Underlying concern for the level of violence in society, often brought into focus by particular historical events, has lead authorities in several countries to set up investigative bodies to examine the portrayal of violence on television. In 1969 the U.S. Surgeon General was given the task of exploring evidence of a link between television and subsequent aggression. The research that was a product of this inquiry attempted to find a "scientific" answer to the issue of whether television violence causes aggressive behavior, in much the way an earlier investigation had examined the link between cigarettes and lung cancer. The conclusions of the report were equivocal and while some saw this as a reflecting vested interests in the membership of the committee, research over the following 20 years has not silenced the debate. While in 1985 the American Psychological Association stated a belief that the overwhelming weight of evidence supports a causal relation, there is not unanimity even among American psychologists for this position. Not only the specific conclusions but the whole "scientific" framework of what has become known as effects research has been challenged. Reports by the British Broadcasting Standards Council and the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal investigation into TV Violence in Australia, in the late 1980s early 1990s reflect a very different set of questions and perspectives.

The traditional question of whether viewing violence can make audiences more aggressive has been investigated by a variety of techniques. As social science, and psychology in particular, attempted to emulate the rigorous methods of the physical sciences, the question of television and violence was transferred to careful laboratory experiments. Inevitably the nature of the issue placed practical and ethical constraints on scientific inquiry. A range of studies found evidence that subjects exposed to violent filmed models were subsequently more aggressive (Bandura, 1973). Questions have been raised, however, as to what extent these findings can be generalised to natural viewing situations. What did participants understand about the task they were given? What did they think was expected of them? Can the measures of aggression used in such studies, such as hitting dolls or supposedly inflicting harm by pushing buttons be compared to violent behavior in real world settings? Are these effects too short term to be of practical concern?

One strategy to overcome some of these problems was to conduct studies in natural settings: preschools, reform homes etc. Children watched a diet of violent or non violent television over a period of several weeks and the changes in their behavior were monitored. Such studies resemble more closely the context in which children normally watch television and measure the kinds of aggressive behavior that create concern. Results, however, have been varied and the practical difficulties of controlling natural environments over a period of time mean that critics have been quick to point to flaws in specific studies.

From time to time researchers have been able to capitalise on naturally occurring changes, gathering data over the period when television is first introduced to a community. A Canadian study compared children in two communities already receiving television to those in a community where television was introduced during the course of the study. Increases in children's aggressive behavior over time were found to accompany the introduction of television. A similar conclusion was drawn from a major study into the effects of the introduction of television in South Africa.

An alternative to manipulating or monitoring group changes in exposure to violence, is simply to measure the amount of television violence children view and relate it to their level of aggressive behavior. While many studies have found a clear association between higher levels of violent viewing and more aggressive behavior, proving that television caused the aggression is a more complex issue. It is quite possible that aggressive children choose to watch more violent programs or that features of their home, socioeconomic or school background explain both their viewing habits and their aggression. Attempts to test these alternative models have involved complex statistical techniques and perhaps most powerfully studies of children over extended periods of time, in some cases over many years. Studies by Huesmann and his colleagues have followed children in a variety of different countries. They argue that the results of their research demonstrate that the extent of viewing TV in young children is an independent source of later aggression. They also suggest that aggressive children chose to watch more violent programs which in turn stimulates further aggression. The research group gathered data from a range of countries which indicates that the relationship can be found even in countries where screen violence is much lower than the United States. A comparison of Finland with the United States found, however, no relationship between violent viewing and aggressive behavior in Finnish girls. This suggests that the impact of television has to be understood in a cultural context and involves social expectations about appropriate gender roles.

An alternative technique to the longitudinal study was used by Belson in London. He selected, from a large sample of adolescent boys, two small groups that differed in the extent to which they viewed violent television but were very carefully matched on socioeconomic and other variables. Belson concluded from his comparison that greater viewing, particularly of realistic violent drama, was associated with more aggressive behavior.

Critics of these attempts to relate viewing and aggression have questioned both the accuracy with which reports of television habits and preferences were gained, either from parents or by retrospective recall, and the measures used to demonstrate aggression. In reviewing debates on research findings, it becomes clear that any study can be flawed by those taking an opposing position. The majority of researchers who have used the techniques described here believe the evidence does indicate a causal link between violence on television and violent behavior and point to the mutual support provided by the variety of empirical techniques employed.

