Video: Do kids get suggestive jokes?

By Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 8/19/2005 8:24:49 PM ET 2005-08-20T00:24:49

Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s not.  Either way, sexual content is being piped into our homes on television. And our kids are watching: even “Desperate Housewives” is a top-rated show among the 9- to 14-year-old set.

Kaiser Family research shows that kids watch an average of about four hours of TV a day and that two thirds of children age 8 and up have television sets in their bedrooms.

“What this means is that it’s even harder for parents to be able to monitor either how much their kids are watching or what they’re watching. It would be tough to avoid sexual content on television even if you tried,” says Vicky Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But first the question is: When your kids sit in front of the tube, do you really know what they’re watching? How much of it do they understand? And how are they influenced by what they see?

“Dateline” gathered a group of parents of 10 to 12 year olds from across the country and let them watch from a separate room how their kids reacted to certain shows. We presented the kind of programs these pre-teens and their parents told us they typically watch and selected kids this age because research shows that they watch more TV than other groups of kids. We limited our focus to broadcast television because it is heavily-watched and, unlike cable TV, it is regulated by the government. 

The parents involved with the study say they often watch TV with their kids, but as you’re  about to see, they were very surprised when they took a closer look at the material their children are watching.

We showed the parents the sample clips before their kids saw them. As you read through the selection of clips, consider this: The scenes all come from shows that run during or before the 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. slot ET—a peak viewing time for kids.

Matt LeBlanc stars as "Joey"
Show: "Joey"
Clip shown:

Assistant:  Here is your schedule for today. Oh, and uh, some girl named Amelia called.
Joey: Ewww...
Assistant: You want me to break up with her but still leave an opening so you guys can sleep together?
Joey: You’ve just got yourself ‘Employee of the Month!’

Kid’s reaction:
He’s using girls for sex. Like you can hear him. And he’s like, “Oh, I  might not want to go out with her. But I’ll have sex with her. And then I’ll go do another girl.
Rob Stafford, correspondent: Skylar, when Joey said, “You get employee of the month,” what do you think he meant?
Skylar: “He means, like, good job. You got me...”
Danasia: “You got me a girl.”

Michael Lavine / Fox
The cast of "That 70s show"

Show: "That'70s show"
Clip shown:
Donna: Jackie, I went on the pill.
Jackie: Oh my God, you are going to be so popular!!

Kids' reactions:
I don’t really get it.
Stafford: When she said ‘the pill,’ what do you think they were talking about?
Nick: A drug? I don’t know. Something to help her?Stafford: Taylor, what do you think?
Taylor: I’m totally confused.
Danasia: There are different pills. There are Zurtek, Tylenol.

Amused and perhaps relieved, the parents seemed to welcome their children’s innocence.

Portrait Of 'Friends' Cast Drinking Shakes
Warner Bros.  /  Getty Images
Cast of "Friends"

Show: "Friends"
We played a clip from the sit-com “Friends.” Up until last season it ran during prime time at 8 p.m., now it’s re-run even earlier. We asked the kids what they thought the program was about.

Kids' perception:
It’s like real life, you know? Like what you basically do if you’re older or something, you know?
Stafford: That’s what the older folks do? What they’re doing on "Friends"?
Lauren: I guess so. Because parents, they act totally different around you, but you don’t know what they do on weekends or something.
Stafford: But you think that watching “Friends” gives you a clue about what we’re up to when you guys aren’t around?
Lauren: Yeah.

Clip shown:
(Chandler is doing sit ups as Monica urges him to do more while she is sitting on him.)
Monica:  Come on, give me 5 more.
Chandler: No.
Monica: 5 more.
Chandler:  No.
Monica:  5 more and I’ll flash you.
Chandler (immediately starts to do them)
Chandler: (doing sit ups - struggling) 1, 2, 2 and a half.  (Collapses.)  OK, just show me one of them.

Kids' reaction:
Stafford: What do you think’s going on in that clip?
Danasia: Women could use their body parts to get men to do stuff. That’s on a lot of shows. Like, women do that to men to get them to do stuff. Like, take out the garbage. Do work.

Straight talk from 10-year-old Danasia from New York. For Danasia's mother, Victoria, it's a strong message to send little girls. "I think that’s a very negative message to give to little girls," she says

Timothy White / The Wb
The cast of 'Smallville'

Show: “Smallville” 
Topic: This clip depicts the more serious topic of girls losing their virginity.

Clip shown:
Lana:  It was a summer infatuation that I thought was the real thing.
Chloe: Do you wish you hadn’t done it?
Lana: Sometimes. I mean, it wasn’t awful by any means but it just wasn’t special.  And as cliché as it sounds it only happens once. So just make sure Jason’s the guy that you want to remember forever.

Kids' reaction:
They’re trying to give advice to the teenagers like don’t make a stupid mistake.
Stafford: What do you think that mistake is?
Taylor: Having sex at a young age.

