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The Influence of Television on Children

Over the years, more funding and research effort has been invested in the study of television violence than in any other aspect of television output. Despite all this, there is still considerable disagreement among researchers about the existence of links between violence on the screen and aggressive behavior among those who watch it. Nevertheless, evidence that has been published on the possible harmful side effects of viewing television violence, especially where children are concerned, and the widespread public concern accompanying it, have led to calls for stricter controls on the depiction of violence in programmes. In the United States, for example, the setting up and organization of consumer action groups to lobby against the showing of violence on television has almost become a growth industry in itself. (Schramm et al 112)

Exhaustive reviews of the scientific literature on the relationships between television depictions of violence and the aggressive behaviour of viewers have consistently documented how exposure to such content is linked to a likelihood of enhanced aggressiveness among children and adolescents. (Gunter 40) Major reports from leading public health agencies in the United States, the 1972 Surgeon General's report and the 1982 National Institute of Mental Heath review, concluded that television played a significant part in the lives of young people and had a general potential to influence their aggressive behaviour. The Surgeon General's report presented findings from a number of original and specially commissioned studies of children and adolescents, which utilized various research methodologies. The overall conclusion of this body of investigation was that regular exposure to television violence is a causal agent underpinning the aggressive dispositions of the young, and may be especially significant among children and teenagers who already exhibit aggressive personalities. (Collins 66)

The NIMH report, ten years later, added to the conclusions of the Surgeon General. By now, potential effects of televised violence were being identified for children even before they started school, and for girls as well as boys. Furthermore, television portrayals of violence not only taught aggressive behaviour, but also demonstrated who is most likely to fall victim to violence, thus engendering enhanced fear of violence among certain categories of viewers. (Gunter 49) Television violence viewing has consistently been found to correlate with aggressive behaviour over various demographic groups and over time. The correlation has also been observed to occur across a variety of television genres. A comprehensive review of hundreds of experimental and longitudinal studies supported the position that viewing violence on television is related to aggressive behaviour. (Gunter 53)

The emergent view from the United States in recent years, therefore, is that television is a causal agent in relation to the development of aggressiveness among children, that its influence begins to be felt before the child starts school, and that it continues into adolescence, by which time the damage of cumulative exposure during childhood is done. The case for causality in respect of television violence is therefore proven. The task is not to continue to investigate this media-effects issue, but to monitor what actually appears on screen and control that material which has already been shown to have potentially harmful side effects on young viewers. The cause-effect case is not accepted to the same extent in other countries-for example, in Britain, where it is regarded b broadcasters and many academics as unproven. (Collins 90) Nevertheless, there is a concern about the amount of violence on television and the nature and the form it takes.

Calls for the control of violence on the screen necessitate some consideration of what is meant by violence in the first place. How should violent content be classified or defined in order that it may be monitored effectively and, if necessary, limited in the extent and form of its occurrence? It is easy enough publicly to condemn the depiction of violence on TV, but far less easy to arrive at a monitoring system which takes full account of the valued and tastes of the people who matter-the audience. We all have some idea of what we mean by violence. But what one person sees as violent may not be seen in the same way by someone else.

A common method of quantifying TV violence has been to count up incidents in programmes defined by the researchers themselves as violent. (Gunter 67) But since violence is not the same for everyone, there are problems with this approach. Viewers have their own scales for deciding the seriousness of incidents and their opinions do not always agree with researchers' categories of violence. According to some media researchers, the relationship between viewing violence on television and the level of aggressiveness in young viewers builds over time, with some children and teenagers appearing to be more susceptible to develop a television dependency. (Collins 104) Poorer academic achievers, those with less developed social skills and social networks, and those who fantasise about violence a lot all tend to display greater aggressiveness. Such children also tend to spend more time watching television. In addition, children who identify more strongly with aggressive television characters and perceive television violence as being more realistic also tend to display more pronounced aggressive tendencies. (Schramm et al 133)

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Television violence continues to feature prominently in public debates about the regulation and impact of the world's most prevalent mass medium. Much of the focus of concern has been on the reactions of children to violent depictions in programmes. We do not argue with the sincerity and significance of this public anxiety. Children's minds and social consciousness are malleable and immature in many ways. Young viewers may be susceptible to subtle influences (often intended) of television, to which most adults are immune. Whatever might be considered as appropriate viewing fare for grown-ups may, therefore, not be suitable for children, who may take what is shown the wrong way.

What is questionable, then, is not the significance of the issue, but the validity and reliability of the research evidence about television violence. Television is accused of showing too much violence. When measuring violence on television, however, researchers often begin by setting up an 'objective' definition of violence which does not necessarily reflect the public's perception. (Collins 109) Physical incidents or body counts provide a measure of something, but not necessarily what ordinary viewers would themselves consider to be violence.

For viewers, and this applies to children as well, context is important. Viewers can and do discriminate between types of programmes and the way in which different programmes depict events. These perceptual discriminations are significant mediators of how viewers respond to television. They affect programme preferences, evaluations of how tasteful or offensivve programmes are thought to be, and behavioral reactions to programmes. (Schramm et al 137)

We have seen that, in the end, anxieties about television violence rest on the supposed harmful effects it may have on viewers, particularly on the young and impressionable. There have been many studies of the influence of television violence (although the actual number is often grossly overstated), but these can be condensed to a handful of basic research methods- laboratory experiments, field experiments, correlational surveys and longitudinal panel studies. In each case, the methods have shortcomings, which are sufficient to cast some doubt on the validity of their findings. (Schramm et al 152) This is not to say that all the research is useless; rather the point is made as a note of caution to be borne in mind when interpreting what research results really show.

Over the years, a substantial body of research literature has built up on the subjects of television and the effects it might have on audiences. The conclusions reached from this research effort have been mixed. One major review of evidence, twenty years ago, concluded that the cause-effect relationship between television violence and audience behavior had not been clearly demonstrated. It was noted, at that time, that support had been forthcoming for the imitation hypothesis, but that the results could not be accepted unequivocally. One of the central problems rested on the fact that different researchers had advanced different measures of aggression and of the incidence of violence on the screen. This made it difficult to derive any coherent body of assumptions about television's effects upon its viewers. (Gunter 112)

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This open verdict was repeated many years later following a further review of available evidence. The conclusion here was not to dismiss the possibility that television violence could have harmful effects on children, but to state that so far the research evidence had failed unambiguously to demonstrate such a link. Key problems identified by this review were the inadequacy of the raw data and the analytical methods used, and the viability of the way the results were often interpreted. (Schramm et al 160) Not all reviewers of the evidence have reached this conclusion, however.

The debate about television violence will continue both in the public and academic spheres. Whether or not there is too much violence in programmes is a subjective question as much as it is a scientific one: the answer lies, to a large extent, in prevailing public taste and opinion. Values change constantly and are reflected in what is deemed to be acceptable viewing fare. On the question of whether or not television violence has any direct effects on viewers, the answer is neither simple nor straightforward. Much depends on the type of effect to which reference is being made and on the method used to measure television's impact.

From the range of research completed so far, it has become apparent that the measurement of television's effects, and of factors that mediate those effects, is highly complex. Often, researchers have relied upon methodologies that inadequately represent real-world television-viewing experiences and upon conceptual frameworks that omit important contributory variables. Although some progress has been made in eliminating the nature of certain types of television influence, we are still a long way from knowing fully the extent and character of television's influence on children's aggressive behavior.

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