Violence in Television and its Effects on Children: Whose Problem is it Anyway?

by Janie Ni

In 1998, a series of youth homicides shocked the nation.  According to Dave Grossman in his article “We Are Training Our kids to Kill” published in Saturday Evening Post, the tragic incidents had spread like a disease over schools in America.  Grossman reports that the first was the shooting in Pearl, Mississippi, where a young boy was responsible for the death of his mother and two of his schoolmates.  He points out two months later, another school boy shooting occurred in Paducah, Kentucky.  Grossman believed that the other little boys in America who saw the televised incident began to imitate the boys in Pearl, Mississippi (Grossman).  Grossman is one of many scholars who believe unlimited exposure to televised violence is one of the contributing factors of increasing youth crimes.  The ubiquitous presence of violence in television has experts examining possible causes and effects while parents, health professionals, the government, and the television industry criticize one another for neglecting their roles in regulating the quantity and the influence of media violence on children. 
Regular television viewers classify scenes of murder, fight, theft, robbery, torture, kidnapping, and many other actions that result in property and or bodily damages as violent content.  In order to do research on the amount of televised violence aired on primetime and weekend programs, Barrie Gunter and Jackie Harrison, authors of “Measuring the Amount of Violence on Television” relate that Gerbner and his peers at the University of Pennsylvania initially define violence as “the overt expression of physical force against self or other” (qtd. Gunter and Harrison 77).  They point out with the emergence of the National Television Violence Study in the 1990s, a new definition was formed to include “the notion of credible threat of violence, the overt occurrence of violent behavior, and the harmful consequences of unseen violence” (Gunter and Harrison 77).  Gunter and Harrison describe that the first incident is in a situation whereas the violent act is not actually presented, but gives the audience the belief that the violent act will pursue.  At the same time, the two explain by showing a bleeding victim lying on the ground without portraying the struggle illustrates “the harmful consequences of unseen violence” (79).
The violent content in television programs has raised public concerns because many critics believe television contributes an influential component of a child’s life without parents’ and his or her realizations.  According to Brandon S. Centerwall, author of “Our Cultural Perplexities (V.): Television and Violent Crime”, children spend no less than twenty-seven hours a week in front of the television screen.  He emphasizes children are quick learners, and they learn through television about the world around them (Centerwall).  Mary E. Muscari, a health professor at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, reports that when a child turns into an adult, he or she would have been exposed to 200,000 violent acts in television programs (Muscari 31).  A number of experts believe most children are not aware of excessive exposure to violence in the extensive amount of television viewing they conduct.   
Most believe television violence exists because television programmers use that as a tool to compete for audience.  According to Les Brown, a commentator from the New York Times, television violence is promoted by the American public who watch the shows (qtd. Wheen 66).  He exclaims that “ [television programmers] have got to escalate the violence” (qtd. Wheen 66).  Brown explains that viewers will not produce the same satisfying response as they became used to seeing violence; therefore, the television industry has to provide more violence to capture the audience’s attention (66).  In an interview with the New York Times, “NYPD Blue” producer Steven Bochco remarks that it is remarkably difficult to compete with cable television in 1993 without producing a police action series that will grab the audience’s attention (Jankowski).  Leslie Moonves, president of Warner Brothers Television in 1993, expresses his opinion in a conference with Broadcasting and Cable that “NYPD Blue” is the “only remarkably unusual show on the air” in that it is able to draw a large crowd of viewers by the violent content in the show.  He praised ABC network for airing “NYPD Blue” to out compete other network and cable programs for audience (qtd. Warner TV). 
Consequently, studies have shown repeated violence viewing has short term effects, one of which is imitation.  Centerwall points out children learn to imitate what they see in TV without distinguishing the nature of the behavior.  He believes children do not have the ability to differentiate between favorable and unfavorable behaviors (Centerwall).  Grossman concludes media provide “role models” for its viewers.  He claims the series of school shootings in Pearl, Mississippi, Paducah, Kentucky, Stamps, Arkansas, and then Jonesboro, Arkansas, are an example of violence imitated behavior.  Grossman proposes the adolescent boys involved in these shootings copied from one another through television news coverage.  He acknowledges that some of these boys saw from television that they can avenge on those that did not get along with them and be able to get media attention portraying them as heroes (Grossman).
