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How TV Violence Corrupts Your Child

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How TV Violence Corrupts Your Child

By Dr. Ted Baehr, Publisher

*Editor’s Note: This is an updated excerpt from Dr. Ted Baehr’s book, “The Media-Wise Family.”  This article is part of our parenting series. For similar stories, click here.

Fact:  97% of all American households own at least one television set – which is more than those possessing indoor plumbing or refrigerators.

Most parents intuitively know what the scientific and educational communities have confirmed over the last 75 years: the messages of popular culture are very “persuasive” in affecting behavior. Parents also realize children are designed to mimic adults, that they learn by copying adults and that the most exciting and the most frequent adult behavior they see and hear is displayed in the entertainment media.

So that you can make informed media decisions and help others to do the same, let us look at some of the facts and research in this important area.


There have been hundreds of thousands of psychiatric, psychological, sociological, pediatric, and medical studies researching the effects of the mass media on behavior, including laboratory experiments, field experiments, correlational studies, and longitudinal studies. [i] So much research has been conducted in this area that many newspapers and top US government officials have concluded that the influence of the mass media on violent behavior is now irrefutable.

Most people are unaware of this research because we get so much of our information from television, and television and other media executives have a self-interest in not emphasizing their influence on human behavior, except to exploit it through commercials.

Scientific research has focused both on the quality and quantity of violence on  television. Most research has focused on the quantitative content analyses, especially whether the amount of violence on television was increasing or decreasing. Some of the early research that counted acts of violence didn’t examine the context of television violence. Qualitative analysis requires exact definitions of violence to determine whether the act was counted or not. For example, it’s necessary to decide if verbal violence should be counted or whether comic violence such as cartoons would be registered.

Consider a cartoon where a character is hit by a hammer, the character shakes his head and continues on his way. Many researchers consider this “happy violence,” the worst type of entertainment violence because it is unrealistic. Such cartoon violence might encourage children to imitate it because it shows no consequences. Others think children understand that cartoons are make believe. Scholars have usually included cartoon violence.

Many movies aimed at children have contained excessive violence. The partly animated WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT has 52 acts of violence. The children’s fantasy movie, NINJA TURTLES, contains 194 acts of violence, many committed by the heroes, including kicking, concussion-dealing blows and characters delighting in inflicting violence.

The problem of what kind of violence to include and exclude in a study also pertains to slapstick humor and violent sports, which may make violence an acceptable or even desirable part of American life.

It’s helpful to look at violence within the framework of the context in which the violence occurs. Looking at the context focuses the research on distinguishing between violence that raises issues of concern and violence that doesn’t. It’s also helpful to use a broad definition of violence, such as violence is anything that involves physical harm of any sort, intentional or unintentional, self-inflicted or inflicted by someone or something else. Verbal violence is of secondary importance.

If violence was removed from all movies, television programs and other mass media, there would never be a documentary series such as THE CIVIL WAR or important movies such as SCHINDLER’S LIST and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. Portrayals of violence are necessary to tell stories that send anti-violence messages. The issue is not the mere presence of violence and other offensive elements, but the nature of these elements and the context in which they occur. Context is an important key to the determination of whether or not the use of certain otherwise questionable elements is appropriate.

Mass media violence is that violence portrayed by any of the methods of mass communication, including television, movies, video games, toys that are mass produced, comic books, the Internet, CDs, CD-ROMs, DVDs, and computers. Most of the research has to do with television, movies and pornographic materials.

A broad definition might yield a high violence count on a given television program or in a given medium. This is not important since the focus is on whether the violence raises concerns within the context of the show. For example, it’s possible that a situation comedy might yield several scenes of violence, but the context in which it occurs might lead to the conclusion that none of these scenes is inappropriate.

All violence is not created equal. It’s important to distinguish between uses of violence that raise concern and those acts which, because of their nature and the context in which they occur, do not.

It is important to examine the full range of portrayals of violence in the media, including the type of violence your child has been exposed to if your family is at all typical of families in general.

