Impact of Televised Violence
- John P. Murray, Ph.D
- Professor and Director
- School of Family Studies and Human Services
- Kansas State University
Questions about the effects of television violence have existed since the earliest days of this medium. Indeed, the first expression of formal concern can be found in Congressional hearings in the early 1950s. For example, the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency held a series of hearings during 1954-55 on the impact of television programs on juvenile crime. These hearings set the stage for continuing congressional investigations by this committee and others in the House and Senate from the 1950s to the present.
These early congressional inquiries were focused on what we did not know about television and violence because social scientists were slow to respond to concerns about this medium of popular entertainment. Although there was a body of research on movies and comic books, these were quite different forms of media and different effects might be expected. Still, prominent social scientists such as developmental psychologist Eleanor Maccoby and sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld testified at the 1954-55 hearings that, although more research was needed, there were important reasons for concern about televised violence (Lazarsfeld, 1955; Maccoby, 1954; United States Congress, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 1955a; 1955b; 1965a; 1965b; 1966).
In addition to the congressional hearings begun in the 1950s (which have continued through 1994), there are landmark reports that include: National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (Baker & Ball, 1969); Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behaviour (1972); the report on children and television drama by the Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry (1982); National Institute of Mental Health, Television and Behaviour Report (NIMH, 1982; Pearl, Bouthilet, & Lazar, 1982); National Research Council (1993), violence report; and reports from the American Psychological Association's "Task Force on Television and Society" (Huston, et al., 1992) and "Commission on Violence and Youth" (American Psychological Association, 1992; Donnerstein, Slaby, & Eron, 1992). All of these reports confirm the harmful effects of media violence on the behaviour of children, youth, and adults who view such programming.
And yet, despite decades of research, there is a perception that the research evidence on TV violence is unclear or contradictory. This perception is incorrect and this review will address the following issues: What do we know about the impact of television violence? What are some of the major research findings that form the basis for concern? Without belabouring prior reviews, the main issues revolve around the extent of exposure to violence and the correlational, experimental and field studies that demonstrate the effects of this viewing on the attitudes and behaviour of children and adults.
Extent of Viewing:
Children begin watching television at a very early age, sometimes as early as six months, and are ardent viewers by the time that they are two or three years old. The general pattern of viewing is one of a steady rise in the number of hours viewed from early childhood through preadolescence and then a sharp drop in viewing during the adolescent years. According to audience rating surveys (Nielsen, 1988), the typical American household has the television set on for more than seven hours each day and children age 2 to 11 spend an average of 28 hours per week viewing (Andreasen, 1990; Condry, 1989; Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988). Naturally, the content viewed is more important than the amount of viewing and televised violence is one of the chief concerns.
The most extensive analyses of the incidence of violence on television are the studies conducted by Gerbner and his colleagues on the nature of American television programs. The results of these yearly analyses of the level of violence on American television for the 22-year period 1967-89 (Gerbner & Signorielli, 1990) indicate a consistently high level of violence. There were some minor fluctuations in the early 1970s followed by a steady increase to 1976, a sharp decline in 1977, and then a steady climb to an all-time high in 1982-83. According to Gerbner's initial analysis (Gerbner, 1972), eight out of every ten plays broadcast during the survey period in 1969 contained some form of violence, and eight episodes of violence occurred during each hour of broadcast time. Furthermore, programs especially designed for children, such as cartoons, are the most violent of all programming. Later analyses by Gerbner and Gross (1974, 1976a, 1976b) indicated that there was some decline in violence levels from 1969 to 1975, at least in terms of the prominence of killing. However, the level of violence dramatically increased in 1976 (Gerbner et al., 1977) and was followed by a decline to one of.the lowest levels in the 1977 season (Gerbner et al., 1978). This decline was quite dramatic. From the 'bumper-crop violence harvest' of 1976 to the relatively placid 1977, the percentage of programs containing violence fell from 90 to 75.5; the rate of violent episodes per hour fell from 9.5 to 6.7; and the rate of violence per program fell from 6.2 to 5.0 episodes. However, this downward trend was reversed in 1978 and through the early 1980s, and violence in weekend children's programs reached 30.3 violence episodes per hour in the 1982-83 season (Gerbner & Signorielli, 1990). Overall, the levels of violence in prime-time programming have averaged about five acts per hour and children's Saturday morning programs have averaged about 20 to 25 violent acts per hour.
