Concerns about violence on TV have been around for a while. Even as far back as the ancient Roman times, concerns were being expressed about how the violence viewed by people as entertainment in play halls and coliseums was making those who viewed it more callous and aggressive. Seneca the Younger wrote that after returning “from some spectacle, I am greedier, more aggressive…I am more cruel and inhumane.” (Shelton, 1988) In 1954 Fredric Wertham wrote, “I have found that children from 3 to 4 have learned from television that killing, especially shooting, is one of the established procedures for coping with a problem.” (Myers, 2018) While such alarmist statements have proven somewhat overblown, there’s reason to be concerned.
How children react to violence on TV
When violence is shown on TV, chimps react by barking at the movie and getting more agitated. (NGC, 9-22-2009) TV violence can have similar effects on young humans. Violent media activates the aggression centers of the brain, priming children to act aggressively in real life. (Mathews et al., 2005) Studies have repeatedly shown that children imitate the aggressive behavior they see on TV. (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1963; Bandura, 1965) After viewing aggressive actions on television, young children imitate these actions during free play with their peers. (Friedrich & Stein, 1974)
For example, studies have shown that after viewing TV violence, children act more aggressively in their play with an inflatable doll. (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1963; Bandura, 1965) Another study, one of my favorite studies of all time, is known as the Barney versus Power Rangers study. On day 1, Researchers played an episode of Barney for children in a day care center and then recorded what happened. The kids were bouncing around and dancing, playing cooperative games that they had just observed. On day 2 they were shown the Power Rangers, and the same thing happened. Only this time the mimicry had kids kicking and punching at each other. They fashioned blocks into sabers, and otherwise behaved in an aggressive way. (Walsh, 2007)
Boys in particular are more likely to identify with the actors exhibiting violence on TV, especially if they lack other positive male role models. (Stephens, 1994) As stated earlier, the more children identify with a particular character, the more likely they are to be affected by what they see on TV.
There’s also concerns about the coping mechanisms children might use when exposed to graphic violence. After watching A Nightmare On Elm Street, one 7-year-old boy said that he discovered a trick to manage his fear: “I pretended I was Freddy Krueger. Then I wasn’t scared.” (Grossman & De Gaetano, 1999, p. 55)
The amount of violence on television
Unfortunately, television and violent programming seem to go hand in hand. Even children’s cartoons are full of violent acts. A Harvard study found that every animated feature released between 1937 and 1999 had at least one act of violence. (Parents, June 2011, p. 147) Cartoons aimed at children average between 20 and 25 violent acts per hour. (Sanson & Di Muccio, 1993) Power Rangers contains around 200 violent acts per hour. All told, kids’ programming typically contains more aggressive acts than adult programming. (Grossman & De Gaetano, 1999, pp.. 34-38)
As kids graduate into other programming, the violence steadily becomes more gory and realistic. By the age of 14, the average American child will have seen 11,000 murders on TV. (Coffey, 2009) TV characters are murdered at a rate more than 100-times higher than real-world victims, giving us all a lopsided sense of the dangers in the world. Another examination found the average child will have seen around 100,000 acts of violence before graduating from elementary school, and this number is even higher for children from poor neighborhoods. (Gerbner, 1990) Forty-percent of this TV violence is initiated by characters who are portrayed as role models. At least 40% of violent scenes include humor, and one-third of violent programs feature “bad” characters who are never punished. (Grossman & De Gaetano 1999, p. 43)
The effects and consequences of TV violence on children
A recent study in Pediatrics divided 3- to 5-year-olds into two groups: One that swapped shows which depicted any sort of violence for ones that highlight empathy and problem solving, such as Sesame Street. The other group had no restrictions on what they could watch. At the end of 6 months and then again at one year, the children in the first group were less aggressive and argumentative, and more cooperative than the other kids. (Parents, July 2013, p. 64)
Television violence has been shown to be a reliable predictor of violent behavior. (Huesmann, Moise & Podolski, in Stoff, Breiling & Maser, 1997) Aggressive cartoons have also been shown to lead to aggressive behavior. (Janson & Di Muccio, 1993) Teachers have reported an increase in aggressive behavior that tracks right alongside the increase in violence on TV. (Grossman & De Gaetano, 1999) All told, violent media exposure seems to be as much of a risk factor for violence as lead exposure. (Johnson et al., 2002) As the National Institutes of Health stated in 1982, “in magnitude, television violence is as strongly correlated with aggressive behaviors as any other behavioral variable that has been measured.”
TV & its effects on violence in society
It’s clear that violence on television increases the aggressiveness of children. whether this translates into a discernible impact when it comes to more severe forms of violence, such as assault and murder, is much more hotly debated. After all, it’s not like people go out and murder someone just because they saw a slasher movie. Yet here, too, there does seem to be a link between violence on television and the actual expression of violence in society.
One set of studies looked at the effects of different television programming as TV was being introduced for the first time to 3 different towns within the same general region. It provided a perfect natural experiment to gauge the effects of TV violence. The result: Violent programming led to a substantial increase in real-world violence. (Joy, Kimball & Zabrack, in Williams, 1986-social intelligence book?)
Studies have documented a brief but sharp spike in homicide rates immediately after televised heavyweight fights. (Phillips, 1983) Overall there’s a small but clear and persistent link between violent media and increases in real-world violence. (Patterson, 2004; Bandura & Walters, 1963; Belson, 1978; Eron & Huesmann, 1980, 1985) One study found that had TV not been invented, there would be 10,000 fewer murders each year in the U.S., 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injury assaults. (Centerwall, 1992) While I think this study vastly overstates the impact of television, it’s clearly having some effect.
Some have speculated that TV violence may actually decrease violent tendencies by providing viewers an outlet for their aggression. (Myers, 1993) It’s an interesting theory, and there may be some degree of truth to it, but this idea has not been borne out in research. Whenever there is a link between TV and aggressive violence, it is almost always a positive association, showing that the more TV violence one is exposed to the more aggressive their behavior. (Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988) Of 1,000 studies conducted in the U.S. on media violence, all but 18 (12 of which were funded by the TV industry) found a positive correlation to violence. (Wartella, Olivarez & Jennings, 1998) So if there is any inoculation effect regarding TV violence, it is more than made up for by the priming effect.
Many people are apt to deny the link between TV violence and aggression out of a fear of censorship. I don’t believe in promoting censorship either. But we should be able to acknowledge the facts on the ground without losing our heads. No, TV doesn’t by itself cause people to become murderers. But violent programming does prime people for aggressive behavior, and this leads to a small but persistent increase in real-world violence. As stated by the American Psychological Association in 1993, “there is absolutely no doubt that higher levels of viewing violence on television are correlated with increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior.” (Kornblum, 2000, p. 594)
Psychologists have observed that U.S. culture has a way of breeding violence. Adolescents born in the United States tend to be more accepting of aggression than adolescents born elsewhere, such as the Middle East. (Souweidane & Helesmann, 1999) Much of this may be due to the sheer volume of violence we’re all exposed to on TV.