During the past two decades, researchers have studied—and debated—the issue of whether television violence encourages violent behavior in viewers. Although some experts contend that the link is unproven and overstated, others say that violence in the media causes widespread harm in society. According to a taskforce report on TV violence published by the Washington-based American Psychological Association in February, by the time that an American child has left elementary school he has watched 8,000 murders on television. The task force concluded that TV violence can encourage aggressive behavior. “The screen portrays an angry, hostile world,” said Mary Morrison, a retired psychologist in Victoria who took part in a 1973 study that assessed the effect of television in rural British Columbia. “Television is not reflecting the world, but the world is starting to reflect television.”
With more than 1,000 studies published worldwide on violent entertainment, most experts now agree that the impact on viewers is largely negative.
Although violence has traditionally played a central role in popular culture, researchers say that the sheer power of television makes the impact more insidious. “It’s more riveting and immediate than a fairy tale—and more easily copied,” said Wendy Josephson, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Winnipeg who has studied the effect of TV violence on aggressive behavior in young boys.
As well, a report released in May by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission concluded from the results of more than 200 studies that there is a link between exposure to TV violence and violence in society. The 64-page report acknowledged that the links are difficult to assess. Still, as CRTC chairman Keith Spicer noted, “common sense tells us that this must be true.” Added Spicer: “Why else do advertisers spend millions on television commercials if there is no impact on our behavior?”
Chaos: Some schoolteachers and child-care workers say that the effect of popular TV shows on children is obvious. Terry Harrison, who teaches preschoolers at Newpark Children’s Centre in Newmarket, Ont., 25 km north of Toronto, says that the sound of a three-yearold boy yelling “Cowabunga” is a war cry that
can unleash chaos in the classroom. “Suddenly, we are faced with a little gang of Ninjas trying to kick each other in the face,” said Harrison, referring to the popular cartoon show Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which has been criticized for excessive violence.
Although all TV viewers are exposed to some form of violence, experts say that children are most likely to be influenced by it. Indeed, a 1991 study of 100 children’s cartoon programs by the Champaign, Ill.-based National Coalition on
Television Violence found that half the cartoons involved violence—and showed three times as many acts of violence as prime-time television.
Some experts say that the cumulative effect of such exposure can cause trouble later in life. George Comstock, of the Center for Research on Aggression at the University of Syracuse, N.Y., said that on the basis of conclusions reached in 230 studies, at least 10 per cent of all violent behavior in American society results from viewing violence in movies and on television.
But other researchers play down the link between TV violence and real-life violence. “It’s not that clear-cut,” said Judith Van Evra, a psychology professor at Ontario’s University of Waterloo. “More aggressive children tend to watch more violent television.” Van Evra added that studies indicate that the real impact
may lie less in behavior than in the perception of violence itself. Declared Van Evra: “People come to see violence as a more normal part of life than it really is.”
Many researchers say that the most vulnerable viewers may be young people who have been brought up in families where there is frequent physical violence. Sandra Campbell, executive director of a Toronto-based firm of educational consultants, Viva Associates, says that when children see violence on television
and experience violence in the home, they are at increased risk of not learning positive social skills. Added Campbell: “Children living in dysfunctional homes are really handicapped in their understanding of problem-solving between people.” Dr. Park Dietz, a Los Angeles-based forensic psychiatrist who testified at the 1991 trial of Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, estimates that five per cent of adult urban males, or five million men, in the United States have antisocial personalities. Said Dietz: “Television can arouse them to commit a violent act or even teach them a particular technique.” And experts like Dietz say that until steps are taken to curb it, television violence will continue to provide vulnerable viewers with a dangerous script for problem-solving.
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