In addition to broadcast television, cable TV adds to the level of violence through new, more violent, programs, and by recycling older violent broadcasts. A recent survey by the Centre for Media and Public Affairs (Lichter & Amundson, 1992) identified 1,846 violent scenes broadcast and cablecast between 6 a.m. to midnight on one day in Washington, D.C. The most violent periods were between 6 to 9 a.m. with 497 violent scenes (165.7 per hour) and between 2 to 5 p.m. with 609 violent scenes (203 per hour). Most of this violence is presented without context or judgement as to its acceptability. And most of this violence in the early morning and afternoon is viewed by children and youth.
What are the effects of this exposure to these levels of televised violence? What do we know about the influence of TV violence from the broad range of correlational, experimental and field studies that have been conducted over the past 40 years?
The weight of evidence from correlational studies is fairly consistent: viewing and/or preference for violent television is related to aggressive attitudes, values and behaviours. This result was true for the studies conducted when television was new, and the measures of children's aggression were teachers' ratings. It is still true for more recent studies when the measures of aggressiveness have become more sophisticated.
To choose several studies as examples: Robinson and Bachman (1972) found a relationship between the number of hours of television viewed and adolescent self-reports of involvement in aggressive or antisocial behaviour. Atkin, Greenberg, Korzenny, and McDermott (1979) used a different measure of aggressive behaviour. They gave nine to thirteen-year-old boys and girls situations such as the following. Suppose that you are riding your bicycle down the street and some other child comes up and pushes you off your bicycle. What would you do? The response options included physical or verbal aggression along with options to reduce or avoid conflict. These investigators found that physical or verbal aggressive responses were selected by 45 per cent of heavy-television-violence viewers compared to only 21 per cent of the light-violence viewers. In a further study, Sheehan (1983) followed two groups of Australian children, first and third-graders, for a three-year period. He found that for the older group, now third through fifth grade, both the overall amount of violence viewing and the intensity of viewing were significantly related to the child's level of aggressive behaviour as rated by their classmates. Finally, in a study focused on adults, Phillips (1983) investigated the effects of the portrayal of suicides in television soap operas on the suicide rate in the United States using death records compiled by the National Centre for Health Statistics. He found, over a six-year period, that whenever a major soap opera personality committed suicide on television, within three days there was a significant increase in the number of female suicides across the nation.
The major initial experimental studies of the cause and effect relation between television/film violence and aggressive behaviour were conducted by Bandura and his colleagues (Bandura, Ross & Ross,1961, 1963) working with young children, and by Berkowitz and his associates (Berkowitz, 1962; Berkowitz & Rawlings, 1963; Berkowitz, Corwin & Heironimus, 1963) who studied adolescents. In a typical early study conducted by Bandura (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1963), a young child was presented with a film, back-projected on a television screen, of a model who kicked and punished an inflated plastic doll. The child was then placed in a playroom setting and the incidence of aggressive behaviour was recorded. The results of these early studies indicated that children who had viewed the aggressive film were more aggressive in the playroom than those children who had not observed the aggressive model. These early studies were criticised on the grounds that the aggressive behaviour was not meaningful within the social context and that the stimulus materials were not representative of available television programming. Subsequent studies have used more typical television programs and more realistic measures of aggression, but basically Bandura's early findings still stand.
Another early study (Liebert & Baron, 1972) investigated young children's willingness to hurt another child after viewing videotaped sections of aggressive or neutral television programs. The boys and girls were in two age groups, five to six and eight to nine-years-old. The aggressive program consisted of segments of The Untouchables, while the neutral program featured a track race. Following viewing, the children were placed in a setting in which they could either facilitate or disrupt the game-playing performance of an ostensible child playing in an adjoining room. The main findings were that the children who viewed the aggressive program demonstrated a greater willingness to hurt another child. One could ask, does the same effect hold for cartoons? The answer seems to be yes. Several studies have demonstrated that one exposure to a violent cartoon leads to increased aggression (Ellis & Sekyra, 1972; Lovaas, 1961; Mussen & Rutherford, 1961; Ross, 1972). Moreover, Hapkiewitz and Roden (1971) found that boys who had seen violent cartoons were less likely to share their toys than those who had not seen the aggressive cartoon. It seems clear from experimental studies that one can produce increased aggressive behaviour as a result of either extended or brief exposure to televised violence, but questions remain about whether this heightened aggressiveness observed in the experimental setting spills over into daily life.
