Television Born Killers

– (Whether Viewing Tv Violence Causes Real World Violence) Essay, Research Paper

Television Born Killers

This essay attempts to evaluate the view that television violence is a cause of real world violence. Several studies supporting and opposing this view are examined as well as Gerbner’s cultivation theory, which provides an alternative view. The critique offered by Cumberbatch has been applied where relevant and his views on some major methodological problems evident in research in this field are also highlighted.

The overall pattern of research findings indicates a positive association between television violence and aggressive behaviour. A Washington Post article (Oldenburg, 1992. pE5), states that “the preponderance of evidence from more than 3,000 research studies over two decades shows that the violence portrayed on television influences the attitudes and behaviour of children who watch it.” Signorielli (1991) finds that “Most of the scientific evidence … reveals a relationship between television and aggressive behaviour. While few would say that there is absolute proof that watching television caused aggressive behaviour, the overall cumulative weight of all the studies gives credence to the position that they are related” (p. 94-95).

The question is whether these generalised lab findings can be equated with real life. The experiments done in this field are all controlled. They do not correlate with real life problems. While these experiments support the argument, many do not live up to good empirical research. Cumberbatch (1989) examined the main methodological problems he felt were evident in many major studies of the relationship between television violence and aggression.

He focused on five areas that cause problems and question the validity of certain studies. Firstly, researchers have difficulty in handling non significant results. They tend to ignore these and focus only on significant findings which can lead to false conclusions about the genuine effects of television violence on society.

Secondly, the effects of mass media research are viewed as a unidimensional process. The researchers do not take into account that the aggressor is only part of the equation of violence as a social problem. For example, are victims more or less vulnerable because of television violence and are witnesses less likely to report anti-social behaviour or intervene because of violence on television?

Also the term ‘violence’ is used without any distinction about what type, in what context and who views it. All these factors result in very different meanings for different viewers. An example cited by Cumberbatch is the cartoon Tom and Jerry, which appears as one of the most violent programs on television according to Gerbner, and Halloran and Croll.

Thirdly, weaknesses lie in the psychological processes hypothesised to operate in any mediation of television violence. That is that the complex scripts involved in social behaviour have been ignored. There has not been a great deal of investigation into the dynamics of how the behaviour arises. Only the effects are studied, not the processes.

Fourthly, failure to consider the controversy relating to crime and violence in the media and why it is controversial is another weakness in the studies. However, Cumberbatch does mention two books which focus on the politics of research and campaigning in this field. They are Rowland, on the policy uses of communications research on television violence, and Barker, on the campaign to ban horror comic books.

Lastly, close analysis of the public concerns about mass media violence is lacking. Public opinion has shown inconsistencies in earlier studies. That is that although the majority feel that there is too much violence on television, the number of complaints to broadcasting authorities do not support this.

(Cumberbatch, 1989. pp. 47-50.)

Many studies have been done suggesting that violence on television does, in fact, influence the behaviour of children. However, some of the studies mentioned below have problems which cast doubt on their validity.

If one were to ask a child what their favorite television show is, very often the child will respond with a television show that contains a lot of violence. For example, “Hercules” and “Zena. Warrior Princess” seem to have become role models worthy of imitation by children. One simply has to walk through a playground during recess to see these children portraying their favorite violent characters. This aggressive behaviour is further demonstrated in classrooms and in the home. What is seen as playing “make believe” is really a demonstration of aggressive behaviour as a result of watching violence on television.

One of the first studies focusing on imitation by children was done by Albert Bandura (Bandura, Ross, and Ross 1963) which demonstrates how easily a child can be influenced by viewing aggression. He and his colleagues observed preschoolers in a contrived situation that included aggressive behaviour. His study consisted of four groups. One control group contained children who had not witnessed any events involving a Bobo doll, a toy clown. The other three groups had witnessed the Bobo doll being verbally and/or physically abused by different figures such as a live model, a filmed model, and a female dressed in a cat costume.

