a free guide, "Talking With Kids About Tough Issues," including a special section on TV, that may be obtained by calling (800) CHILD44.
The advice includes: Start early talking with kids about TV, movies and other media they use; limit viewing to two hours a day or less; set rules for TV viewing (such as planning which show to watch, or no TV until after homework); balance commercial shows with educational programs; teach media literacy by explaining that TV violence is very different from violence in real life; watch with children whenever possible; look for special programs or videos that deal with drugs, alcohol, sex and peer pressure; be aware of frightening news stories of bombings or child murders; and be sure to point out all the people who are helping and that they are safe.
At the same time, busy parents don't need to feel guilty if they can't do it all. Said Wright: "Even if they do two or three, they're doing more than most."
* Lynn Smith's column appears on Sundays. Readers may write to her at the Los Angeles Times, Life & Style, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053 or via e-mail at email@example.com. Please include a telephone number.