Benjamin McKenzie, Mischa Barton, Peter Gallagher star in "The O.C."

Show: "The O.C."
Time slot: This episode ran at 9 p.m., but these days the series is on even earlier, at 8 p.m.

Clip shown:
(Wild party scene.  oy walks in on a threesome in the tub.)
Seth: Wow! I should really learn to knock in case... there’s a threesome going on in the bathroom.

Kids' reaction:
How do you feel when you watch that scene?
Danasia: Makes me want to turn off the TV.
Nick: It’s too sexual.
Stafford: Why do you think the writers put that stuff in the shows?
Lauren: Ratings. I think they just want people to watch the show because the more people that watch the show, the longer it stays on. You probably get a lot of money.

A savvy take on the television business.  But apparently there’s still something alluring about watching older kids in a risqué setting.

Stafford: How would you describe the look of the way people were in that scene?Lauren: The girls, they seemed like they were having a load of fun!

Throughout our time with the young TV viewers ,the kids repeatedly told us that just because they watched something on TV, that didn’t mean they were going to mimic what they saw. It's something 12-year-old Catherine from Houston thinks her parents worry about too much.

“They’re like 'Catherine, you just saw that. Are you going to do that someday?' And it’s like ‘Not right now, I’m 12.’ I have no earthly clue!” she says.

Still, the kids we talked to tell us that certain scenes do inspire them to imagine themselves in the roles they see depicted on television.

“You might see it on TV, people kissing or something like that,” says Catherine. “And then you go to school and you’re like, ‘Hey when is your kiss going to be? Or where do you want to have your first kiss?’”

That kind of response doesn’t surprise expert Vicky Rideout.

“I don’t think kids go out and do something just because they saw it on TV the day before," she says. "I do think there is this drip, drip, drip effect of media messages that seeps into kids’ consciousness and kind of gives them a sense of, ‘This is how you’re supposed to relate to other kids. This is what everybody else is doing.’”

We asked the parents, given what they’d just seen, if they would change the way they handle television in their homes. Most said no. But then we showed them a couple of scenes from the very same episodes they viewed earlier that were even racier.

Their reactions?

Sara: Too much.

Kristin: Way too much.

Victoria: Way too much.

Stafford: So how do you explain that to the kids?

Carl: That’s a shut-the-TV-off-moment.

All: Yeah, it is... definitely.

Stafford: Do you think if your kids see kids at a party snorting coke, smoking pot, having sex that someday they’d be more likely to try those things?

Louis: I think they would have to be in a sense. Just the way that kid walked in there and he didn’t get shocked and run out the door. So that when your kid walks in there he doesn’t know how to react, he’ll try to act like it doesn’t shock him and stuff.

Carl: God forbid they make the wrong choice because it’s something they saw on TV.

Victoria: It’s really surprising that the networks would even try to put things like this on TV. Isn’t there some sense of responsibility as to what they present? You know, cause if it’s on TV someone’s going watch it, obviously, But you know, where does it stop?”

We posed that very question to Jim Dyke, executive director of TV Watch, a newly-formed coalition of the television networks NBC, CBS and Fox, as well as other groups. The organization believes parents should control what their children watch and that the government should not impose stricter regulation as some groups have proposed. 

"We’re not defending content, what we’re saying is, different people make different judgments about different content. I think you could probably show me some shows that might make me blush or that I would have some concerns about. But the problem is — whose standard and what family?" says Dyke.

"Now having said that, it’s not the wild, wild West. Television has standards. But ultimately it has to be controlled by parents and adults,” he says.

Dyke adds that he doesn’t want parents to be surprised by the content on the show. “We want them to look at the ratings," he says. "We want them to turn to the information and tools that are available to understand what they’re going to be watching.”

The ratings he refers to appear at the beginning of a program and are based on a show’s content just like movie ratings. TV Watch is on a mission to educate parents about those guidelines and about the V-chip, a device built into most televisions that enables viewers to block certain shows. 

Dyke maintains that it is easy to program, but getting people to turn it on may be a challenge.  Studies show only 15 percent of parents who have the device actually use it.

What can parents do?
Rideout of the Kaiser Family foundation tells us there are other simple things parents can also do to deal with sexually suggestive television. Below are her tips:

  • Consider using the V-chip to block certain shows.
  • Get the TVs out of the kids’ bedrooms.
  • Know what shows they’re watching: Know the ratings of the shows your kids are watching, and learn the rating system so you can understand what the individual ratings mean.
  • Watch with them.
  • Talk to them about it: Turn TV into "teachable moments."  If your child watches something that might be inappropriate, take the time to explain in your terms what he or she saw. 
  • Set some rules and guidelines for your kids and stick to them: Avoid making the television too central to your child or your family's life. Have rules like turn the TV off during meals, and don't keep the TV on as background.

In the end, these parents agree it is their job to monitor what their children watch and to impart the right values.

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