TV and Film Violence
Does the violence in films and on TV contribute to violence in society?
This question has been debated for decades. During that time some 2,500
books and articles have been written on the effects of TV and film violence
on human behavior.
In this article we’re going to summarize some the latest thinking on this
The results of one of the most extensive studies ever done on the subject
of violence and TV were released in 2003.
Researchers followed 329 subjects over 15 years. They found th hat those who
as children were exposed to violent TV shows were much more likely to later
be convicted of crime. Researchers said that, “Media violence can affect
any child from any family,” regardless of social class or parenting.
Girls who watched more than an average amount of violence tended to throw
things at their husbands. Boys who grew up watching violent TV shows were
more likely to be be violent with their wives.
Researchers concluded in Developmental Psychology that, “Every violent TV
show increases a little-bit the li ikelihood of a child growing up to behave
We’ll look at more of the research in a moment.
Canada was one of the first countries to extensively research this issue.
The results of their studies prompted some of their engineers to devise th
“V-Chip.” As you may know, the V-Chip allows parents to lock out TV
programming they consider objectionable to their children.
Although the concern in Canada was primarily violence (hence the V-chip),
in the United States there is also great concern about sexual
content—probably more than in most other industrialized societies. Hence,
the V-chip can be programmed to screen out both violence and sex.
The issue of sex, which has resulted in quite different research findings,
is discussed here and here, so in this article we’ll focus on the issue of
film and TV violence.
|Because ours is a puritanically-based society|
|and we have problems with depictions of sex, |
|we tend to eroticize violence. |
|For many people this creates an unfortunate, |
|often even unconscious, link between sex and |
| from “Sex Research, Ce ensorship, and the |
Studies done in both the United States and Canada have shown a positive
relationship between early exposure to TV violence and physical
aggressiveness in later life.
Even so, a clear cause-effect relationship is complicated by the fact that
children are typically exposed to many stimuli as they grow up, many of
which could play a role in later behavior.
For example, during a child’s life we can’t discount the role of such
things as violent video games, the social values of parents an
general living conditions.
If you eat something that you have not tried before and immediately get
sick, you will probably assume there’s a direct relationship between the
And if at some later date you forget about your first experience and eat
the same thing again, and immediately get sick again, you can be fairly
sure that whatever you ate makes you sick.
No rocket science here, just clear cause and effect.
Unfortunately, the cause and effect in many other areas of life are not as
A few decades ago you would see doctors in TV commercials endorsing a
particular brand of cigarettes. And many medical doctors smoked.
Today the evidence is clear: smoking is the number one cause of preventable
heath problems and premature death in the United States. Although for years
the cigarette manufacturers suppressed evidence that linked smoking to
health problems, eventually the cause-effect relationship became obvious to
anyone who wanted investigate the facts.
Unlike the cause and effect in the example of your eating something and
immediately getting sick, the effects of cigarette smoking aren’t
immediately apparent. It’s only years later that many smokers develop lung
cancer, heart problems, emphysema, sexual problems, etc.
In the same way—after looking at years of accumulated data—we’re now
recognizing a relationship between violence in the media an
problems. A summary of much of the research and its consequences can be
found in the book Visual Intelligence—Perception, Image, and Manipulation
in Visual Communication by Ann Marie Seward Barry.
|The results of a study released in March, |
|2002 that tracked 700 male and female youths |
|over a seventeen-year period showed a |
|definite relationship between TV viewing |
|habits and acts of aggression and crime in |
|the later life. |
|All other possible contributing environmental|
|elements, such as poverty, living in a |
|violent neighborhood, and neglect, were |
|factored out of this study. |
|According to one of the authors of the study,|
|the findings help cement the link between TV |
|and violence. The study is detailed in the |
|Science journal. |
Violence and TV Ratings
It’s well known that TV violence holds an attraction for most viewers and
this attraction translates into ratings and profits. Because of this most
media executives have been reluctant to admit that media violence is in any
way responsible for violence in our society.
If it weren’t for the ratings and profits involved, producers would
undoubtedly be much more willing to acknowledge the harm in TV and film
violence and do something about it.
Instead, we have such things as the American Medical Association finding
that shows that in homes with premium cable channels, or
children typically witness 32,000 murders and 40,000 attempted murders by
the time they reach the age of 18.
After many high school students died in a shooting rampage at Columbine
High School in Littleton, Colorado in April, 1999, many people were quick
to blame the media. Violent video games and a well-known film were seen as
contributing factors. Even so, millions of young people were exposed to
both of these influences throughout their lives without going on a
murderous rampage. But when you add extreme anger, easy access to guns,
and an indifferent and amoral attitude toward the lives of others, the
results can be very different.
