Gender Differences in Pre-Adolescent Reactance to Age-Categorized Television Advisory Labels.

Author:Sneegas, James E.

Age-categorized television advisory labels, modeled after the MPAA film advisory codes, were implemented in January of 1997. Since implementation, the labels have been the source of controversy between child advocacy groups, entertainment industry executives, and government regulators. A stated objective of the advisory labels was to assist parents in determining which programs were appropriate or inappropriate for their children to watch (Telecommunications Act, Sec. 551, 1996). However, recent data have revealed that the majority of parents (59%) allow their children to watch "whatever they want most or all of the time (Cantor, Harrison, & Nathanson, 1997, p. 290)" and that parents do not fully understand the current rating system (Salvosa, 1997). In addition, there has been some evidence based on reactance theory that restrictive program warnings may serve to attract some children, depending on age and gender (Cantor et al., 1997). If children are controlling viewing selections, the extent to which they under stand the advisory labels and whether the labels serve to caution them against inappropriate content or attract them to programs is important to determine.

Reactance Theory

The two central constructs of reactance theory are freedoms and threats (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). Freedoms are behaviors that are realistically possible and that the individual knows he/she may engage in with free will and without retribution. A threat is anything perceived as a barrier to free behavior. Many social influences can create reactance behaviors when children perceive themselves to have certain freedoms. For certain children, a mere threat to freedom may be enough to initiate a freedom-restorative behavior while other children may see the "cost of non-compliance" behavior as too great and will suppress freedom-restorative behavior (Brehm & Brehm 1981, p. 261).

The threat to freedom and subsequent freedom-restorative behavior have been termed the forbidden fruit effect (Christenson, 1992). Reactance theory suggests that the forbidden fruit effect may vary depending on intensity of the perceived threat and anticipated costs to the individual. If the costs are seen as too great, the individual may refrain from initiating freedom restorative behavior and ultimately accept restrictions placed upon his/her freedom. The process of not reacting and attempting to regain free behavior is in opposition to reactance theory and has been termed the tainted fruit effect (Christenson, 1992).

If few or no regulations are set on children's viewing selections, they may consider watching any program on television as acceptable and free behavior. Thus, the advisory labels may serve as a potential threat to this freedom. Cantor et al. (1997), as part of the National Television Violence Study, examined the connection between advisory labels and reactance in children. Several different rating systems: the MPAA film advisory labels (G, PG, PG-13, R), parental discretion labels, viewer discretion labels, and violence labels were examined. The study found that the words "parental discretion advised" increased program interest among five to nine year old boys, but it decreased the interest of girls in the same age group. It is possible that younger girls perceived the parental discretion labels as deterrent devices, representing the tainted fruit effect. Cantor et al. (1997) did not address this tainted fruit effect, although their other findings were consistent with the forbidden fruit effect of reactance theory.

Hong, Giannakopoulos, Laing, and Williams (1994) noted that parental constraints also resulted in increased levels of reactance. Previous research suggests that more parental restrictions were placed on girls than on boys (Desmond, Hirsch, Singer, & Singer 1987; Gross & Walsh 1980). Although it might be expected that girls would exhibit more reactance as a result, this is inconsistent with the findings of Cantor et al. (1997). Van Lieshout (1975) found that sex differences are strong determinants in whether children respond to barriers or not. Brehm and Brehm (1981) explained that for "male children, the freedom to oppose physical obstructions is affirmed, while for females ... the cost of engaging in direct restorative action becomes prohibitive" (p.260). Evidence also suggests that parents use more inductive reasoning with girls, which has been found to be conducive to the development of guilt (Perry, Perry, & Weiss, 1989). Hence, the tendency among girls to comply with overt, or even implied restrictions, may be greater than for boys. All of this suggests that the presence of advisory labels, with or without parental restrictions, may be sufficient to create a tainted fruit effect with girls and a forbidden fruit effect with boys.

In addition to gender differences, these effects appear to be age dependent. Brehm & Brehm (1981) found increasing amounts of reactance in first to eighth graders when the importance of the freedom was greater and when children exerted opposition toward the "choice forced on them by an adult" (p. 279).

Developmental Stages

During Piaget's concrete operational stage of development, a child (age 6-12) is classified as the "thinking child." This phase is marked by a greater refinement of cognitive operational skills that will later be the foundation for moving into adolescence and adulthood (Bee, 1981, p. 473). It is also during this phase of children's lives that they experience a change in moral judgment and thinking. Around age 7, children shift from Piaget's stage one of morality judgment into stage two. During stage one of Piaget's morality judgment phase, children (age 5-6) become aware of rules that are set forth by higher authority and regard rules as absolutes and unchangeable and therefore respect the judgments made by higher authority. During the second phase of morality judgment, children tend to shift their views of authority and rules are regarded as "more arbitrary" and "more changeable" (Bee, 1981, p. 405). Piaget's second phase of morality judgment corresponds to the concrete operational phase of development and includes children between the ages of 7 and 11.

Toward the end of this stage of development, children's television viewing peaks. Children ages 10-12 watch an average of four hours of television per day, approximately 30 hours per week. During prime-time hours, more than half the viewing audience is between the ages of 6 and 11 (Comstock & Paik, 1991). The combination of the concrete operational stage, the second stage of morality judgment and peak television viewing ages makes 9-11 year old children particularly suitable for analysis. In addition, this age range is more likely to watch general audience or adult-oriented programs than children's programs and is therefore one of the primary audiences that the television rating system was designed to protect (Jordan & Jamieson, 1996).

Television Ratings

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 encouraged the television industry to create voluntary rules for rating programs and required the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to either accept these rules or to prescribe a rating system (Telecommunications Act. Sec. 551, 1996). The Act also required the FCC to implement regulations that would require technology in new television sets to block programs with similar ratings, commonly referred to as the V-chip. The rationale included in the Act for both the rating system and the V-chip was to provide parents with tools to make choices regarding their child's viewing (Telecommunications Act. Sec. 551, 1996). A proposal from the television industry for a program rating system was submitted to the FCC on January 17, 1997 and at that time was voluntarily implemented by broadcasters (Federal Communication Commission, 1997).(1) This system was modeled after the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system under the assumption that it would be easier to understand than other forms of ratings (National...

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