All the children had been irritated by the fact that they were only allowed to look at some toys but not touch. This made the children more prone to use aggressive behaviour. The children were then put in a playroom with the Bobo doll. Out of the four groups that were involved, three exemplified aggressive behaviour toward the Bobo doll. The exception was the control group that had not witnessed any violence. This experiment supports the theory that after observing violent behaviour, children are more likely to imitate the aggressive acts of the characters involved.

However, several methodological problems existed with this study. Firstly, the study was carried out in a laboratory setting. This is not a natural environment for children so they would most likely behave differently in that setting. Secondly, annoying the children before allowing them to play with the Bobo doll is of course going to make them behave more aggressively. That is common sense.

Thirdly, some children knew beforehand what was expected of them. One child was overheard saying to her Mother before the study, “look Mummy, there’s the doll we have to hit” (Cumberbatch, 1989. p35-37).

The Social Learning theory developed by claims that children copy violent scenes from television, believing that this type of behaviour is acceptable. But people are individuals and it is therefore difficult to generalise behaviour. Obviously not every child who watches “Hercules” will act aggressively after the show.

Another example of a study that shows long range effects of violence on television was done by William Belson. By controlling one hundred variables, that may have otherwise affected the experiment, Belson observed 1,565 teenage boys aged 13-16 years old. These adolescents had watched excessive amounts of television during their childhood. They committed crimes, such as rape and assault, “at a rate 49% higher than teenage boys who had watched below average quantities of television violence.” (Centerwall 1993. pp. 56-71.)

Cumberbatch (1989) also cites several problems with Belson’s study. The graphs used for the full sample show that the results have been oversimplified. These graphs plotted exposure to television against violent behaviour, but the relationship is clearly curvilinear. This showed that low viewers of violent television were slightly more aggressive than moderate viewers, and heavy viewers were significantly less aggressive than moderate to high viewers. Another problem was the validity of the responses in relation to the list of programs presented to the children. Some of the programs ceased broadcasting when the children were 3 years old. (pp. 43-44).

Many of the studies supporting this hypothesis ignore the intervention of a third variable. However, television is only one of the factors that can cause aggressive behaviour in children. Many other factors contribute to an individuals behaviour. For example a violent home that includes two parents fighting twenty-four hours a day can influence a child’s behaviour. If a child constantly witnesses aggression between adults that are his/her role models, then he/she may also exhibit aggressive behaviour. Children can witness violence in many places besides television. For example, a child can witness an argument between two people in public place and then re-enact the scene at home. Nowadays the incidence of extremely violent road rage is increasing, which many children witness. All of these instances could effect a child’s behaviour and cause them to act aggressively, and none of these would be witnessed on a television screen.

All of these questions seem to be ignored or left unanswered in earlier studies. The question of whether or not television violence causes aggression could not be answered conclusively for these reasons.

This now brings the debate to the opposing hypothesis – that television viewing does not lead to aggression.

A study done by Feshbach and Singer (1971) suggested that watching television actually decreases the amount of aggression in the viewer. In the six-week study, half of a group of juvenile boys were regularly exposed to television programs involving violence, while the other half of the boys were exposed to non-violent shows. The boys were examined over the six-week period by researchers monitoring their aggressive behaviours. What they found was that the boys who viewed the non-violent television would often act more aggressively than the boys who had seen the violent shows.

The study showed that the violence on television allows the viewer to relate with the characters involved in the violent act. In doing so, the viewer is able to release aggressive thoughts and feelings through that relation, causing them to be less aggressive than they would have been without watching the violent television. This theory that viewing violence on television leads to a decrease in aggression is called the Catharsis effect. (Gerbner, 1982. p. 40).

However, Cumberbatch (1989) also points out serious methodological problems with this study. In particular, the fact that the observers knew which programs the children watched, and that the raters inadvertently became aware of which group the boys belonged to. The result of this was that those boys were more likely to be rated as aggressive if they were known to be watching violent films which would distort the results. (p 39-40).

Another angle of this debate is the cultivation theory, developed by Gerbner. He emphasized the effects of television viewing on the attitudes rather than the behaviour of viewers. Watching television may tend to induce a general mindset about violence in the world, quite apart from any effects it might have in inducing violent behaviour. Cultivation theorists distinguish between ‘first order’ effects (general beliefs about the everyday world, such as about the prevalence of violence) and ’second order’ effects (specific attitudes, such as to law and order or to personal safety). (Chandler, 1995. p 1.)