Even among researchers who are convinced of a causal link between television and violence, explanations of when and why this occurs are varied. One of the simplest ideas is that children imitate the violence they see on television. Items associated with violence through television viewing can serve as cues to trigger aggressive behavior in natural settings. The marketing of toys linked to violent programs taps into these processes. Children are more likely to reenact the violence they have seen on television when they have available products which they have seen being used in violent scenarios. The challenge for social learning theorists has been to identify under what conditions modelling occurs. Does it depend on viewers' emotional state, for instance a high level of frustration, or on a permissive social environment? Is it important whether the violence is seen to be socially rewarded or punished? It has also been claimed that high levels of exposure to violent programs desensitise children making them more tolerant of and less distressed by violence. Thus children who had been watching a violent program were less willing to intervene and less physiologically aroused when younger children whom they had been asked to monitor via a television screen were seen fighting, than those children who had watched a non violent program. Alternatively, high arousal itself has been suggested as an instigator of violence. The significance of such an explanation is that it does not focus on violence as such; other high action, faster cutting programs may stimulate aggression. It is evident that once focus shifts from proving causation to identifying processes, the characteristics of particular violent programs become important because programs vary in many ways besides being classifiable as violent or non-violent.

The traditional violence effects approach has been criticised as employing a hypodermic model, where the link between television violence and viewer aggression was seen as automatic. Such an approach not only ignored the complexity of television programs, but how responses to television are mediated by characteristics of viewers, their thoughts and values. As psychology has become more concerned with human thinking, there has been greater interest in how viewers, particularly children, interpret the television they watch. Research has shown that children's judgements of violent actions relate to their understanding of the plot. This in turn may be influenced by issues like plot complexity, the presence and placement of commercial breaks, the age of the child, etc. Rather than seeing violence as a behavior pattern that children internalise and reproduce on cue, children are seen to develop schematic understanding of violence. The values they attach to such behavior may depend on more complex issues, such as the extent to which they identify with a violent character, the apparent justifiability of their actions, and the rewards or punishments perceived for acting aggressively.

It has often been feared that children are particularly vulnerable to violence on television because their immature cognitive development does not enable them to discriminate between real and fictional violence. In a detailed study of children's responses to television and cartoons in particular, Hodge and Tripp (1986) found that children could make what they termed "modality judgements" as young as six years old. They were well aware that the cartoon was not real. What developed at a later stage was an understanding of certain programs as realistic, building the links between television and life experience. Such research demonstrates a coming together of psychological and cultural approaches to television. Researchers interested in the structure of program meanings and in children's psychological processes can collaborate to increase our knowledge of how children actively interpret a violent cartoon.

Another dimension of the television violence debate has been a concern that frequent viewing of violence on television makes people unrealistically fearful of violence in their own environment. Gerbner's 'enculturation' thesis appeared supported by evidence that heavier viewers of television believed the world to be more violent than those who watched television less. Alternative explanations have been offered for these findings both in terms of social class (heavy viewers may actually live in more dangerous areas), and personality variables. It has also been suggested that those fearful of violence may chose to watch violent programs such as crime dramas, where offenders are caught and punished. Again viewers are seen as actively responding to violence on television, rather than simply being conditioned by it. Gerbner presents a valuable description of the violent content on television: who are portrayed as attackers and who are the victims in our television world. Yet Greenberg has argued against a cumulative drip-drip-drip view of how television affects viewers' perceptions of the world. Instead he poses a "drench" hypothesis that single critical images can have powerful effects, presumably for good or ill.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century


The Lawman

The Untouchables

Traditional television violence effects research employed simple objective criteria for determining the extent of violence in a program. A feature of this approach has been the development of objective definitions of violence that have enabled researchers to quantify the extent of violence on our screens ( 80% of prime time American television contains at least one incident of physical violence). From this perspective cartoons are just as violent as news footage and a comic cartoon like Tom and Jerry is among the most violent on television. Such judgements do not accord with public perceptions and in recent years there has been an interest in discovering what the public consider violent. A carefully controlled study of audience perceptions of violence was conducted in Britain by Barrie Gunter. He found that viewers rated a similar action as more violent, if the program was closer to their life experience than if it was a cartoon, western or science fiction drama. He also found that ratings of violence were linked in complex ways to characteristics of the attacker, victim and setting and to the personality of the rater. This focus on what audiences found violent and disturbing and what they believed would disturb children has provided a rather different framework for considering issues of violence on television.

