Violence and Television Viewing

Are we overreacting?

By the health staff

JOHNNY and his three friends "ab ducted" a young boy of 5. After binding the youngster's hands and feet with rope, the four systematically tortured him. Pressing matches against his flesh they pummeled his face and torso with their fists. He was left to die, unconscious and battered almost beyond recognition. The four boys responsible for this act were all less than 9 years old! A similar torture aired on a television program the previous week may have triggered this in human act and influenced the behavior of the youngsters.

Three girls, none yet twelve, sexually assaulted a fourth. Using a broom handle they duplicated in accurate detail a scene viewed on a network television just three days before.

A coincidence?

A 5-year-old asks his father for a gun with real bullets. Why? Because when he "shoots" his 4-year-old playmate neighbor with his make-believe pistol, "he doesn't stay dead!"

Ray and Sharon* are unusual Americans—they don't have television in their home. They never have. Even though their daughters, Lynette, 7, and Cheryl, 13, would like one they choose not to, "for religious reasons."

Not only do they avoid television them selves, this southern California couple worries a lot about network programming other people are watching.

"Television brings a lot of corruption into the home, and we just don't feel that we need that," Sharon and Ray say. "It's like a handful of grain," Sharon adds. "Put a little arsenic into it, and it can kill."

Both feel that family communication is impossible in a home where television is the major source of conversation. Sharon believes that "the children don't communicate with their parents and the parents don't communicate with their children. They just come and go on their merry way. The parents, when they talk, say, 'Go on, don't bother me. Just go watch television and leave me alone.'" Because of television, Sharon says, "The minds of the children are stimulated to violence.

"The killing, the violence, the blood, none of it seems to bother them. I really believe that television can be the deter mining factor as to whether or not a per son with the inclination to be violent will actually go out and kill."

With Carole and Yancy, the problem was different—they had an uncontrolled TV! They gave it a lot of thought before they literally shoved the set out the door. The noise it generated and the quarrels it caused were more than the peace-loving family could take. So the TV set was sold.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to our family," Carole says.

Their decision was the result of long discussions on what effect not having television would have on their children, then ages 4 and 8. They didn't want to overprotect the youngsters.

"But we decided that they would be subjected to enough violence and the realities of life quickly enough without shoving it down their throats through television," Carole says.

Are These Overreactions?

Can television be all that bad? Does television and the violence portrayed on network programming really have an influence on human behavior? Will children, after watching fist fights, shootings, murders, and torture day after day on the tube be more aggressive them selves? Do they become more violence prone? Will they pick up distorted ideas about the right way to solve interpersonal problems? Can inhuman acts and scenes of antisocial behavior become such a part of adult thinking that they are no longer appalled by similar real-life situations or find themselves unconsciously acting out such roles in real life?

Before allowing full-time television programming in January, 1976, South Africa tried to answer such questions. It has the distinction of being the last developed country to introduce television.

Test programs were conducted to determine the impact of television on its citizens. Some South African officials feared that it would lower the moral standards of the people, that it would popularize violence and sex, and that it would have an antisocial effect by keeping people indoors. They were also interested in the possible effect television programming has on people's attitudes and opinions.

Just what is the typical TV fare? Undoubtedly much is left to individual choice; however, the choices are really not choices—as the following testifies:

An analysis was made of prime time (7:30-10:00 P.M. on weekdays and 9:00- 11:00 A.M. on Saturdays) television programming broadcast during one week in October over a recent three-year period.1 The observers recorded all portrayals of violence defined by "their overt expression of physical force against others or self, or the compelling of action against one's will on pain of being hurt or killed." The results indicated the fol lowing: 2

1. The level of violence did not change. In each of the three years, violent episodes occurred at the rate of five per play or eight episodes per hour, with eight out of every ten plays containing some form of violence.

2. Killings did decline. From two out of ten leading characters involved to one out of ten.

3. The level of violence in children's cartoon programs increased dramatically. Of 95 cartoon plays analyzed, only one did not contain violence.

At the start of the three years, one hour of cartoons contained three times as many violent episodes as adult programming. However, at the end of this period it had risen to six times as many violent episodes as an adult hour.

