By the time the average Storm Lake child finishes elementary school, he or she will have seen 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other acts of violence.
"Those statistics really floor me. Once you've thought about it, you realize that children are seeing even more violence than we had thought, and it's right there on every kind of TV program, movie, some of the music - not to mention the video games," says Rhonda Christensen, Education Director for the Buena Vista County Extension Service, who has been working over the past year to help raise awareness to violence in the media.
"When that kind of violence is coming at kids from all angles every day, you have to be concerned about what it can do to them," she says. "As much as the programming should bother us, what concerns me even more is the number of children in the community left unsupervised to watch it. If there isn't a parent or adult in the picture to tell children what they are seeing isn't real, that is really concerning."
While Christensen's concerns pre-dated the tragedies of September 11, the comments she has heard from families since that incident drive home some harsh comparisons.
"I can't tell you how many times I've heard people describe September 11 as being 'just like watching a movie.' It's almost like it's no big deal, just the same thing as they see played out on TV or on a video.
That doesn't say much for what we are watching," she says.
The Extension Service is working to do something about that, drawing on the resources of equally-concerned experts at Iowa State University.
The local extension office is now offering videotapes taken from "The Impact of Entertainment Media Violence on Children and Families," originally a four-part national satellite program originated by ISU, and various handouts and publications are in the works on the issue. This coming year, the office hopes to extend its parenting focus from childhood to the adolescent years as well.
There are more televisions sets in America than there are toilets, according to Brad Bushman, an ISU associate professor of psychology. A National Television Violence study done between n 1996 and 1998 found violent acts in more than 60 percent of all network television programs, including those aimed specifically at children.
Studies over many years have found a strong relationship between viewing violence in entertainment and aggressive behavior in children and adults, Christensen said. She is equally concerned that seeing repeated murders and beatings can serve to socially desensitize children, or to make them perceive that they live in a largely mean and dangerous world.
"Any time we can make people more aware of this, we need to talk about it," the local extension director said. "We would like to see parents become more aware of what their children are seeing, and to encourage them to talk to their children about what they see. By being more aware of the various rating systems, which even extend to the home video games now, they can take a little more control.
"Some of those games especially can be very disturbing. It makes me sad to see children playing a game and being so exciting about killing," Christensen said.
Other forms of entertainment may have value, such as the recent historical drama "Pearl Harbor," but would still benefit from some parental input from parents to put the issues of warfare and graphic violence into perspective, she said.
The local interest does not mean that Storm Lake is any more violent than anywhere else. The problems are experienced equally nationwide, from cities to the smallest rural towns, Christensen says.
"It's the same everywhere. Even places you would never think would have a violence problem do have them. It's what you see on the national news every night. There are a lot of elements that go into the violence problem - but I do think the tremendous amount of violent movies and games only enhances the concern."
More and more families have parents working long hours, and coming home too tired to spend time supervising the children. That leaves the television as a convenient babysitter, but it isn't a good one, Christensen says.
"If there is one thing I could say, it would be to maybe reach out and turn the TV off entirely from time to time. That will leave us to spend some time talking, or maybe playing a family game, and it's possible that's exactly what we need."