In 1992, TV Guide commissioned a study of a typical 18-hour TV broadcast
day to determine levels of violence. The networks and the more popular
cable channels were monitored for “purposeful, overt, deliberate behavior
involving physical force or weapons against other individuals.”
There were 1,846 acts of violence that broke down this way.
In looking at the role of the broadcast outlets in the violence equation TV
mogul Ted Turner said: “They’re guilty of murder. We all are—me too.”
The Effects of TV and Film Violence
There are many problems in linking media violence to violence in society.
First, as we’ve suggested, only a small percent of those who watch violence
are responsible for violent acts.
Most of us are seemingly unaffected by it.
Even though we can’t establish a simple, direct, cause-and-effect
relationship between media violence and violence in our society, we can
draw some conclusions from the data.
Studies show that people who watch a lot of TV violence not only behave
more aggressively, but are more prone to hold attitudes that favor violence
and aggression as a way of solving conflicts. These viewers also tend to be
less trusting of people and more prone to see the world as a hostile place.
An extensive study in five Massachusetts communities found a relationship
between viewing media violence and the acceptance of sexual assault,
violence, and alcohol use.
Studies also show that media violence also has a desensitizing effect on
As a result, specific levels of violence become more acceptable over time.
It then takes more and more graphic violence to shock (and hold) an
History gives us many examples. To cite just one, the famous Roman Circuses
started out being a rather tame form of entertainment. But in an effort to
excite audiences, violence and rape were introduced in the arena settings.
Subsequently, as audiences got used to seeing these things, they then
demanded more and more, until the circuses eventually became violent,
bloody and grotesque, and hundreds, if not thousands, of hapless people
died in the process of providing “entertainment.”
Next, media violence is typically unrealistic, simplistic, glorified, and
even presented as humorous.
The “bang, bang, you’re dead” sanitized scenario that we so often see on TV
or in films communicates nothing of the reality of death or dying.
It is only when we see death firsthand or have a loved one killed that we
realize that death in film or on TV bears little resemblance to what we
experience in real life. Even the sound of gunshots on TV and in films is
so different from real gunshots that people often fail to recognize them in
Next, the consequences of killing, especially by the “good guys,” are
seldom shown. Violence and killing are commonly depicted as a ready and
even acceptable solution to problems. To put it simplistically, problems
are solved when the “bad guys” are all dead.
The unrealistic element of TV and film violence seems to come as a surprise
to some. A young gang member who was admitted to a New York ER after being
shot seemed amazed to find that getting shot was not only traumatic but
excruciatingly painful. He was blaming the doctors and nurses for his
pain, since on TV getting shot didn’t seem to be all that big of a deal.
Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek
One of the most successful television series in history, Star Trek, was
created, produced and (largely) written by Gene Roddenberry, whose primary
message was peaceful coexistence. The series started in 1966 and its
various incarnations continue today. The series has won scores of
humanitarian awards. Colleges have even offered English courses that focus
on the series. Anyone who has followed Star Trek knows that (under
Roddenberry) gratuitous violence was never seen as necessary.
In the end Gene Roddenberry was proud of the message he delivered week
after week to millions of people around the world.
Earlier, during testimony before Congress, Roddenberry had said:
[Television] is the most dangerous
force in the world today.
Shortly before his death he was asked what he would like to have as an
epitaph. Roddenberry said, just say this:
He loved humanity.
Based on what their work says about their true feelings, I wonder how many
TV and film producers can say the same today?
Summary and Conclusions
We have clear indications that the long-term effects of exposure to media
violence will lead to undesirable social consequences. These negative
social effects will undoubtedly be accelerated as violence becomes more
graphic in an effort to attract and hold film and TV audiences.
In looking over the evidence of the increasing levels of film and TV
violence it is now taking to satisfy viewers and the resulting effects on
society, David Puttnam, a noted film director, simply observed, “We are
TV producers clearly face a dilemma in dealing with the apparent conflict
between the negative effects of TV violence and positive program ratings.
So what’s the answer?
First, we have to take a look at how violence is used. Eliminating all
violence from the media is not in keeping with the reality of the human
condition. Violence has always been with us and probably always will be.
But the 32,000 murders and 40,000 attempted murders witnessed by normal TV
viewers over 18 years is clearly unrealistic and exploitative.
Violence is being used as a superficial way of grabbing and holding an
Many TV and film producers have elected to “take a higher road” and not
rely on gratuitous violence to capture and hold an audience. This route
typically results in more accolades for their work and more personal
respect from the creative community.
But the higher road is often the more difficult one. It takes talent to
engage an audience through the strength of your storytelling and production
As a footnote to this topic, there is evidence to show that commercials in
violent TV shows are not as effective in selling products as commercials in
other types of TV programming.