A study of Saturday morning children's programs during 1971 revealed pronounced violence.3 Seventy-one per cent of all episodes had at least one in stance of human violence and three out of every ten dramatic segments were "saturated" with violence.

The Omnipresent Tube

That television is involved in the daily lives of most Americans should come as no surprise. Recent estimates suggest that more than 96 per cent of the households in the United States have at least one TV set, with many having two or more. Even more remarkable is that the figures jump to almost total saturation—99 percent— in families with young children. Every day of the year these sets are turned on an average of six hours! This means that virtually everyone has access to television and that many people watch it for considerable periods of time.

Furthermore, the segment of our population that watches TV most is our children. This is why many social scientists, churchmen, and others are concerned.

What is the typical viewing pattern of the younger set? Universally, the youngest children prefer cartoons. These certainly are not nonviolent, however, as noted earlier. Next, in the shifting childhood pattern of viewing comes situation comedies and adventure stories. Finally, action/adventure pro grams join the repertoire.

It should not be assumed that even very young children with impression able minds are not exposed to violent programming. When parents were asked to keep a diary of the programs viewed by their children it was noted that even preschoolers spent almost half of their viewing time watching action/ adventure programs, such as "Hawaii Five-O," "Mannix," and "Mod Squad." 4 Actually, it has been discovered that millions of children watch the violent and sexually oriented programs that pollute the television screen after 9:00 P.M.5

Children learn from observing the actions of others. They act like mom or dad, mimic a teacher or a neighbor or visitor to the home who has peculiar characteristics.

Can this same learning behavior be extended to television programs? As illustrated at the beginning of this article, there have been isolated incidents in which a child or group of children have attempted to copy behavior ob served on television with tragic results. What about the child who, without cause, uses abusive language when speaking to parents, or who acts surly or inconsiderately toward other children in the family? Or uses aggressive and disruptive behavior in the classroom or school playground? Or cynicism or hostility regarding the value of love and trust in interpersonal relationships? Could this not also, to some extent at least, be the result of television's more subtle influence?

Basically the question is this: Are the children who view violence on television more aggressive in their behavior to ward others than those who do not view such activity?

One study assessed the effect of ex posing preschool children to a prolonged period of viewing pro-social, antisocial, or neutral television programming.6

Observers recorded various types of behavior on the part of the youngsters that could be considered pro-social (i.e., sharing, helping, cooperative play, tolerance of delay) or antisocial (i.e., pushing, breaking toys, arguing). The results? Children who were judged initially to be somewhat more aggressive became significantly more aggressive as a result of viewing Superman and Batman cartoons. Others who watched "Misterogers' Neighborhood" became significantly more cooperative in dealings with others, willing to share toys, and to help the other children.

Another study focused on the young child's willingness to hurt another child after viewing either neutral or aggressive television programming.7 The neutral program was a track race, while the aggressive programs were extracts obtained from "The Untouchables." Children who viewed "The Untouchables" showed a greater willingness to hurt another child. In addition, during a later free-play period these same youngsters demonstrated a greater preference for playing with weapons and aggressive toys than did those children who viewed the track race.

The capstone of investigations into the effect of televised violence on behavior was a study conducted at the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene.8 The importance of this investigation was that it evaluated the aggressive behavior in the same children over a ten-year period. Various measurements of aggressive behavior were made of 8-year-old boys and girls and these were related to preferences demonstrated for violent television programs. After ten years, when most of the subjects were one year out of high school, similar measurements of program preference and aggressive behavior were obtained.

For boys, a preference for violent pro grams at age 8 was significantly related to aggressive behavior at age 18. For girls, this relationship pointed in the same direction, but was less significant. This led to the conclusion that a preference for violence in television programs by boys at age 8 is at least one cause of their antisocial and aggressive behavior ten years later.

Perhaps not all young people are demonstrably influenced by violence on television, but from the foregoing it appears that watching televised violence can cause aggressive behavior among some children. Further, the somewhat habitual viewing of violence may precede some future manifestation of aggression or other antisocial behavior, but the very young are unable to distinguish reality from fantasy and are thus as much influenced by television as they are by other new and novel things surrounding them. As such children grow older they become more aware that so much of television is fantasy and feel less need of it. However, since learning is influenced by identification with others, the attitudes and opinions of parents and teachers leave their imprint on children.

