Centre for Educational Research and Innovation - CERI

Manfred's Column, January 2005, Violence on TV: We Must Stop Watching


January 2005

Violence on TV: We Must Stop Watching

During my second visiting professorship at Harvard University, my family and I lived quite close to the campus. This had the advantage that I could walk to my office and my children could attend a public school located close by just a few houses down the street. Soon after school started — my oldest son went to first grade — we received a letter from the school principle which all parents of new pupils received, had to sign and hand back to the school. Among other items, this letter stated that we should take care that our son would not bring a gun into the school. My wife and I were shocked. Of course, we complied.
This episode shows, possibly better than any statistics, how far acts of violence have penetrated everyday life in the so-called "indispensible nation". One of the causes of the extreme tendency towards violence in the population — the main cause of death of middle aged men in the US being murder — is television. This is not a suggestion or an unproven statement. It rather can be concluded from clear-cut evidence provided by a large number of studies. But first of all, let me provide some facts:
After 12 years of schooling, the average American child has spent 13,000 hours in school and 25,000 hours in front of the TV set, having seen some 32,000 murders and 40,000 attempted murders. If there is either cable TV or if the child lives in an inner citty, the numbers are even higher (Barry 1997).
Long term studies on the effects of the medium TV on the readiness of the population to use violence all portray the same picture (cf. Williams 1986). Let me briefly mention three of them. 1. In one of three communities in Canada TV had been introduced in 1973, not so in the other two communities which served as controlls. Within the ensuing two years, violent crimes regarding all social subgroups within the population went up by 160%. In contrast the level of violence stayed the same in the control communities during that period of time. 2. A prospective long term study in 875 boys conducted over the 21 years from 1960 to 1981 had the following result. At the age of 19, boys who had watched violence on TV more than average at the start of the study and the age of 8 years had been in conflict with the law. At the age of 30 these boys were more likely to be in prison because of violent crimes. This study made it very clear that the amount of violence watched on TV at the age of 8 has an effect on violence and criminal behavior 21 year later in life. Even effects on the next generation had been observed in this study, in that those boys who saw more violence on TV at the age of 8 were more likely to beat their own children later in life. 3. Another long term study (Centerwall 1992) focussed on the relation between the introduction of TV on the one hand and the frequency of murders among the white population on the other hand in three counries, the United States, Canada, and South Africa. After TV had been introduced in the 1950s in the US and Canda, the frequency of murders doubled within the following 10 to 15 years. During this period of time, there was actually a decrease of murder in South Africa by 7%. After TV had been introduced there in 1975, however, murder increased by 130% in the period until 1987. Other causes of this increase in violence could be ruled out in this study by carefull data collection and analysis.
Inspite of this overwhelming evidence, the view is often held that watching violence on TV might cause some form of covert acting in the viewer thereby leading to the decrease of actual violent behavior. This hypothesis of katharsis, i.e., of the outflow and thereby decrease of violence through TV, is said to date back to Aristotle (which in fact it is not; see Spitzer 2000) and is factually plainly wrong. As early as in the 1960s, Bandura had children watch violence on TV and monitored the effects on their subsequent behavior, thereby demonstrating in an experimental setting thatwatching violence causes increases real violent acts towards other children and objects, such as toys. In short: Watching violence leads to real violence. With respect to TV, the most prominent of all media, it has been shown that children in elementary school are the most vulnerable to the influences of TV. The effect later becomes chronic and thereby stays on into adulthood. In the US, many adolescents therfore judge their future to be doomed by violent acts. According to a pol carried out in 1993, 35% of all American schoolchildren in 12th grade believe that they would not reach retirement age but rather were going to be shot before.
Not only violent acts themselves, but also the context in which they are portrayed, is harmful to the development of children. The careful analysis of 2500 hours of violent TV provided the following remarkable results: In about three quarters of the violent acts, the perpetrater got away with what he or she did without any punishment. In about half of all violent acts, no harmful consequences such as hurt or pain, were shown. In only 4% of the violent acts, alternative strategies to solve the conflict were mentioned.
Within a neurobiological framework, violence catches the attention of the viewer because human beings have evolved within harsh and competitive conditions. Because of inborne mechanisms , particularly children cannot help but watch violence, almost like being hypnotized. As the brain of children exhibits the largest degree of neuroplasticity, representations of violent solutions to problems will be fomed within higher level cognitive and semantic maps of growing up children, and such maps or previous experience are laid down in all of us for one single reason, i.e., to guide future behavior. Furthermore, it is known that if an organism is repetitively exposed to a certain class of stimuli, its response to such stimuli will decrease over time. This effect is called desensitization. This effect holds true for verry different species and very different stimuli as well, including human beings and violence. Accordingly, empirical studies could demonstrate that, first, repetitive watchng of violence on TV leads to a decreased reaction of the person to single violent scenes. Secondly, this phenomenon generalizes from movies to the real world. Thirdly, watching violence on TV leads to the person to increasingly judge real world violence as normal. And finally, the behavior of the person in the real world changes accordingly. In short: Because of our neurobiological makeup, violence on TV will cause more violence in the real world.
What consequences are we to draw from these facts? — First of all, it is time to stop ignoring them systematically on a large scale. We must understand that violence on TV should be treated about the same way as pollution of the environment. If we let pure market forces rule our society (including the way in which goods are produced) the free marked will favor those who produce most cheaply. The cheapest way of production, however, is also often the dirtiest, as filtering, cleaning, protecting etc. are coming only at extra costs. If we just let the free market decide, the dirtiest will win. But this is not how we want matters to be. We all want a clean environment, but this can only achieved throught the political will of all of us not through legislation and regulaion. The same holds true for violence and TV. Companies responsible for programming are selling audiences to advertisement agencies, which is why the numbers of viewers count so much. Sex and crime speaks to our instincts, particulaly to the instincts of our children, and hence, respective programming is going to have the largest audiences.
Western societies appear to finally have come to grips with pollution and the environment. Policies are discussed and enforced to make sure that the complex long term effects of greenhouse gases, airborne micro-particles, and DDT, to name but a few, are monitored and kept in chck, such that the beautiful natural landscapes surrounding us are protected and saved from marked-force guided destruction. Similar action should be taken when it comes to violence in the media leading to detrimental effects on the cortical maps of all of us. It is time to think about restrictions regarding out mental diet, in particular regarding the mental diet we provide to our children. We must simply stop watching, and start taking action.

Original title:  Spitzer M (1999) Gewalt im Fernsehen: Wir dürfen nicht zuschauen! (Editorial). Nervenheilkunde 18(4):160-161