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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Tulloch and John Tulloch
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Research: Effects Analysis; Audience
Research: Industry and Market Analysis; Broadcasting
Standards Council; Children
and Television; Detective
and Practices; Terrorism;
War on Television;