Elementary, my dear Watson

Research into this area can be divided into deductive reasoning from prior principles and inductive reasoning from a set of specific observations. Using deductive reasoning, researchers posit the basic principles of human learning and then see if any of them predict a causal relation. Using inductive reasoning, researchers study the real-life behavior of a person after that person has been exposed to a measurable degree of excessive violence, pornography or other media influence.

There are several principles of learning from which experts deduce the influence of entertainment.

One is the principle of modeling. Research shows that children imitate, even from the moment of birth. Children follow the examples that are set for them, not only in real life, but also in literature. Parables are examples of teaching tales people have used to help children learn how to live. Research shows that the entertainment media provide “scripts” for a child’s future behavior.

Studies have looked at the real-life behavior of children and have counted their episodes of imitation of the violent or non-violent behavior.

In general, these laboratory studies demonstrate that when you present to children a filmed model of someone doing something, children are more likely to do that something after having seen the film. Experiments have shown that withdrawn children can even learn to socialize better if they are shown a video of a child gradually starting to make friends.

A second basic principle of learning is that the more one practices a behavior, the more ingrained it becomes. Even practice in imagination, or fantasy rehearsal, is an effective way of ingraining a pattern. For young children, dramatic play is the prototypical fantasy rehearsal method.

The third is the principle of reinforcement which holds that behavior that gets rewarded, gets repeated. Vicarious reinforcement also works. Characters in action and adventure movies are rewarded for their proficiency in violence. Often the reward for a male is the admiration of a beautiful woman.

The power of modeling, practice and reinforcement in human learning predict that media violence increases the likelihood of real-life violence.[i]

The California medical association study found that 22% of all crime committed by juveniles is directly copied after what is seen in television programs right down to the minute gory details.[ii] A study published in the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION shows one-third of the young male prisoners convicted of violent crimes say they were consciously imitating techniques they learned from television.[iii]

Special effects

Research into the influence of violence in the mass media on behavior has focused on several effects:

Aggression that results in increased violence toward others;

A victim effect that manifests itself in increased fearfulness;

Desensitization that results in increased callousness; and,

Self-socialization demonstrated by willfully exposing oneself to further risk.[i]

Some of the research in this area has been conducted by Ron Slaby, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Education Development Center in Newton, Massachusetts, who has studied the media’s effect on children for 25 years.[i] He documented these four previously mentioned effects on children as a result of viewing TV and film violence:

“The ‘aggressor effect’ is often demonstrated by boys who identify with violent male heroes and therefore are more likely to behave aggressively. The ‘victim effect’ is usually evident in girls who identify with females they see being victimized and are accordingly more fearful, mistrustful and self-protective. The ‘bystander effect’ produces an increased callousness, behavioral apathy and emotional desensitization toward violence. Finally, the ‘appetite effect,’ exhibited by some children who’ve viewed a great deal of glorified violence, is the heightened desire to view more violence and engage in violence-related activities, such as joining a gang or carrying a weapon.”[i]

One of the most important “natural experiment” studies in this area was conducted by Brandon Centerwall, M.D., of the University of Washington. He found that there was a doubling of the murder rate some 10 to 15 years after television was introduced into several countries. The time lag occurred because children are most influenced by television violence during early life, but most prone to commit murder in adolescence and young adulthood. The conclusion of Centerwall’s research is that of the approximately 20,000 murders that take place in the U.S. each year, some 10,000 of them would not occur without the influence of television!

A study of a town in Canada that had had no television because of being in a “geographical blind spot,” nicknamed Notel, found that aggression increased dramatically in the children in the town after they received television for the first time. Also, the reading ability of the children decreased because the children were spending hours watching television instead of reading, having a conversation or doing something that would increase their verbal ability more than sitting passively.

Other research involving thousands of subjects, of both sexes, ranging in age from young children to older teenagers, from a wide range of socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and from several countries has shown that children who watch more violent television tend to be more aggressive. The relation between viewing television and aggressiveness is thus extremely well documented.

Another group of researchers decided they would try to convince a bunch of children that television violence was not good to imitate. If violent TV has nothing to do with behavior, you wouldn’t expect this intervention to do much. On the other hand, if the violence on TV is connected with real-life behavior, you would expect the result that occurred. The children who underwent this intervention experienced positive effects on their own aggressiveness.

