THE INFLUENCE OF SCREEN VIOLENCE ON YOUNG PEOPLE

Introduction

Studies of the levels of violence on television showed 7.5 violent acts per

hour on US prime time television, 8.6 for German entertainment programmes,

5.8 for Dutch dramatic fiction and 2.5 for UK prime time TV. A US child

watching 2-4 hours per day (the norm) will have witnessed 8,000 homicides

and 100,000 other acts of violence by age 18.

 

A study of the 95 most popular US video games showed 83% featured violent

themes. Most games had two simple choices: kill or die.

A 1993 American Psychological Association report on screen violence

concluded: "In addition to increasing violent behaviours towards others,

viewing violence on television ... increases viewers' appetites for

becoming involved with violence."

 

In 1995, the extensive US Cable industry National Television Violence Study

(NTVS) stated as its key finding: "there are substantial risks of harmful

effects from viewing violence throughout the television environment."

 

The UK Gulbenkian Commission on Children and Violence, also in 1995, sat on

the fence, quoting Cumberbatch of Aston University, who argued: "supposed

evidence of a link between television violence and violence in real life is

based on studies which are, for the most part, individually fatally flawed

and collectively self-contradictory."

 

This article addresses two main issues: 1) "is there a causal link?"; and

2) "if so, how important is it?"

 

Is there a causal connection?

There appears now to be widespread acceptance that a correlation between

screen violence and aggression is proven.

 

Wartella (1995), after an in-depth review of studies from around the world,

summarises: "More than a thousand studies in the United States and dozens

within Europe have been devoted to this topic ... Distilling decades of

laboratory, survey and field experimental studies, the current reviews

conclude that there is a correlation between violence viewing and

aggressive behaviour, a relationship that holds even when a variety of

controls are imposed (e.g. age of subject, social class, education level,

parental behaviour, attitudes towards aggression)..."

 

The National Research Council (1993), cautioned that correlations do not

prove cause, and could reflect poor parental supervision causing both

greater exposure to television violence and a heightened potential for

violent behaviour.

 

In 1978 one of the largest European studies, by Belson, found a

relationship between viewing media violence and serious, criminal behaviour

by adolescent boys. He found the evidence "very strongly supportive of the

hypothesis that high exposure to TV violence increases the degree to which

boys engage in serious violence".

 

Wartella asserts Belson has not proved a causal link, but is convinced by

Eron and colleagues' longitudinal study findings (1982, 1984) that boys'

viewing of television violence at age 8 predicted aggressive behaviour at

age 18, and serious criminal behaviour at age 30. She found particularly

convincing that similar longitudinal studies in Australia, Finland, Poland

and Israel supported the conclusion that "viewing televised violence leads

to aggressive behaviour and not vice versa."

 

Another review, by Jo and Berkowitz (1994), concluded: "there is no longer

a question as to whether the portrayal of violence in the mass media can

increase the chances that some people in the audience will act aggressively

themselves. Such an effect can occur and often does..."

 

Caprara and Rutter (1995) and Geen (1994) point to the robustness of

evidence from laboratory experiments, field experiments, longitudinal

studies and archival studies, all supporting the conclusion that observing

television violence facilitates subsequent aggression. Geen summarises:

"These studies have involved children, adolescents and young adults, and a

wide range of constrained and unconstrained behaviours ... the large number

of studies reporting the effect and the convergence of data from so many

types of investigation indicates that the effect is a real one".

 

How important is it?

Some commentators argue that, while there is an effect, it is negligible.

Geen says: "Admittedly, effect sizes are sometimes small, as critics have

pointed out." Caprara and Rutter state effects are "... fairly weak ones

overall". Comstock (1990) analysed 22 different surveys and found effect

sizes varied between 5 and 15 per cent.

 

Eysenck and Nias (1978) suggest a model which assumes pre-disposition to

violence in a country is distributed in the shape of a normal curve of

distribution, with 5% of people actually violent. Their model suggests a 1%

shift in propensity to violence would increase the number of violent

persons in the UK by 350,000, and in the USA by 1.4 million; a 5% shift

effect would mean 2.25m additional violent people in the UK and 9 million

in the USA.

 

Eysenck and Nias warn their model is over-simplified, because human

behaviour is multiply determined. However, they conclude that their model

demonstrates: "Even quite small effects, so small as to be hardly

measurable, may have tremendous and far-reaching consequences."

 

Who is affected?

German and Swedish studies show children from lower socio-economic groups

watch significantly more than average levels of television. Wartella's

literature review comments: "Children who are more disposed to violence

(such as those living in violent homes and environments) are more likely to

be influenced by violent portrayals in the media."

 

Caprara and Rutter state that children vary in their susceptibility to

media influences, with effects tending to be greatest when children already

experience violence. The children most likely to be affected are the most

vulnerable.

 

Huesmann put forward a reciprocal model in which some personal factors lead

to greater TV watching and aggressiveness, and hence to a greater interest

in TV violence. Viewing violent programmes then strengthens encoding of

aggressive scripts, further increasing the likelihood of aggressive

reactions to interpersonal conflict. This leads to greater identification

with violent TV characters and strengthens the interest in TV violence, so

creating a vicious spiral.

 

Field research confirms that children and adults who are predisposed

towards violence are more likely to respond to television violence. Small

average effects may not be small for the already vulnerable.

 

CONCLUSION

That there is a correlation between screen violence and violent behaviour

in real life is now demonstrated beyond doubt. Arguments about the

direction of the effect miss the point; it probably operates in both

directions, in an upward reinforcing spiral including poor initial parental

control and/or family violence, high exposure to screen violence, selection

of violent role-models, development of violent scripts, increasing levels

of violent experiences and violent practices.

 

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