At the park, a kid scales the climber and slips, hitting each rung on the ladder one by one on his way down.
While you’re walking to school, a man trips over the curb and falls flat on his face.
If your child saw any of these things happen, what do you think his reaction would be? How would you want him to feel? How would you expect him to act?
Is collapsing on the floor in a heap of hysterics appropriate in this situation? I’d say no. So why do we show our kids these kinds of unfortunate accidents…over and over and over, spliced together in rapid succession, to music and a laughtrack? That’s what happens every Sunday night when our kids watch America’s Funniest Home Videos.
I get it: Slapstick comedy is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. Why is this any worse than Charlie Chaplin or Tom and Jerry cartoons? When we laugh at Buster Keaton or Jim Carrey, we’re laughing at something staged: actors exaggerating what’s likely to happen in reality. Even the clearly self-destructive Jackass, which takes slapstick to a deliberately life-threatening level, is…deliberate.
But when we show our kids America’s Funniest Home Videos, we’re teaching them to laugh at accidents. In real life, how many of the clips in the video below ended in tears? How many ended with a trip to the ER?
When I was at a family party on a recent Sunday, someone switched on AFHV. I had never seen it before, and neither had my kids. I watched their faces. For the first few crashes and splats, they looked confused. Was this really happening? Was someone getting hurt? But they looked to other kids for cues, and quickly realized that these events were meant to be funny, that they were supposed to ignore the context, override their empathy, and watch these real people’s misfortunes as if they were cartoons.
Does this affect kids’ ability to empathize with other people’s pain in real life? It’s hard to say. There might even be some benefits to making light of sad situations. But when I was watching the show, I kept thinking about video desensitization therapy, like in A Clockwork Orange, or the kind Sylvere Lotringer describes in Overexposed. A bit extreme, sure….but perhaps not as unrelated as you might think.
After the kids went to bed that Sunday night, the adults settled into the grown up version of America’s Funniest Home Videos: Tosh.0. After twenty minutes, I saw a montage of skinny, ill-cared for dogs looking mournfully at the camera. It wasn’t until the voiceover started that I realized this was an ad for the Humane Society. Before that, I had been watching these abused animals in a state of amusement, waiting for the punchline.
If this is what’s happening inside my brain when I watch this kind of television, what’s happening inside a brain that hasn’t even fully learned what empathy is yet?
How would you react in person? Truly Terrible Temper Tantrums caught on YouTube