The “catharsis theory” of anger has been extensively studied. The notion that you get aggression “out” by performing aggressive acts either in real life or in symbolic activities is an interesting idea. However, we don’t have this notion about other emotions. Do we get our friendliness “out” by watching people acting friendly to other people, or do we rehearse acting friendly? The studies show that watching people do or say hostile things makes the child more likely to be aggressive, not less likely.[i]

In 1979, Professor M. Megee of Hunter College of City University of New York correlated some of the valuable research on the effect of television:[i]

Among heavy users of television, the feeling is strong that certain material goods are “necessities” whereas light users of television usually consider the same material goods “luxuries.”

Literacy is markedly lower among heavy users of television than among light users.

Anxiety and anger among heavy users of television are measurably higher than anxiety and anger among light users of television.

Among heavy users of television, the incidence of alcohol and drug addiction and abuse is significantly higher than such incidence among light users.

Wife abuse and child abuse are highest among men who (a) watch a lot of television and/or (b) watch predominantly action-adventure television fare.

Anxiety-related crimes, automobile accidents and illnesses (mental and physical) occur most frequently among people who watch a lot of television.

These heavy-viewing groups are those where the largest increase in violent crime has occurred over the past few decades.

The forest and the trees

Scientific evidence strongly indicates a connection between television violence and violence in the real world. The cumulative effect of all these studies indicates a statistically significant connection between watching violence on television and behaving aggressively. These studies have prompted the American Medical Association, The American Psychiatric Association, The American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association for the Education of Young Children and many other organizations to issue policy statements condemning violence in the media.

The tide turns

Research that did more than any other to turn the tide of opinion, especially in the press, was the aforementioned 30-year study of Dr. Brandon Centerwall. A NEW YORK TIMES editorial reporting on this study concluded that “much of TV violence may serve the needs of the entertainment industry, (therefore) it fully warrants treatment as an issue for public health and social policy, and a special challenge for parents.”

Almost immediately after this NEW YORK TIMES editorial, which in effect told the intellectual community that it was okay to criticize television and movie violence, many entertainment industry decision makers decided to produce movies and television programs that would reach a broader audience by toning down or even removing the perverse violence in them. Several Hollywood CEO’s gave our Christian Film & Television Commission® scripts to review and made clear to us their commitment to family films.


[1] Rohde, Stephen F. & Kohn, Roger L. editors, “Report of the Beverly Hills Bar Association Ad Hoc Committee on Violence and the Media,” Beverly Hills Bar Association Journal, Spring, 1996, p. 4.

[1] Strayhorn, M.D., Joseph, INFORMATION ON MEDIA VIOLENCE AND ITS EFFECTS ON CHILDREN, National Conference on Ratings and Ratings Boards, November 16, 1990.

[1] Hattemer, B. & Showers, R. DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL: THE IMPACT OF MEDIA ON CHILDREN & THE FAMILY (LA: Huntington House Publishers, 1993) p. 128.

[1] JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION, June 10, 1992, p. 3059; quoted in MOVIEGUIDE ® Volume X#6: 950313

[1] Rohde, Stephen F. & Kohn, Roger L. editors, “Report of the Beverly Hills Bar Association Ad Hoc Committee on Violence and the Media,” Beverly Hills Bar Association Journal, Spring, 1996, p. 5.

[1] Granfield, Mary, “Who Invited Them Into Your Home?,” Family Circle. 2/22/94.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Magee, Mary, “Notes on the Significance of Crime Statistics,” On Television (New York, 1980).

Also, please note that in 1979, the U.S. Surgeon General’s called for a synthesis and evaluation of the vast amount of research by the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH). This resulted in the 1979 Surgeon General’s report, “Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific  Progress and  Implications for the Eighties,” an important review of the research that had been conducted prior to that time.

A more recent survey of the research can be found in the UCLA Television Violence Monitoring Report, UCLA Center for Communication Policy, September, 1995.

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