Works in Progress: TV and Violence

Does violent TV breed violence? Do video games breed more of it?

By Karen Wright
Apr 1, 2003 6:00 AMMay 9, 2023 5:09 PM


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In a survey published earlier this year, seven of 10 parents said they would never let their children play with toy guns. Yet the average seventh grader spends at least four hours a week playing video games, and about half of those games have violent themes, like Nuclear Strike. Clearly, parents make a distinction between violence on a screen and that acted out with plastic M-16s. Should they?

Psychologists point to decades of research and more than a thousand studies that demonstrate a link between media violence and real aggression. Six formidable public-health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association (AMA), issued a joint statement of concern in 2000. According to one expert's estimate, aggressive acts provoked by entertainment media such as TV, movies, and music could account for 10 percent of the juvenile violence in society. And scientists say they have reason to believe that video games are the most provocative medium yet.

"With video games, you're not only passively receiving attitudes and behaviors, you're rehearsing them," says pediatrician Michael Rich, a former filmmaker and the current head of the Center on Media and Child Health at Harvard University.

But the case isn't quite closed. Last year, psychologist Jonathan Freedman of the University of Toronto published an outspoken indictment of some of the field's most influential studies. The "bulk of the research does not show that television or movie violence has any negative effects," he argues in Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression. In a 1999 editorial titled "Guns, Lies, and Videotape," the redoubtable British medical journal The Lancet admitted that "experts are divided on the subject," and that "both groups can support their views with a sizable amount of published work."

Those who grew up with the Three Stooges or Super Mario Brothers may have trouble seeing their youthful pastimes in a sinister light. But televised violence has been a topic of national consternation almost from the first broadcast. Congressional hearings on the subject date back to 1952; the first surgeon general's report addressing it was published in 1972. "We've been studying it at least since then, but the studies haven't given us definite answers," says Kimberly Thompson, director of the Kids Risk Project at the School of Public Health at Harvard. Thompson and others believe that the rise of TV viewing in American households may be at least partly responsible for the eightfold increase in violent crime in this country between 1960 and 1990. Today a typical kid spends two hours a day watching television, and children's programs average between 20 and 25 violent acts per hour— four times as many as adult programs. "The message that's going out to children is that violence is OK or it's funny or it's somehow heroic," says Jeffrey G. Johnson, a psychiatric epidemiologist at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University in New York.

A 1992 study found that the average American child graduating from elementary school has seen more than 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 assaults, rapes, and other acts of violence on network television alone. Most U.S. children log about 14 hours of television viewing a week.

Common sense argues that such exposure must have some effect. Designing studies to measure it is another story. So far, for example, there aren't any universal standards defining or quantifying violent content. Many early investigations simply proved that aggressive kids like to watch aggressive TV, without illuminating which tendency leads to which. And it's obvious that poverty, abuse, and ready access to weapons can put a child on the wrong path too.

One way to distinguish among the potential causes of juvenile violence is by studying large numbers of people over long periods of time. Last year, Johnson and his colleagues published results of a 17-year study following more than 700 kids from an average age of 6 to adulthood. They tallied the hours each subject spent in front of the tube and compared those numbers with subsequent acts of aggression, ranging from threats to criminal assault. The trends are clear, says Johnson: Kids who spent more than three hours a day watching television at age 14 were more than four times as likely to have acted aggressively by age 22 than kids who watched TV for less than an hour. The connection held up even after researchers accounted for other possible culprits, including poverty, neglect, and bad neighborhoods— and even among tube-addled females, who, like the rest of the subjects, were predominantly white and Catholic.

"It's not just that TV just triggers aggression in aggressive people," Johnson says. "We saw this in 'nice' girls too."

Some laboratory studies hint that violent programming may lead to a malevolent state of mind. In one classic example, 5- to 9-year-olds were told they could press buttons that would either further or foil their playmates' attempts to win a game. Children who watched segments of the 1970s crime drama The Untouchables beforehand showed more willingness to hinder their peers' efforts than did those who watched a track race.

A recent analysis asserts that the correlation between virtual and actual aggression is stronger than those linking passive smoke and lung cancer, calcium intake and bone density, and exposure to lead and IQ. "The correlation between media violence and aggression is stronger than many of these things that we accept as fact— such as that if you eat lead paint chips, you'll become mentally retarded," says Rich.

Rich and others think video games could have an even greater effect than TV because they're interactive. The genre term "first-person shooter" says it all. "Often the interface that the child has with the game is a gun," says Rich. "A very realistic gun."

Yet only a handful of video-game studies have been published so far. At Iowa State University in Ames, social psychologist Craig Anderson tested college students' willingness to provide help to others after playing 20 minutes of benign games like Glider Pro or malignant ones like the pedestrian-plowing Carmageddon. Anderson timed how long his subjects waited before responding to a person left whimpering in the hallway after a staged attack. "The people who played a violent video game took about four times as long to come to the aid of the victim than people who played a nonviolent game," says Anderson.

Skeptics like Freedman say such correlations don't amount to causation and that other, well-established risk factors such as poverty and neglect are important to consider. All true, Rich concedes. "But it's only correlations that suggest we should all wear seat belts," he says. "And [exposure to media violence] is one of the few risk factors that is easily controllable."

Laboratory studies have also been criticized for attributing to violent content behavior that could be a result of general physiological arousal. Any exciting program will cause an increase in heart rate, for example, and it's known that a racing heart can make an individual more bellicose. So Anderson took care to compare only video games that elevated his subject's heart rates to the same degree. And child psychologist John Murray of Kansas State University in Manhattan has used real-time MRI scans to observe whether violent content triggers unique patterns of brain activity. One group of Murray's kids watched fight scenes from Rocky IV; the other, an action-packed mystery called Ghostwriter. Only the boxing bouts activated an area in the right hemisphere called the right posterior cingulate, which may store long-term memories of trauma.


Donkey Kong (1999) .78

Q'bert (1999) 1.31

The Smurfs (1999) .59

Super Mario Brothers (1985) 4.8

Super Mario 64 (1996) .23

Source: JAMA, Vol. 286, No. 5

"We were surprised to find this, and worried," says Murray. He fears that violent programs may pack the same emotional punch as actual violence. "It's not 'just' entertainment," he says. "It becomes a story about how life is."

The advertising industry is built on the faith that media content and consumption can change human behavior, Rich points out. So why does society question the influence of dramatized violence? The obvious answer is that, despite the reams of paper devoted to its pernicious influence, violent entertainment remains entertaining. Americans appear to regard its consequences, whatever they may be, as an acceptable risk. Even hard-liners like Anderson, Rich, and the AMA don't recommend banning violent content. Instead, they lobby for greater parental awareness and control.

But maybe parents themselves should beware. The effect of violent media on adults is still unexplored territory. And television news, a staple of grown-up media consumption, carries some of the nastiest carnage on the airwaves.

"There is some evidence that violent media has a bigger effect on children," Anderson says. "But there's no age group that's immune."

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