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With Enough Time The Truth About TV Violence Becomes Clear

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Your nine-year-old is complaining once again because he has the only parent in the world that won’t let him watch violent television programs. And you find yourself wondering once again if you’re just too picky.

Pick away parents, because a major study from the University of Michigan adds yet one more justification for you to keep a firm grip on the remote control, especially if you have children under the age of 14. Nor does it appear this advice is exclusively for children from poor and/or under-educated homes.

For those of you who don’t have time to peruse the full 21 page article published in the March 2003 Developmental Psychology, I’ll attempt to fill you in on some of the most significant findings.

This study of the effects of television violence on children is significant because it is a “longitudinal” study – meaning it doesn’t simply take a snapshot of one point in time. Instead, the data gathering began with interviewing 557 Illinois children in first through fourth grades way back in 1977.

The interviewers questioned the children’s television viewing habits, and categorized their program choices with a variety of descriptors that allowed them to track the amount of violent entertainment being watched. At that time, television violence was being promoted in shows like The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and Starsky and Hutch.

From their responses, the team placed the children into three groups labeled “high,” “medium,” and “low” to correspond with not only the amount of television they consumed, but also the intensity of the violence. As well they noted if the violent program was of a realistic nature – in other words, trying to convince the audience that this is real life – and if the young viewer was able to personally identify with the violent character because they were the same gender.

Fifteen years later the researchers – led both times by L. Rowell Huesmann – tracked down as many of the initial participants as they could find. From the original group, they obtained police and motor vehicle records for 450, allowing them to identify individuals with criminal records and aggressive driving behavior. From this 450, they managed to personally interview 329 of the boys and girls who were now in their early twenties.

From these activities, they hoped to find answers to the following questions:
Does watching violent television as a child increase the likelihood of becoming an aggressive or violent adult?
Are boys or girls more affected by violent television?
If the child believes the plot is real, or if the child can personally identify with the violent character, does that increase the chances of aggressive behavior?
Can the results of the study be biased simply because aggressive children like violent television? Or do other family or personal issues make children more likely to watch violent television and likewise become violent or aggressive adults?

The study recognizes that not all aggressive behaviors differed between the “high” and “low” television violence groups, but there was not one behavior on which the “high” violence viewers scored significantly lower than the “low” group.

So what does “aggressive” mean?

This study found that men who were high TV violence viewers in childhood were convicted of crimes at over three times the rate of other men. Other males in the study who were in the “high” violent viewing group were significantly more likely to have pushed, grabbed, or shoved their spouses, to have responded to an insult by shoving a person, and were more often guilty of moving traffic violations.

For women the results were similar. Those who frequently consumed violent TV as a child were four times more likely to have punched, beaten, or choked another adult. Others were significantly more prone to having thrown something at their spouses, to have responded to someone who made them mad by shoving, punching, beating, or choking, to have committed a criminal act, or were more aggressive drivers.

It’s this latter finding that is most significant. Of the few other longitudinal studies completed on the effects of TV violence, none has seen the direct correlation in females that this study reports. One of the earliest studies initiated in 1960 (in which Huesmann was also involved) looked at the effect of early childhood viewing of TV violence on a group of 856 New York children. Returning 10 years later, and again 22 years later, there was a direct relation between the viewing habits and aggressive and anti-social behavior – but only with boys.

The authors of this more recent study suggest one of the differences may be that the feminist movement in the late 1960’s has “disinhibited female aggression.” Perhaps another factor is the increase of aggressive female role models in movies and TV. The study also observed that female characters create a stronger behavioral bond with female viewers.

Same gender modeling appears to multiply the chances of aggressive adult behavior. This correlation is substantial in boys, but also manifests itself in girls as “indirect aggression.” This type of aggression is defined as anti-social actions like taking a person’s things, or trying to influence other people to dislike a particular person.

Again, even in this post-feminist movement era, the authors of the study speculate that indirect aggression is more common for women and (at least in the 1970’s) this was the type of female aggression most often seen on TV.

Another contributing factor is violence that purports to be reality, or show life “like it is.” Just like identifying with the violent character, children who assume TV mirrors reality are more likely to succumb to violent messages later in life.

Finally, don’t think the effects of TV violence on your children can be minimized because you have a smart child, or that this is a problem only for those of lower social and economic standing.

A surprising finding shows that viewing violence as a child results in more aggressive adult behavior regardless of many other factors. Naturally aggressive children are affected to a similar degree as non-aggressive children. The intelligence of the child and education of the parents make no difference. Neither does the occupation of the father or many other factors that are believed to be essential to a “good” home.

The study finds that all children – regardless of money, education, or other influences - are affected by violence on television, especially violence that purports to be real and portrays characters with which children can identify. And the report suggests this is a cumulative effect, similar to cigarette smoking. Each violent program watched increases the likelihood of a child behaving aggressively as an adult.

For today's parent, it’s important to put this report in a proper perspective. The children highlighted here were viewing 1970's violence. Especially in the case of female role models, the entertainment of the new millennium offers far more violent opportunities. If watching the Bionic Woman was affecting children then, how are the current ultra-violent choices going to influence the next generation of adults?

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About the Reviewer: Rod Gustafson

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