The focus is on ‘heavy viewers’. People who watch a lot of television are likely to be more influenced by the ways in which the world is framed by television programs than are individuals who watch less, especially regarding topics of which the viewer has little first-hand experience. Light viewers may have more sources of information than heavy viewers (ib id). Judith van Evra argues that by virtue of inexperience, young viewers may depend on television for information more than other viewers do (van Evra 1990, p. 167), although Hawkins and Pingree argue that some children may not experience a cultivation effect at all where they do not understand motives or consequences (cited by van Evra, ibid.). It may be that lone viewers are more open to a cultivation effect than those who view television with others (van Evra 1990, p. 171).

Audience research by cultivation theorists involves asking large-scale public opinion poll organisations to include in their national surveys questions regarding such issues as the amount of violence in everyday life. Answers are interpreted as reflecting either the world of television or that of everyday life. The realistic answers are considered everyday responses and the exaggerated answers are considered TV answers. The answers are then related to the amount of television watched, other media habits and demographic data such as sex, age, income and education. The cultivation hypothesis involves predicting or expecting heavy television viewers to give more TV answers than light viewers. A tendency of heavy viewers to choose TV answers is interpreted as evidence of a cultivation effect. (Dominick 1990, p. 512).

In a survey of about 450 New Jersey schoolchildren, 73 percent of heavy viewers compared to 62 percent of light viewers gave the TV answer to a question asking them to estimate the number of people involved in violence in a typical week. The same survey showed that children who were heavy viewers were more fearful about walking alone in a city at night. They also overestimated the number of people who commit serious crimes (Dominick 1990, p. 512).

Misjudging the amount of violence in society is sometimes called the ‘mean world syndrome’. Heavy viewers tend to believe that the world is a nastier place than do light viewers. Pingree and Hawkins (1980), studied 1,280 primary schoolchildren (2nd-11th grade) in Perth, Australia using viewing diaries and questionnaires. They found that heavy viewing led to a ‘television-biased’ view of Australia as a ‘mean and violent’ place. The children with the bleakest picture of Australia were those who most watched American crime adventure programs, but did not judge the USA to the same extent.

Gerbner reported evidence for ‘resonance’ – a ‘double dose’ effect which may boost cultivation. This is held to occur when the viewer’s everyday life experiences are congruent with those depicted in the television world. For instance, since on television women are most likely to be victims of crime, female heavy viewers are led to feel especially fearful for themselves as women. The cultivation effect is also argued to be strongest when the viewer’s neighbourhood is similar to that shown on television. Crime on television is largely urban, so urban heavy viewers are subject to a double dose, and cultivation theorists argue that violent content ‘resonates’ more for them. The strongest effects of heavy viewing on attitudes to violence are likely to be amongst those in the high crime areas of cities. (Chandler, 1995. p. 4).

Cultivation theory offers a very plausible case, particularly in its emphasis on the importance of mediation and on the symbolic function of television in its cultural context. However, the theory is subject to a number of criticisms. Gerbner has been criticized for over-simplification. Denis McQuail argues that ‘it is almost impossible to deal convincingly with the complexity of posited relationships between symbolic structures, audience behaviour and audience views, given the many intervening and powerful social background factors’ (in Boyd-Barrett & Braham 1987, pp. 99-100). Our attitudes are likely to be influenced not only by TV, but by other media, by direct experience, by other people, and so on (Chandler, 1995. p. 4).

A correlation between television exposure and the beliefs of viewers do not, of course, prove that there is a causal relationship, although it may suggest the possibility of one. There could be a another common factor influencing the apparently associated ones. Hawkins and Pingree could not find conclusive proof of the direction of the relationship between television viewing and viewers’ ideas about social reality. Rather than heavy TV viewing leading people to be more fearful, it may be that more fearful people are drawn to watching more television than other people. There might be a reciprocal relationship: ‘television viewing causes a social reality to be constructed in a particular way, but this construction of social reality may also direct viewing behaviour’ (Hawkins & Pingree 1983, cited in McQuail & Windahl 1993, p. 101). In any case, surveys cannot establish causation.

