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Television and Aggression

For many years, behavioral and educational researchers have studied the psychological effects of television programs on viewers, particularly children. Substantial debate over television began as early as the 1960s. The term "TV violence" was coined in 1963 as critics accused programs of promoting antisocial violent and aggressive behavior. More contemporary discussions center on the use of rating systems to label the content of programs and the use of technology to allow parents to censor children's viewing habits.

Although there have been cases of "copy-cat" crimes, where an actual murder or suicide is said to have been triggered by a specific television incident, a direct correlation between what a person sees and does is difficult to prove. Since the 1950s, more than 3,000 studies have been dedicated to tracing more indirect links between actual violence and televised violence. Some researchers have employed a laboratory setting where children watched either violent cartoons or more passive children's programming, and then measured the children's aggressiveness. Much research has been done comparing communities without television (such as a town in a remote part of Canada) to similar communities with television. Researchers have also compared crime rates and indicators of violence and aggression in communities before and after television became available. Such studies concluded that verbal and physical aggressiveness increased in children exposed to television. One long-term study, carried out by a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan, tracked hundreds of subjects from age eight to age 30, and the ones who watched the most television were the most aggressive, were more likely to be convicted of a serious crime, and were prone to use violence to punish their children.

Other studies have found concomitant effects. People may become more aggressive as well as more fearful of becoming a victim of violence. They may also become desensitized to violence and not react to help someone who is in trouble. Not only does exposure to television violence stimulate antisocial behavior, it also seems to block prosocial, altruistic behavior. Other researchers note a difference between the way violence is depicted on television and in movies, and the way violence is portrayed in literature, from fairy tales to Shakespeare, noting that television violence often seems to be without consequences. It is not portrayed as tragic or

A test subject is hooked up to machines that monitor his reactions to violent television scenes. (Will & Deni McIntyre. Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced with permission.)

symbolic and seems an easy solution to a difficult situation. There is little differentiation between a hero's and a villain's use of violence, and realistic portrayals of injured victims and perpetrators, grieving relatives and friends, as well as other tragic consequences of violence are often not dramatized.

There have been recurring attempts by public interest groups to censor television violence or to persuade television industry executives to agree to censor themselves. Such campaigns run into problems, not only with issues of free speech, but also with accountability, as the television industry claims to be providing what their viewers want and to be reflecting a violent society, rather than creating one. Since television is broadcast indiscriminately, any attempt to regulate what some people watch will impinge on the freedom of others to view what they want. Some recent proposals for federal regulation of television violence, short of direct censorship, resulted in a ratings system, similar to that for movies, which includes warnings, before broadcasts, about the possible ill effects of viewing violence.

Since 1984, all cable companies have been required to offer a lock box that prevents certain programs from being received. These locking devices are becoming more sophisticated, with the advent of the so-called "Vchip"—a computer chip that can be programmed to block out programs with violent content.

A. Woodward

Further Reading

Huesmann, L. Rowell, and Leonard D. Eron, eds. Television and the Aggressive Child: A Cross National Comparison. Hills-dale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986.

Reiss, Albert J. Jr., and Jeffrey A. Roth, eds. Understanding and Preventing Violence. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaChild Development