In the typical field-experiment, the investigator presents television programs in the normal viewing setting and observes behaviour where it naturally occurs. The investigator controls the television diet either by arranging a special series of programs or by choosing towns that in the natural course of events receive different television programs.
One early field-experiment was a study conducted by Stein and Friedrich (1972) for the Surgeon General's project. These investigators presented 97 pre-school children with a diet of either 'antisocial' 'prosocial', or 'neutral' television programs during a four-week viewing period. The antisocial diet consisted of twelve half-hour episodes of Batman and Superman cartoons. The prosocial diet was composed of twelve episodes of Mister Roger's Neighbourhood (a program that stresses such themes as sharing possessions and co-operative play). The neutral diet consisted of children's programming which was neither violent nor prosocial. The children were observed through a nine-week period, which consisted of three weeks of pre-viewing baseline, four weeks of television exposure, and two weeks of post-viewing follow-up. All observations were conducted in a naturalistic setting while the children were engaged in daily school activities. The observers recorded various forms of behaviour that could be regarded as prosocial (i.e. helping, sharing, co-operative play) or antisocial (i.e. pushing, arguing, breaking toys). The overall results indicated that children who were judged to be initially somewhat aggressive became significantly more so as a result of viewing the Batman and Superman cartoons. Moreover, the children who had viewed the prosocial diet of Mister Roger's Neighbourhood were less aggressive, more co-operative and more willing to share with other children.
In another field-experiment, Parke and his colleagues (Parke et al., 1977) found similar heightened aggression among both American and Belgian teenage boys following exposure to aggressive films. In the Belgian study-- which replicated the findings of two similar studies conducted in the United States--teenage boys residing in a minimum-security institution were presented with a diet of either aggressive or neutral films. This study included a one-week baseline observation period, followed by one week of film viewing, and a one-week post-viewing observation period. There were four cottages involved. Two cottages contained boys with high levels of aggressive behaviour; two contained boys with low levels of aggression. One of each pair of cottages was assigned to the aggressive film condition, while the other two viewed the neutral films. Only the two initially high-aggressive cottages were affected by the movies; those boys who saw the aggressive movies increased their level of aggression, while those who were exposed to the neutral films reduced their level of aggression.
Still, one might ask whether such results are found when the variation in television diets occurs naturally rather than by special arrangement. Williams and her colleagues (Joy, Kimball & Zabrack, 1986; Williams, 1986) had the opportunity to evaluate the impact of televised violence on the behaviour of children before and after the introduction of television in a Canadian community. They compared children living in the before/after television town with their peers in two other towns where television was well established. The three towns were called Notel (no television reception), Unitel (receiving only the government-owned commercial channel-CBC), and Multitel (receiving the CBC and three American commercial networks-ABC, CBS and NBC). Children in all three towns were evaluated at Time 1 when Notel did not receive a television signal and again at Time 2 when Notel had had television for two years (it had received the government channel-CBC). Results indicated that there were no differences across the three towns at Time 1, but at Time 2 the children from the former Notel town were significantly more aggressive, both physically and verbally, than the children in the Unitel or Multitel towns. Moreover, only children in the Notel town manifested any significant increase in physical and verbal aggression from Time 1 to Time 2.
Extent of Effects:
We get a clearer picture about the extent of TV violence effects when we know more about the way children watch televised violence. For example, Ekman and his associates (Ekman et al., 1972) found that those children whose facial expressions, while viewing televised violence, depicted the positive emotions of happiness, pleasure, interest or involvement were more likely to hurt another child than were those children whose facial expressions indicated disinterest or displeasure.
