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VCRs: boon or bane for families? They enhance choice, but the choice often rates an `R'

DEAN KRUGMAN, a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia, tells about watching a TV movie with his four-year-old daughter one evening. When the commercial came on, the little girl, who'd been used to watching movies on the family's video cassette recorder, demanded, ``Speed it up, Dad!'' That's when it struck him, says Dr. Krugman, that people are growing up with different expectations about television today. They are going to be much more ``choice-oriented.''

Perhaps more than any other piece of technology, the VCR is driving this change in the relationship between screen and viewer. In tandem with cable television, it has made choice a fact of family life when it comes to gathering 'round the old TV set.

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This has both good and bad sides, according to those, like Krugman, who are taking a hard look at the VCR phenomenon. ``What I'm finding is that the conceptualization of television has changed,'' says the Georgia professor. ``We shouldn't view televison as a passive activity any more.''

Anyone with a spouse or child who's really ``into'' taping shows for later viewing can agree with that. Increased ``control'' by the viewer is at hand, says Krugman. But are people really seizing that control?

That question takes on added importance in the realm of children's viewing. VCRs have the potential of bringing into the home some top-rate children's programming, but they also can lure in ``R'' and ``X'' rated stuff.

``In general, we know that parents don't regulate what their kids watch very much,'' says Aletha Shuston, co-director of the Center for Research on the Influence of Television on Children at the University of Kansas. VCRs and cable ``open the way to a lot of shows that wouldn't have entered the home before,'' she says.

Of course, it's possible for parents to exercise control, Dr. Shuston continues. She knows of one couple that diligently tapes movies and previews them before allowing their children to see them. But Shuston and others in the field suspect this kind of behavior is more likely the exception than the rule.

Some, like Thomas Radecki of the National Coalition on Television Violence, see the VCR as escalating the already negative social impact of television. He quotes a recent study in Australia showing that 50 percent of all video cassettes viewed by children there were heavy in violence and sex, and suggests the same is probably true for the United States.

Dr. Radecki's concern is ``desensitization,'' as he puts it. ``I'm not concerned with the little kid who gets frightened,'' he says. Fright or nervousness is a healthy response to such material, in his view. ``It's the people who start to enjoy it that bother us.''

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Radecki's organization is pushing for warning labels on violent or sexually explicit cassettes. But for now, says David Willock, professor of communication arts at the University of Alabama, the only recourse for parents who rent such films but don't want their kids to see them is to lock them up.

Dr. Willock concurs with Radecki that ``R'' rated films make up close to 50 percent of the home video market, and ``my own conjecture,'' he says, ``is that these are pretty hard `R' rated films.''

Still, some argue that the positive potential of home video technology may outweigh its negative facets in the long run. Brian Stonehill, a professor of English at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., brushes aside concerns about kids and ``R'' rated movies. ``I think that's a false issue. Kids only absorb what they're ready to absorb,'' he says. ``I don't think that's really relevant to what's going on out there.''

And what's going on, he says, is the establishment of a new means of socializing and learning. Forecasts are that in 10 years close to 70 percent of American homes will have VCRs. Some say the machines will become as common as toasters. But ``the right metaphor is the refrigerator,'' says Dr. Stonehill, since with the VCR ``you can store it [a program] and consume it when you want to.''

``Before, people would come into work and discuss what they saw on `60 Minutes'; now, they talk about the movie they rented,'' he adds.

There are so many alternatives in cable and video cassettes that ``we find ourselves talking as a family unit about programming,'' says Thomas P. Hustad, a marketing professor with the Indiana University graduate school of business and father of a daughter, 13, and a son, 11. ``I'm very much in favor of anything that promotes interaction among family members.''

``I'm enough of an optimist,'' he says, ``to think all this viewing is not really leading to mind decay, but that selectivity is improving.''

``What I have,'' says Dr. Hustad, ``is the ability to offer my kids a broader array of viewing alternatives.''

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