Twelve years ago, a criminal case occurred in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province that shocked the entire country.
The offender, a young boy in middle school, was found to have hacked his classmate, another young boy, to death before dumping his body into a well. He then sent two letters to the boy's family demanding a ransom.
Soon after, a similar case happened in North China's Tianjin, involving four youngsters between 12 to 17 years of age.
Investigation by police found these young offenders to have one thing in common: they all watched a TV drama before they committed the offenses.
They confessed to having imitated the roles in the TV drama "Kidnapping in Shanghai"
These cases aroused widespread social concern about violence in TV programs and its ever-increasing influence on children in China.
Researchers in China began to study the role of the mass media in shaping children's minds and influencing their behavior.
Bu Wei, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has been devoted to the studies of the media since the early 1990s, with TV violence one of her major research subjects.
TV violence on the rise
Bu's latest research found that although violence has been generally regarded as harmful to children, it has invariably appeared on TV in China, where children have almost free access to such programs.
The number of scenes in TV programs featuring violence has steadily grown in the past decade.
Many children have developed an interest in TV dramas featuring violence and are susceptible to imitating the violent acts they watched on TV, she said.
Moreover, a correlation has been found between the development of aggressive characteristics in some children and their exposure to violence via mass media.
She is concerned about the lack of effective measures to turn things around.
In her recently published book, The Influence of Mass Media on Children, Bu revealed her finding that most Chinese children watch adult TV programs.
She cited a survey on urban children in the 1990s showing that 58 percent of those surveyed enjoyed watching stimulating TV programs featuring detectives, warfare and kungfu; 31 percent liked watching feature movies that target adults, especially those with high audience ratings, such as "The Romance of Three Kingdoms."
Bu regarded this TV drama as featuring typical violence.
Worse, even TV programs intended for children, such as "Sergeant Black Cat," which was aired nationwide, contain violence, she argued.
The survey found that TV programs imported from abroad have become the main source of TV violence that serves as subjects for children to imitate.
Japanese cartoons, for example, have been popular with Chinese children for many years, earning a large number of young followers who are obsessed with their "cool" heroes.
Meanwhile, the emergence and popularization of the Internet and video games have provided more access for children to view violence.
"Children nowadays are exposed to far more violent scenes than we once were," Bu said, "They have multiple access. Basically, if they like it, they can see it."
Underlying the serious situation is prevailing ignorance about what children really need from the media, Bu said.
Although there are plenty of children's TV programs in China, few are well produced to meet the special needs of children, she pointed out.
Instead, the programs are often made from an adult perspective and tend to treat a young audience as "potential businessmen, workers and technologists, but not as children," she added.
This trend has blurred the distinction between adult and children's programs, leaving children exposed to unhealthy information, Bu said.
"It is no exaggeration that Chinese children are under the threat of media violence."
Bu called for the establishment of a program classification system in China as soon as possible to insulate children from the influence of the increasing threat of media violence. "[the system] is in fact to separate the child world from the adult world," she said.
TV stations should classify the programs they air in terms of the amount of violent content. And they should always identify their ratings on the screen, she argued.
This could serve as an effective guide for parents in learning know-how to guide their children in watching appropriate TV programs. "The classification system has proved a good measure in many other countries. There is no reason that China cannot also adopt this system," she said.
Bu has been involved in a drive to push China's legislature to pass a bill on TV program classification, but no significant headway has been made thus far.
But even if the call for legislation succeeds, other difficulties still exist.
One hurdle to be overcome is that there is still no agreed-upon definition of TV violence.
According to Bu, the State Administration of Press and Publication issued a regulation on the identification of pornographic publications in 1988, but has never issued a regulation that defined violence on TV.
Bu suggested in her book a few definitions adopted by other countries, but failed to propose one that may suit China's legislation.
Even if such a definition is created, it is still hard to come up with a set of scientific standards to evaluate the "violence rate" of each program, according to Bu.
For one thing, the concept itself is flexible and may vary from country to country; for another, the public as well as the legislature are less sensitive to this issue than they are to pornography, Bu noted.
Peng Siqing, a social psychology professor with Peking University agrees with Bu's viewpoint.
He said that many people associate films and TV dramas rated "strictly restricted" in Western countries as "the worst, dirtiest, most corrosive and therefore most dangerous' audio- visual works."
Instead, a reasonable rating system may allow TV producers and filmmakers to create works that suit the diversified needs of different audience groups, he said.
A well-planned rating system will benefit not only children but also adults, Peng said.
"Adult audiences may also need precautions and guidance when they watch audiovisual works containing violence, terror or pornography, in order to avoid the negative effects upon their physical well-being or psychological health," he said.
He suggested that those in academic circles make greater joint efforts to push forward the legislative process - by laying the groundwork, such as establishing cross-disciplinary expert groups, to draft a workable TV rating system and other protective measures.
But until the legislature takes action, curbing TV violence must depend solely on the media's willingness to practice self-discipline, experts say.
(China Daily February 22, 2002)