The long-term influence of television has not been extensively investigated but we do have indications from several major studies. In an initial longitudinal study Lefkowitz and his colleagues (Lefkowitz et al., 1972) were able to demonstrate long-term effects in a group of children followed-up over a ten-year period. In this instance, Eron (1963) had previously demonstrated a relationship between preference for violent media and the aggressive behaviour of these children at the age of eight. One question now posed was, would this relationship hold at later ages? To answer this question, the investigators obtained peer-rated measures of aggressive behaviour and preferences for various kinds of television, radio and comic books when the children were eight years old. Ten years later, when the members of the group were eighteen years old, the investigators again obtained measures of aggressive behaviour and television program preferences. The results for boys indicated that preference for television violence at age eight was significantly related to aggression at age eight (r = .21), but that preference for television violence at age eighteen was not related to aggression at age eighteen (r = .05). A second question posed was, could this adolescent aggressiveness be predicted from our knowledge of their viewing habits in early childhood? And, the answer seems to be yes. The important finding here is the significant relationship, for boys, between preference for violent media at age eight and aggressive behaviour at age eighteen (r = .31). Equally important is the lack of relationship in the reverse direction; that is, preference for violent television programs at age eighteen was not produced by their aggressive behaviour in early childhood (r = .01). The most plausible interpretation of this pattern of correlations is, that early preference for violent television programming and other media is one factor in the production of aggressive and antisocial behaviour when the young boy becomes a young man.
In more recent, short- term, longitudinal studies conducted by Lefkowitz and Eron and by their colleagues (Eron, 1982; Huesmann, Langerspetz & Eron, 1984; Sheehan, 1983), they found some short-term effects of viewing violence on aggressive behaviour of children in the United States, Australia and Finland.
Finally, the 22-year longitudinal study (Huesmann, Eron, Lefkowitz & Walder, 1984)--a follow-up to the earlier Lefkowitz et al. (1972) study--has found significant causal-correlations (r = .41) between violence viewing at age eight and serious interpersonal criminal behaviour at age 30.
In a different approach, a study by Belson (1978) has substantiated other long-term effects and has helped pin down which types of programs have the most influence. Belson interviewed 1565 youths who were a representative sample of thirteen to seventeen-year-old boys living in London. These boys were interviewed on several occasions concerning the extent of their exposure to a selection of violent television programs broadcast during the period 1959-71. The level and type of violence in these programs were rated by members of the BBC viewing panel. It was thus possible to obtain, for each boy, a measure of both the magnitude and type of exposure to televised violence (e.g. realistic, fictional, etc.). Furthermore, each boy's level of violent behaviour was determined by his own report of how often he had been involved in any of 53 categories of violence over the previous six months. The degree of seriousness of the acts reported by the boys ranged from only slightly violent aggravation such as taunting, to more serious and very violent behaviour such as: 'I tried to force a girl to have sexual intercourse with me; I bashed a boy's head against a wall; I threatened to kill my father; I burned a boy on the chest with a cigarette while my mates held him down'. Approximately 50 per cent of the 1565 boys were not involved in any violent acts during the six-month period. However, of those who were involved in violence, 188 (12 per cent) were involved in ten or more acts during the six-month period. When Belson compared the behaviour of boys who had higher exposure to televised violence to those who had lower exposure (and had been matched on a wide variety of possible contributing factors), he found that the high- violence viewers were more involved in serious violent behaviour. Moreover, he found that serious interpersonal violence is increased by long-term exposure to (in descending order of importance):
- 1. Plays or films in which close personal relationships are a major theme and which feature verbal or physical violence
- 2. Programs in which violence seems to be thrown in for its own sake or is not necessary to the plot
- 3. Programs featuring fictional violence of a realistic nature
- 4. Programs in which the violence is presented as being in a good cause
- 5. Violent westerns.
