ERIC Identifier: ED414078
Publication Date: 1997-12-00
Author: Aidman, Amy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Champaign IL.
Television Violence: Content, Context, and Consequences. ERIC
Social science research conducted over the past 40 years supports the
conclusion that viewing violent television programming has negative consequences
for children, and the research suggests three areas in which watching violent
television programs can impact young viewers:
Media violence can encourage children to learn aggressive behavior and
Media violence can cultivate fearful or pessimistic attitudes in children about
the non-television world.
Media violence can desensitize children to real-world and fantasy violence.
According to Eron (1992), "(t)here can no longer be any doubt that heavy
exposure to televised violence is one of the causes of aggressive behavior,
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" (p. 1).
This digest reports recent findings on violent television content, highlights
the recently developed television ratings system, and offers suggestions for
parental guidance and mediation of children's viewing of television programs.
NOT ALL VIOLENCE IS EQUAL
The National Television Violence
Study (NTVS) is the largest study of media content ever undertaken. It is a
three-year study that assesses the amount, nature, and context of violence in
entertainment programming, examines the effectiveness of ratings and advisories,
and reviews televised anti-violence educational initiatives. The study, which
began in 1994 and is funded by the National Cable Television Association,
defines television violence as "any overt depiction of the use of physical
force--or credible threat of physical force--intended to physically harm an
animate being or group of beings. Violence also includes certain depictions of
physically harmful consequences against an animate being or group that occur as
a result of unseen violent means" (National Television Violence Study, Executive
Summary, 1996, p. ix).
Not all violence is equal, however. While some violent content can convey an
anti-violence message, it is typical to sanitize, glamorize, or even glorify
violence on U.S. television. According to the National Television Violence Study
(Federman, 1997), only 4% of programs coded had a strong anti-violence theme in
the 1995-96 season. In the two years of the study that have been reported, 58%
(1994-95) and 61% (1995-96) of programs coded contained some violence.
Certain plot elements in portrayals of violence are considered high risk for
children and should be evaluated by parents when judging possible program
effects for children. Characterizations in which the perpetrator is attractive
are especially problematic because viewers may identify with such a character.
Other high-risk factors include showing violence as being justified, going
unpunished, and having minimal consequences to the victim. Realistic violence is
also among the high-risk plot elements.
NTVS findings from 1995-96 indicate that these high-risk plot elements abound
in U.S. broadcast and cable television. Of all violent acts, 40% were committed
by attractive characters, and 75% of violent actions went unpenalized and the
perpetrators showed no remorse. In 37% of the programs, the "bad guys" were not
punished, and more than half of all violent incidents did not show the suffering
of the victim.
Based on reviews of social science research, it is possible to predict some
effects of violent viewing in conjunction with specific plot elements:
AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR. Learning to use aggressive behavior is predicted to
increase when the perpetrator is attractive, the violence is justified, weapons
are present, the violence is graphic or extensive, the violence is realistic,
the violence is rewarded, or the violence is presented in a humorous fashion.
Conversely, the learning of aggression is inhibited by portrayals that show that
violence is unjustified, show perpetrators of violence punished, or show the
painful results of violence.
FEARFUL ATTITUDES. The effects of fearful attitudes about the real world may
be increased by a number of features, including attractive victims of violence;
unjustified violence; graphic, extensive, or realistic violence; and rewards to
the perpetrator of violence. According to the work of George Gerbner and his
colleagues (1980), heavy viewers of violent content believe their world is
meaner, scarier, and more dangerous than their lighter-viewing counterparts.
When violence is punished on television, the expected effect is a decrease in
fearful attitudes about the real world.
DESENSITIZATION. Desensitization to violence refers to the idea of increased
toleration of violence. It is predicted from exposure to extensive or graphic
portrayals and humorous portrayals of violence and is of particular concern as a
long-term effect for heavy viewers of violent content. Some of the most violent
programs are children's animated series in which violence is routinely intended
to be funny, and realistic consequences of violence are not shown.
Just as not all violence is equal, there
are distinctions to be made among viewers. Characteristics such as age,
experience, cognitive development, and temperament should be considered as
individual factors that can interact with the viewing of violent content. Very
young children, for example, have an understanding of fantasy and reality
different from that of older children and adults. They may be more frightened by
fantasy violence because they do not fully understand that it is not real. When
parents consider their children's viewing, both age and individual differences
should be taken into account.
USING TELEVISION RATINGS AS GUIDELINES
As a result of the
Telecommunications Act of 1996, a ratings system has been developed by the
television industry in collaboration with child advocacy organizations. It is
currently in use by some of the networks. Eventually ratings will also be used
in conjunction with the V-chip, a device that can be programmed to
electronically block selected programming. Beginning in 1998, new television
sets are to include V-chip technology.
Ratings categories are based on a combination of age-related and content
factors as listed below. These ratings may help parents determine what they
consider appropriate for their children to watch. However, it is important to
consider that ratings may make programs appear more attractive to some children,
possibly creating a "forbidden fruit" appeal. Furthermore, critics point out the
potentially problematic nature of having the television industry rate its own
programs, and these critics support the development of alternative rating
systems by non-industry groups.
Directed to Older Children
Parental Guidance Suggested
Parents Strongly Cautioned
Mature Audience Only
A content advisory for fantasy violence, FV, may be added to the TV-Y7
rating. Several content codes may be added to the TV-PG, TV-14, and TV-MA
ratings. These are V for intense violence; S for intense sexual situations; L
for strong, coarse language; and D for intensely suggestive dialogue.
BEYOND RATINGS: WHAT CAN PARENTS DO?
Parents can be
effective in reducing the negative effects of viewing television in general and
violent television in particular.
Watch television with your child. Not only does watching television with
children provide parents with information about what children are seeing, but
active discussion and explanation of television programs can increase children's
comprehension of content, reduce stereotypical thinking, and increase prosocial
Turn the program off. If a portrayal is upsetting, simply turn off the
television and discuss your reason for doing so with your child.
Limit viewing. Set an amount of time for daily or weekly viewing (suggested
maximum limit is 2 hours per day), and select programs that are appropriate for
the child's age.
Use television program guides or a VCR. Television program guides can be used to
plan and discuss viewing with your child. A VCR is useful for screening
programs, building a video library for children, pausing to discuss points, and
fast-forwarding through commercials.
Encourage children to be critical of messages they encounter when watching
television. Talking about TV violence gives children alternative ways to think
about it. Parents can point out differences between fantasy and reality in
depictions of violence. They can also help children understand that in real
life, violence is not funny. Discussion of issues underlying what is on the
screen can help children to become critical viewers.
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