        Muscari points out that media violence creates fear and anxiety in children who come to associate the world as a scary place in addition to desensitization to real violence.  She reports that some children became troublesome and experience nightmares (Muscari 32).  Many critics find that long term exposure to television violence causes viewers to accept physical assaults or abuse as a way of life.  Some argue that television violence leads one to become apathetic toward other real life victims of violence.  They said that he or she is less likely to come into the rescue of others.     
        In the article “Media Violence Creates More Violence”, the author relates that according to the research team at the University of Michigan who had studied television viewers over fifteen years, long term exposure to media violence as a child increases the likelihood of the becoming adult to possess aggressive behaviors.  The author admits that many studies have shown a direct correlation between the amount of violence an individual saw as a child and the aggressiveness of the adult.  He relates that this research team has shown that the chances of men who watch extensive amounts of televised violence in their childhood to commit crimes were three times higher than average men.  The author proposes that the possibility of having used force against their spouse is also greater for these men.  He adds that in comparison to other women, the likelihood of women being involved in fights quadruples for those who are common viewers of violence (Media Violence).
Meanwhile, the findings of media influence have parents questioning the role of the government. 
Some parents feel that the government should be more involved in regulating the amount of violent content on screen since the television industry’s self-regulated policy has been ineffective.  The Federal Trade Commission acknowledges the limited government involvement regarding media content because of First Amendment concerns (Federal Trade Commission 150).  However, Victor C. Strasburger and Edward Donnerstein note in their article “Children, Adolescents, and the Media: Issues and Solutions” that the government has augmented its role by passing the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  Strasburger and Donnerstein explain that the act required all new television sets made since 1998 to contain a V-chip which parents can use to block out unwanted programs.  They also point out that the act called for network programmers to show three hours of programs specifically for children each week (Strasburger and Donnerstein).
        Although parents rely on government and television industry measures for violent content regulation in children’s programs, the results of a study led by Tina L. Cheng, M.D. at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center discussed in the article “Children See Televised Violence Despite Parent Monitoring” has shown that on the average, parents are not very active in the role of limiting the violence seen by their children.  The study relates that over half of the parents interviewed restrict violence viewing, yet nearly three-fourths of these parents believed that their children are exposed to violence in television nevertheless.  Cheng concluded that the reasons might be ineffective monitoring or in boundaries outside the parents’ controls (Children See Televised Violence).  As Cheryl Wetzstein notes in the Washington Times, more than half of the children over the age of seven enjoy a television set in their rooms.  She relates that only 15 percent of parents use the V-chip to omit unwanted programs (Wetzstein).   
At the same time, the Federal Trade Commission believes that the television industry’s rating system is not very efficient.  The Federal Trade Commission suggests that the television industry increase public awareness on how the rating system works (Federal Trade Commission 153).  Strasburger and Donnerstein observe that parents feel that the current rating system is not explicit enough.  They relate that the parents feel it is hard for them to judge which program is safe for their youngsters by the ratings since the television industry does not rate the programs according to the level of violent content.  Strasburger and Donnerstein also point out that parents are overconfident about the rating “FV” meaning fantasy violence.  They observed that fantasy violence is one of the most extreme forms of violence presented in children’s programs (Strasburger and Donnerstein).
       On the contrary, many network producers argue that the amount of violence in television programs has decreased over the decades.  The research team of S. Robert Lichter, Linda S. Lichter, and Stanley Rothman admit in the article “Examining How Violence is Presented on Television” that there are less of the violent “action-adventure” police shows now than in the 1980s (Lichter et al. 85).  Leslie Moonves reveals that he has to cancel the development of some of the shows due to the public’s concern over television indecencies and violence.  He adds that in one action series he has had to find an alternative way of presenting a scene to reduce the violent content (Warner TV).
       Critics point out that decades have passed since the first research was done on the possible effects of media violence on children.  Numerous studies followed all pin-point to increased aggression, desensitization, imitation, and emotional anxiety as likely consequences of children watching extensive amount of televised violence.  Although parents, scholars, network producers, and government representatives criticized one another for not fulfilling their responsibilities to lessen the quantity and impact of violence on children, they are at least aware of the significance of media violence on children.  Many believe that only through the combined efforts of all the parties can the issue of television violence be resolved.

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