In summarising the extent of the effects, we agree with Comstock (Comstock & Paik, 1991) that there are multiple ways in which television and film violence influence the viewer. Comstock suggests four dimensions: Efficacy relates to whether the violence on the screen is rewarded or punished; Normativeness refers to whether the screen violence is justified or lacks any consequences; Pertinence describes the extent to which the screen violence has some similarity to the viewer's social context; and Suggestibility concerns the predisposing factors of arousal or frustration. Drawing on these four dimensions, Comstock suggests (Comstock & Paik, 1991, pp. 254-255) situations for which we have experimental evidence of the effects of film or television violence:
- 1. Rewarding or lack of punishment for those who act aggressively (e.g., Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963).
- 2. If the aggressive behaviour is seen as justified (e.g., Berkowitz & Rawlings, 1963).
- 3. There are cues in the portrayed violence which have similarity to those in real life (e.g., Donnerstein & Berkowitz, 1981).
- 4. There is similarity between the aggressor and the viewer (e.g., Rosekrans, 1967).
- 5. Strong identification with the aggressor, such as imagining being in their place (e.g., Turner & Berkowitz, 1972).
- 6. Behaviour that is motivated to inflict harm or injury (e.g., Geen & Stonner, 1972).
- 7. Violence in which the consequences are lowered, such as no pain, sorrow, or remorse (e.g., Berkowitz & Rawlings, 1963).
- 8. Violence that is portrayed more realistically or seen as a real event (e.g., Atkin, 1983).
- 9. Violence which is not subjected to critical commentary (e.g., Lefcourt, et al., 1966).
- 10. Portrayals which seem to please the viewer (e.g., Ekman, et al., 1972).
- 11. Portrayals of violence that are unrelieved by other events (Lieberman, 1975).
- 12. Violence that includes physical abuse in addition to or compared to verbal aggression (e.g., Liebermann, 1975).
- 13. Violence that leaves the viewer in a state or arousal (e.g., Zillmann, 1971).
- 14. When viewers are predisposed to act aggressively (e.g., Donnerstein & Berkowitz, 1981).
- 15. Individuals who are in a state of frustration after they view violence, either from an external source or from the viewing itself (e.g., Worchel, Hardy, & Hurley, 1976).
Thus, although there is continuing discussion about the interpretation of research evidence concerning the impact of television violence, most researchers would agree with the conclusion contained in the report by the National Institute of Mental Health (1982), which suggests that there is a consensus developing among members of the research community that "...violence on television does lead to aggressive behaviour by children and teenagers who watch the programs. This conclusion is based on laboratory experiments and on field studies. Not all children become aggressive, of course, but the correlations between violence and aggression are positive. In magnitude, television violence is as strongly correlated with aggressive behaviour as any other behavioural variable that has been measured. The research question has moved from asking whether or not there is an effect, to seeking explanations for the effect." (p. 6).
While the effects of television violence are not simple and straightforward, meta-analyses and reviews of a large body of research (Hearold, 1986; Huston, et al, 1992; Wood, Wong, & Chachere, 1991) suggest that there are clear reasons for concern and caution in relation to the impact of televised violence. To be sure, there are many factors that influence the relationship between viewing violence and aggressive behaviour and there has been considerable debate about the nature of these influences and the extent of concern about televised violence (American Psychological Association, 1985; 1992; Centerwall, 1992; Comstock & Paik, 1991, Condry, 1989; Cook, Kendzierski, & Thomas, 1983; Donnerstein, Linz, & Penrod, 1987; Freedman, 1984; 1986; Friedrich- Cofer & Huston, 1986; Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, 1982; Huesmann & Eron, 1986; Huston, et al, 1992; McGuire, 1986; Milavsky, Kessler, Stipp, & Rubens, 1982; Murray, 1973, 1980; Murray & Kippax, 1979; National Institute of Mental Health, 1982; National Research Council, 1993; Paik & Comstock, 1994; Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behaviour, 1972). Nevertheless, it is clear that there is a considerable amount of violence on television and that this violence on the small screen may translate into changes in attitudes, values, or behaviour on the part of both younger and older viewers.
