Science Says Watching TV Can Be Good For Kids, But Maybe Not ‘The Following’

There’s lots of fun stuff going on in the world of violence and television today, in particular a study in the journal, Pediatrics, which suggests that watching television can actually be good for children. From The New York Times:

Researchers reported the results of a program designed to limit the exposure of preschool children to violence-laden videos and television shows and increase their time with educational programming that encourages empathy. They found that the experiment reduced the children’s aggression toward others, compared with a group of children who were allowed to watch whatever they wanted.

The gist, then, is that kids who watch Sesame Street or Daria will be less aggressive than kids who watch Power Rangers. What the study didn’t test, however, was if kids who watched a lot of Dora the Explorer were, on the whole, more obnoxious, or if kids who watched Caillou became whiny little sh*ts.

How does that study fit in with Fox’s The Following?

Funny you should ask because James Purefoy, who plays the imprisoned serial killer on The Following (which, to me, is now as dull as Downton Abbey, only exchange the costumes for bloodshed) said in an interview with Vulture that it’s plain goddamn silly to link violence in television to violence in real life.

I’m surprised that in a society, in a culture that’s been watching violence on film, television, and stage for two and a half thousand years, anyone brings it up anymore. One woman asked [series creator Kevin Williamson], “How do you come up with all those ways of killing people?” Has she never seen King Lear, where a man has his eyes pulled out in front of the audience? She never had seen Titus Andronicus, where a woman is made to eat a pie with her own sick children in it? The very idea, it’s just preposterous, to tell you the truth …

That violence on television, film, or in video games has any effect whatsoever. I am absolutely as appalled as anybody else by the massacres that happen in this country. I really am. But [violence on TV] is a smokescreen, an excuse. The situation is much more complex than people watching violence in entertainment. These programs are seen all over the world and it’s only in this country that these kind of things are happening with such alarming regularity.

So, essentially what Purefoy says about adults is the opposite of what Pediatrics says about children. Why should violence bother us? It’s been around for thousands of years. Personally, I think exposing preschoolers to The Following would probably curb their aggression because it would traumatize them, and leave them catatonic and weepy, which is a good state to have your children in while you’re trying to mold them.

But it is Todd VanDerWerff, over on The AV Club, who wins the argument, writing about the “programmatic” violence on The Following (and other shows), which he asserts cheapens violence and diminishes its power.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that what set me off about The Following wasn’t just that it’s violent. It was that it’s empty and pointless in its violence … It doesn’t have anything interesting to say about its violence. It doesn’t particularly care to talk about damaged individuals who can be taken in by a killer or about the media’s obsession with violence or even about the role of violence in art. It occasionally seems to saunter up to these questions … but then it steps away, because considering the deeper implications of the troubling acts within the show could potentially turn off the audience. The violence in The Following needs to all be of the funhouse variety, or else it would push too much, be too raw. The audience must be coddled.

It’s a brilliant piece, and hits the nail on the head with regard to the violence in The Following. Who cares if it’s over the top or gruesome if there are no real stakes involved? The violence in The Following is all visceral, and never emotional.