Who Will Watch the Watchers?

Hillary Clinton wants to save your kids from the stuff you let them see.


During her recent fear-mongering speech about "the impact of the media on our children," Hillary Clinton sounded like a slightly updated version of Dana Carvey's Grumpy Old Man character from Saturday Night Live. "Technology keeps advancing," she complained, bemoaning "a multi-dimensional media marketplace that…most of us don't even really understand because it is moving so fast we can't keep up with it."

The Democratic senator from New York is bewildered and frightened by all these newfangled contraptions with which kids today amuse themselves. "Walking into your child's room…could be a little daunting, especially when you don't know how to use half of the equipment that's in there," she said. "What's all this stimulation doing that is so hard to understand and keep track of?" Nothing good, surely.

Burnishing her credentials as a moderate who shares the cultural concerns of mainstream America, Clinton claimed to speak for "parents all over who just feel overwhelmed" and who "worry that their children will not grow up with the same values that they did." But her speech betrayed a supercilious attitude toward parents who fail to raise their children the way she would.

The occasion for Clinton's technophobic grumbling was the release of a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation on the "media-saturated lives" of 8-to18-year-olds. The report tries mightily to alarm parents while presenting survey data that are mostly reassuring.

The fraction of each day kids devote to TV, movies, video games, music, reading, and the Internet has not changed since the last Kaiser survey five years ago. But the foundation warns that kids are "managing to pack increasing amounts of media content into the same amount of time" by reading while watching TV, going online while listening to music, and so on.

"Multi-tasking is a growing phenomenon in media use," says Kaiser President Drew Altman, "and we don't know whether it's good or bad or both." Clinton does. "Exposing our children to so much of this unchecked media," she said, "is a kind of contagion," a "silent epidemic" that threatens "long-term public health damage to many, many children and therefore to society."

There is little evidence of such damage in the survey on which Clinton supposedly based her remarks. The study found no association between TV watching and poor grades or neglect of reading, for example. "It does not appear that spending time with media takes away from the time children spend in other pursuits," Kaiser reports. "Indeed, those young people who spend the most time watching TV…also reported spending more time with their parents than any other group."

Clinton did not mention these bits of good news, or the finding that "most young people indicate that they have lots of friends, get good grades, aren't unhappy or in trouble often, and get along pretty well with their parents." She also failed to note that teen pregnancy and juvenile crime rates have been falling for years, despite "the constant exposure to [fictional] violence [and] irresponsible sexual activity" she decried.

Although Clinton claimed the Kaiser study confirmed "the content [of kids' entertainment] is overwhelmingly, astoundingly violent," the three most popular TV choices in the survey were sitcoms, educational shows, and children's programming. And while she worried aloud about "the links between media consumption and childhood obesity," the study found no association between heavy media consumption and physical inactivity.

Clinton bragged about her support for the 1996 law that forced TV manufacturers to install the "V chip," which can be used to block programs with certain ratings. Yet the Kaiser survey found only 6 percent of parents were using this much-heralded tool for screening out inappropriate material.

In fact, most kids reported their parents had no TV rules, while most of the rest said the rules usually were not enforced. Two-thirds had TV sets in their bedrooms. Most said their parents didn't restrict video games either. Regarding the Internet, Clinton herself said "parental control technology exists, but it is underutilized."

Clinton wants to "find ways to re-empower parents" who are not using the power they have. Could it be they simply are not as worried about their kids's entertainment choices as Clinton thinks they should be?

"I hope we can do more to educate parents on media literacy," said Clinton, who also wants to give them "guidance in using the filtering technologies." The village is determined to help you raise your child.