Although there are differing views on the impact of TV violence, one very strong summary is provided by Eron (1992) in his recent Congressional testimony:
There can no longer be any doubt that heavy exposure to televised violence is one of the causes of aggressive behaviour, crime and violence in society. The evidence comes from both the laboratory and real-life studies. Television violence affects youngsters of all ages, of both genders, at all socio-economic levels and all levels of intelligence. The effect is not limited to children who are already disposed to being aggressive and is not restricted to this country. The fact that we get this same finding of a relationship between television violence and aggression in children in study after study, in one country after another, cannot be ignored. The causal effect of television violence on aggression, even though it is not very large, exists. It cannot be denied or explained away. We have demonstrated this causal effect outside the laboratory in real-life among many different children. We have come to believe that a vicious cycle exists in which television violence makes children more aggressive and these aggressive children turn to watching more violence to justify their own behaviour." (p. 1)
- So too, the recent report by the American Psychological Association Task Force on Television and Society (Huston, et al., 1992) adds: "...the behaviour patterns established in childhood and adolescence are the foundation for lifelong patterns manifested in adulthood" (p. 57).
- "We call upon the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to review, as a condition for license renewal, the programming and outreach efforts and accomplishments of television stations in helping to solve the problem of youth violence. This recommendation is consistent with the research evidence indicating television's potential to broadcast stations to 'serve the educational and informational needs of children,' both in programming and in outreach activities designed to enhance the educational value of programming. We also call on the FCC to institute rules that would require broadcasters, cable operators and other telecasters to avoid programs containing an excessive amount of dramatised violence during 'child viewing hours' between 6 am and 10 p.m." (American Psychological Association, 1993, pp. 77-78)
- To be sure, most of the research reviewed above is based upon a broad conception of media influence rooted in social learning theory. So too, there are alternative conceptions of media influence and viewer response, such as uses and gratifications theory (Kratz, Blumler, & Gurevitch, 1974; Kippax & Murray, 1980), that place greater emphasis on the active role of the viewer in determining the effects of media through selective use. Also, there are a number of scholars who have offered alternative interpretations of some of the research on television violence. For example, Cook and his colleagues (Cook, Kendzierski, & Thomas, 1983) point out some cautionary notes in interpreting the range of studies reviewed by the NIMH in 1982 report on Television and Behaviour and McGuire (1986) expressed strong concern about the overemphasis on the powerful effects of television. These are important tempering views and they need to be understood in the context of the large body of research findings noted above. And yet, one must not dismiss the extensive, cumulative evidence of potential harmful effect associated with viewing violence in film, video, and television.
The multiple discussions and communication strategies proposed in this project are designed to resolve these differing interpretations, both among social scientists and across the fields of mental health and journalism. The harmonic convergence of viewpoints and interpretation of research findings developed through this proposal will greatly enhance public understanding.
Furthermore, the recent summary (released in August, 1993) of the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth--Violence & Youth: psychology's Response--confirms the findings noted above and reaffirms the need to consider ways to reduce the level of violence in all media. In particular, the APA Commission suggests the development of rating systems for television programs and videotapes that would move beyond the existing rating system used by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) by focusing on more relevant behavioural descriptors and indicators of potential harm to children and youth. Indeed, other organisations, such as Media Scope, have suggested reviews of the rating system in the context of experiences in other countries where ratings are more attuned to the special needs of children (Federman, 1993). In addition to ratings issues, the APA Commission directed two strong recommendations for policy change to the Federal Communications Commission:
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JOHN P. MURRAY John P. Murray, Ph.D. is Professor and Director of the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and recent President of its Division of Child Youth and Family Services. Dr. Murray's interest in television and society is reflected in nearly 30 years of research, teaching and public policy concerning children, youth and families including recent service on the Advisory Board of Mediascope, a Los Angeles-based organisation working to reduce the effects of media violence. In the late 1960's and early 70's, Dr. Murray served as Research Co-ordinator for the Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behaviour at the National Institute of Mental Health resulting in the landmark Surgeon General's report on television violence in 1972. Subsequently, he taught in the School of Behavioural Sciences at Macquarie University in Sydney where he conducted research on the effects of the introduction of television in the Australian "outback." His concern about the impact of television has continued during appointments at the University of Michigan, the Boys Town Centre for the Study of Youth Development, and Kansas State University. Over the years, Dr. Murray has produced 10 books and more than 80 articles on children's television, including his 1992 book, "Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society" (University of Nebraska Press).