Cultivation research does avoid the artificiality of laboratory experiments – it is based on normal viewing over a long period – but it is subject to the usual criticisms of both content analysis and surveys.

Hawkins and Pingree have argued that breakdowns by content type are more useful than measures of total viewing, because viewers are selective. More specifically content-based measures would show stronger correlation’s in cultivation analysis. Over-reliance on content analysis misses subtleties and assumes that meaning resides ‘in’ television programs. Also, different genres – and even different programs – contribute to the shaping of different realities, but cultivation analysis assumes too much homogeneity in television programs. (Condry 1989, p. 128).

There is relatively little evidence of cultivation effects outside the USA. Wober (1978, cited in Condry 1989, p. 130) found no British evidence of a link between heavy viewing and insecurity. But this may be because there is less violence on British television than in the USA, and Condry suggests that there may be a critical level of the televisual distortion of social reality before it is reflected in the attitudes of viewers. Or it may be that Britain has a more diverse media culture.

More recent theories stressing the active viewer downplay the power of television to influence viewers which is assumed by cultivation theory. Cultivation theory focuses on the amount of television viewing or ‘exposure’, and does not allow for differences in the ways in which viewers interpret television realities. Viewers do not necessarily passively accept as ‘real’ what they see on television. Television programs are open to varying interpretations. The degree of identification with characters by viewers may play a part. Motivations to view also vary greatly. Joseph Dominick comments that ‘individuals who watch TV simply to pass time or because it becomes a habit appear to be more affected than people whose viewing is planned and motivated’ (Dominick 1990, p. 514).

Essentially, television violence is one of the things that may lead to aggressive, antisocial or criminal behaviour; it does, however, usually work in conjunction with other factors. The enormous amount of research on this area does serve to shape healthy debate. But considering the many methodological problems cited by Cumberbatch and others, it is difficult to come to a concrete, valid conclusion on the issue. As aptly put by Dorr and Kovaric (1980), television violence may influence ’some of the people some of the time…’ (pp. 94-95).


Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963) ‘Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models’. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology . 66, pp. 3-11.

Boyd-Barrett, O. & Braham, P. (eds.) (1987). ‘Media, Knowledge & Power’. London: Croom Helm. pp. 99-100.

Centerwall, B. S. (1993). ‘Television and violent crime’. The Public Interest. 111. pp. 56-77.

Chandler, D. (1995). ‘Cultivation Theory’. dgc/cultiv.html. 18 September 1995. pp. 1-7.

Condry, J. (1989). ‘The Psychology of Television’. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 128-130.

Cumberbatch, G. (1989). ‘Violence and the mass media: the research evidence’. In Cumberbatch, G. & Howitt, D. (eds), pp. 31-59.

Dominick, J. R. (1990). ‘The Dynamics of Mass Communication’. New York: McGraw-Hill. pp. 512-514.

Dorr, A., & Kovaric, P. (1980). ‘Some of the people of the time – But which people?’ In E. L. Palmer & A. Dorr (eds.), Children and the Faces of Television: Teaching, Violence, Selling. New York: Academic. pp. 183-199.

Evra, J. van (1990). ‘Television and Child Development’. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. pp. 167-171.

Fesbach, S. & Singer, R. D. (1971). ‘Television and Aggression: An Experimental Field Study’ . San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Gerbner, G., Gross, L.P., Melody, W.H. (1982). ‘Violence and Aggression, Television and Behaviour: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties’. Vol. #1, pp. 36-44.

Hawkins, R. P. & Pingree, S. (1980). ‘Some Processes in the Cultivation Effect’. Communication Research. 7: 2, April 1980. pp. 193-226.

McQuail, D. & Windahl, S. (1993). ‘Communication Models for the Study of Mass Communication’. London: Longman. p. 101.

Oldenburg, D. (1992). ‘Primal screen-kids: TV violence and real-life behavior’. Washington Post . April 7. p. E5.

Signorielli, N. (1991). ‘A Sourcebook on Children and Television’. New York: Greenwood. pp. 94-95.


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