Research for the Australian investigation of violence on television, in contrast to the U.S. Surgeon General's report, was not concerned with establishing causal links but on finding how audience groups reacted to specific programs. The aim was to improve the quality of guidelines to programmers and the information provided for prospective audiences. The research concluded that the most important dimension for viewers in responding to violence was whether the subject matter was about real life. The interest in public perceptions of violence of television has stimulated new research techniques. British researchers have asked their subjects to take editing decisions as to what cuts are appropriate before material is put to air. Docherty has argued that certain material, both fiction and non-fiction can elicit strong emotional reactions which he has termed "deep play." People's cuts to a horror movie like Nightmare on Elm Street appeared largely a question of taste. In contrast a docu-drama about football hooliganism provoked polarised and intense reactions. Some viewers felt the violent material was important and should not be cut, others reacted with great hostility to a portrayal of violence that challenged their sense of social order.

The issue of the appropriate level of televised violence arises not just with fictional violence but with the televising of news footage. Here the problem for reporters is a balance between reporting what is occurring in the world and making the violence they cover palatable for the living room. Reporters have put themselves at risk attempting to film savage violence in a way that can tell their story but not overwhelm the viewers. The violence of the Vietnam war played out nightly in American living rooms has been seen as a major factor in generating the anti-war movement. More recently, coverage of the Gulf War indicates how use of the media, especially television, has become part of wartime strategy. Research on the role of the media in the Gulf War suggests that viewers were often happy to be spared the details of the war as long as their side was winning. It is not perhaps surprising that despite concern expressed about the impact of such a violent crisis on impressionable children, the news image that evoked most anger and sadness in British children was on the plight of sea birds covered in oil.

The portrayal of the war, the sanitised images of high technology, the frequently employed analogy of the video game, the absence of blood and gore are also issues about violence and television. The fact that the political debates about violence on television have focused so strongly on the potential harm to children may act to divert attention away from the way certain violence is censored in the interests of the state. An excessive focus on screen violence can deflect attention from the complex issues of state and interpersonal violence that exist in our world.

Until recently the potential of television to challenge viewers to think about issues of violence has been largely ignored. A study by Tulloch and Tulloch of children's responses to violence in a series of programs has found young people more disturbed by a narrative about a husband's violent assault on his wife than the objectively more serious violence of a Vietnam War series. Their research has demonstrated clearly that the meanings children attach to violence on television is a function of their age, gender and social class. Not only does this confirm other findings that relate the perception of violence to personal significance, it points to the potential educative effects of violence on television. Once the portrayal of violence is not seen as necessarily increasing violence, the ways programs can work towards the promotion of non-violence can be investigated.

-Marian Tulloch and John Tulloch


Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. TV Violence in Australia. Sydney: Commonwealth of Australia, 1990.

Bandura, A. Aggression: A Social Learning Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1973.

Belson, W. A. Television Violence and the Adolescent Boy. Farnborough, England: Saxon House, 1978.

Cumberbatch, D., and D. Howitt. A Measure of Uncertainty: The Effects of the Mass Media. Broadcasting Standards Council Research Monograph Series:1. London: John Libbey, 1989.

Friedlich-Cofer, L. and A.C. Huston. "Television Violence and Aggression: The Debate Continues." Psychological Bulletin (Washington, D.C.), 1986.

Friedman, J. L. "Telelevision Violence and Aggression: A Rejoinder." Psychological Bulletin (Washington, D.C.), 1986.

Greenberg, B. S. and W. Gantz, editors. Desert Storm and the Mass Media. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton Press, 1993.

Gunter, B. Dimensions of Television Violence. Aldershot: Gower Press, 1985.

Gunter, B. and J. McAleer. Children and Television: The One Eyed Monster? London: Routledge, 1990.

Hodge, R and D. Tripp. Children and Television: A Semiotic Approach. Cambridge: Polity, 1986.

Huesman, L. R., and L.D. Eron, editors. Television and the Aggressive Child: A Cross National Comparison. Hillsdale New Jersey: Erlbaum, 1986.

Oskamp, S., editor. "Television as a Social Issue." Applied Social Psychology Annual 8. Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1988.

Tulloch, J. C. and M.I. Tulloch. "Discourses About Violence: Critical Theory and The 'TV Violence' Debate." Text (The Hague, Netherlands), 1992.

Wober M., and B. Gunter. Television and Social Control. Aldershot: Gower Press, 1988.


See also Audience Research: Effects Analysis; Audience Research: Industry and Market Analysis; Broadcasting Standards Council; Children and Television; Detective Programs; Standards and Practices; Terrorism; War on Television; Westerns