It is now becoming evident what the full impact of this influence may be on an entire generation of television viewers. A recent Psychology Today cautions, "The effect of TV should be measured not just in terms of immediate change in behavior, but also by the extent to which it cultivates certain views of life." It dramatically illustrates the influence of television viewing on a whole generation of viewers by reporting, "Respondents under 30 consistently indicated by their responses [to our survey] that they were more influenced by TV than those over 30. This response difference seems especially noteworthy in that the under-30 group on the whole is better educated than its elders. But the under-30 group constitutes the first TV generation. Many of them grew up with it as teacher and baby-sitter, and have had lifelong exposure to its influence." 9

We are aware that violence is on the rise. People seem less concerned about other possible effects. Antisocial behavior is treated as almost normal by those vicariously accustomed to such activity via the TV screen. Assaults, muggings, and murder can take place in full view of complacent onlookers—imbued with the impression that "it's all make-believe, anyway."

Although clearly recognizing that television's massive daily diet of symbolic crime and violence is only one of many complex factors contributing to the startling increase in real-life violence, Anne Somers, writing in The New England Journal of Medicine, makes the point that we really do not need additional research in this area. She recognizes that there is still quibbling in professional circles, but stresses that converging evidence, involving more than fifty scientific studies, is so overwhelming and the effects of aggressive television fare are so important that immediate remedial action is demanded.10

There are some authorities, of course, who take exception to the findings re ported in this article. It seems that there are very few conclusions that the scientific community ever is in full agreement on. But, in this case, we have the added support of Bible principles and concepts that make it very clear that as an individual "thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23:7).

It is a law of the mind, that it will narrow or expand to the dimensions of the things with which it becomes familiar and that "by beholding we be come changed." The mind gradually adapts itself to the subjects on which it is allowed to dwell. God is not unreasonable and arbitrary when He tells us through the apostle, "Whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things" (Phil. 4:8).

Obviously, violence on television flunks this test.



*The individuals whose first names appear in this article are real people and the quotations are their actual statements that appeared in the story, "Families Do Quite Well Without TV, Thank You," in the San Bernardino, California, Sun-Telegram, written by Priscilla Nordyke, November 12, 1975.

1 G. Gerbner, "Violence in Television Drama: Trends and Symbolic Function," in G. A. Comstock and E. A. Rubinstein (eds.), Television and Social Behavior, vol. 1, Media Content and Control (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972).

2 J. P. Murray, 'Television and Violence. Implications of the Surgeon General's Research Program," American Psychologist, pp. 472-478, June, 1973.

3 F. E. Barcus, "Saturday Children's Television. A Report of TV Programming and Advertising on Boston Commercial Television" (Boston: Action for Children's Television, 1971).

4 J. Lyle, and H. R. Hoffman, "Children's Use of Television and Other Media," in E. A. Rubinstein, G. A. Comstock, and J. P. Murray (eds.), Television and Social Behavior, vol. 4, Television in Day-to-Day Life: Patterns of Use (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972).

5 Anne R. Somers, "Violence, Television and the Health of American Youth," New England Journal of Medicine, p. 814, April 8, 1976.

6 A. Stein, and L. K. Friedrich, "Television Content and Young Children's Behavior: A Comprehensive Research Bibliography," in J. P. Murray, E. A. Rubinstein, and G. A. Com stock (eds.), Television and Social Behavior, vol. 2, Television and Social Learning (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1972).

7 R. M. Liebert, and R. A. Baron, "Short-term Effects of Televised Aggression on Children's Aggressive Behavior," ibid.

8 M. Lefkowitz, et al., "Television Violence and Child Aggression: A Follow-up Study," in Comstock and Rubinstein (eds.), op. cit.

9 G. Gerber and L. Gross, "The Scary World of TV's Heavy Viewer," Psychology Today, p. 45, April, 1976.

10 Anne R. Somers, "Violence, Television and the Health of American Youth," New England Jounal of Medicine, p. 814, April 18, 1976.

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By the health staff

July 1976

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