The Effects of Television Violence

child-tv.gif The effect of TV violence on children is the most studied of the issues in this section. Over a thousand academic studies have been completed, with remarkably consistent results: media violence makes our kids more aggressive, less patient, and more fearful of the world around them. Watching violence desensitizes children to actual acts of violence. This is true even of cartoon violence, especially the "senseless mayhem" variety found in cartoon classics such as Tom & Jerry. Live action shows which show more realistic and disturbing depictions of violence have a more dramatic effect, particularly on younger children. The differences in the study conclusions, with a few exceptions, are primarily in the depth and severity of the impact.

While the TV industry is in denial about these studies for obvious economic reasons, many parents resist the conclusions for other reasons. "I watched Tom & Jerry and I turned out all right" is the most common reasoning. But this is a very unscientific response, since we don't know how we would have "turned out" without that influence; and self-perceptions of aggressive behavior are notoriously inaccurate. The different amounts of exposure also vary tremendously. Today's adults did not have the constant exposure that children do today.

In logic, the statement "I watched Tom & Jerry and I turned out all right" or "I play violent video games and I haven't killed anybody" is known as
The Fallacy of the Hasty Generalization.

The industry is fond of pointing out that there is no "smoking gun" connecting violent TV and events such as Columbine. "There are other factors involved," they say, "we're not to blame." In fact, the studies do not claim a direct and singular connection between watching violent TV and extreme violent acts. What the studies reveal is a very strong connection between watching violent TV and increased aggressiveness. A child in a nurturing family who is otherwise emotionally balanced will certainly not begin a shootout at school after watching a few episodes of Tom & Jerry. But the studies suggest that we have all become more aggressive, view the world as a more dangerous place, are less connected to others in society, and are less patient in situations of stress than we otherwise might be. Read HOW THE BELL CURVE WORKS, below.So while violent TV may not be the sole cause, it is probably a contributing factor. In many cases, the various factors do not produce external violence toward others, but depression, self-abuse, and eating disorders.

In 1992, the American Psychological Association's Task Force on Television and Society published a report that confirms the link between TV violence and aggression. The report, entitled Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society, shows through corelation of many studies that the harmful effects of TV violence do exist. You can order a full copy of the report in the sidebar to the right.

Click here to read an overview of some major studies

Basically, what these studies indicate is that violent media images tend to make us all just a bit more aggressive and impatient. The effect is more dramatic on children, who mentally process media violence the same way they would actual violence -- and can be traumatized by exposure to excessively violent scenes. But we will all be more likely to perceive the world as being dangerous, will have a higher fear level, and will be more callous to the suffering of others. Obviously, this effect may be difficult to notice in a well-balanced person from a supportive and emotionally healthy family. But in a less controlled individual who may have other issues (lack of impulse control, drug or alcohol abuse, certain types of mental illness) the effects can be very serious. While the effect on a given individual may or may not be critical, the cumulative effect on our society is dramatic.

Helpful Links:

APA: Violence on Television - What do Children Learn? What Can Parents Do?



It's a Mean World, Stay Tuned (PDF)

How the Bell Curve Works

In any large population, almost any issue will fall roughly into a distribution known as the Bell Curve. In the case of aggressiveness and violent behavior, this means that only a few people in the population will be completely non-violent; most will fall somewhere in a middle category. Most people have some restraint, and will respond to situations of tension, conflict or anger with some control. At the other extreme, there are a few people that will respond with violence habitually and have little or no control. What the studies suggest is that media violence as an environmental factor in our culture nudges us all a few points to the left, toward the more aggressive ewnd of the curve. While this may not make a huge difference to a well-balanced person (point A) it may make a tremendous difference in an individual also affected by other issues such as lack of impulse control, drug or alcohol abuse, certain types of mental illness (point B). The aggregate effect (red zone on right) is substantial in our society.

Numerous independent studies and opinion polls confirm that our society is becoming ruder, less considerate, and more aggressive. Reports of road rage, air rage, even "soccer mom rage" and "hockey dad rage" are increasing.

Related links:
Aggravating Circumstances - study on civility in America
NTSA Administrator on Aggressive Driving - US House 7/17/97