The Nature and Context of Violence on American Television
BARBARA J. WILSON, DALE KUNKEL, DAN LINZ, W. JAMES POTTER, ED DONNERSTEIN, STACY L. SMITH, EVA BLUMENTHAL, MIKE BERRY & JOEL FEDERMAN
The goal of this article is to review briefly the largest and most comprehensive assessment of violence on American television in the history of social science research. Funded by the National Cable Television Association in 1994, the $3.5 million dollar National Television Violence Study (NTVS) is a three-year effort to examine the amount and way in which violence is presented across 23 broadcast and cable channels in the United States. To date, the first (1994/95) and second (1995/96) years of research for the NTVS have already been completed.
The study involves a consortium of scholars from four research institutions. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, conduct a content analysis of the nature and amount of violence in entertainment programming. The University of Texas at Austin provides a similar analysis of violence in one type of television programming -- reality shows such as tabloid news, talk shows, documentaries, and police programs. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, analyze the role of violence ratings and advisories used on television, including their effect on the viewing decisions of parents and children. The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, conducts studies on the effectiveness of anti-violence public service announcements and educational initiatives produced by the television industry.
Only a portion of the 1995/96 content analysis of entertainment programming conducted by the researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is reviewed in this article . A comprehensive version of the year 1 or year 2 UCSB report, as well as the reports from the other research sites, can be found in the NTVS scientific papers (National Television Violence Study, 1997, 1998). This article is divided into four major sections. In the first section, the foundations of the content analysis are reviewed. In the second section, the methods employed in the study are delineated. The third section features the results from the second year of the UCSB study. And finally, the last section contains several recommendations regarding the portrayal of violence for the television industry, policy makers, and parents.Foundations of research
In first approaching this research project, we conducted an exhaustive review of the collective body of scientific knowledge assessing the effects of televised violence on the audience. After reviewing all of the existing evidence, we reached the four following conclusions, which represent the key assumptions underlying our research:Foundation 1: Television violence contributes to antisocial effects on viewers
Our conclusion that violence on television contributes to negative effects on viewers is hardly novel. That same conclusion has already been reached by virtually every major group or agency that has investigated the topic. The American Psychological Association (1993), the American Medical Association (1996), the Centers for Disease Control (1991), the National Academy of Science (1993), the National Institute of Mental Health (1982), and the U.S. Surgeon General (1972), among others, have all agreed that viewing TV violence can have a number of adverse effects on children and even on adults.Foundation 2: There are three primary types of effects from viewing televised violence:
• Learning aggressive attitudes and behaviors
• Desensitization to violence
• Increased fear of being victimized by violence.
Research clearly shows that television violence contributes to aggressive behavior in children, and that this effect can last into adulthood. One study, for example, found that exposure to television violence at age 8 helped to predict criminal behavior in a sample of adults (Huesmann, 1986; Huesmann & Eron, 1986). Recent opinion polls suggest that most adults now recognize that televised violence can teach aggressive attitudes and behaviors to young viewers (Lacayo, 1995).
There are, however, other types of effects that have received less attention. Research demonstrates that repeated exposure to TV violence can cause viewers to become more callous, or desensitized, to the harmfulness of violent behavior (Linz, Donnerstein, & Penrod, 1988). In addition, long-term exposure to violent portrayals can increase people's fears about real-world violence (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1994). That is, people who watch a lot of televised violence show exaggerated fear of being attacked by a violent assailant. Although these three types of effects are very different in nature, they all deserve attention from parents, policy-makers, and the television industry.Foundation 3: Not all violence poses the same degree of risk of these harmful effects
It is well established by social science research that exposure to televised violence contributes to a range of anti-social effects on many viewers. But the effects from viewing violence are not uniform across all possible examples of violent depictions.
Obviously, there is a vast array of approaches to presenting violent material. In terms of its visual presentation, the violence may occur on screen and be shown graphically, or it may occur off screen but be clearly implied. Violent acts may be shown close up or at a distance. There are also differences in the scripting of the characters who commit violent acts and their reasons for doing so. Differences also exist in the depiction of the results of violence, including both the pain and suffering of victims as well as the outcomes for the perpetrator. Simply put, not all portrayals of violence are the same; they vary in important ways.
Studies show that the way in which violence is presented helps to determine whether a portrayal might be harmful to viewers. Some features of violence increase the risk of a harmful effect, whereas others decrease that risk. In order to evaluate violence on television, then, we must look at the contextual features of different portrayals. Based on an extensive review of all the studies in this area (see Wilson et al., 1997, for complete review), we identified nine specific contextual features that influence how audiences will respond to television violence (see Table I). Each one of these contextual elements is reviewed below. Table 1. Predicted Impact of Contextual Factors on Three Outcomes of Exposure to Media Violence
Outcomes of media Violence▲ = likely to increase the outcome
▼ = likely to decrease the outcome
Note: Predicted effects are based on review of social science research on contextual features of violence. Blank spaces indicate that there is inadequate research to make a prediction.
Source: "Violence in Television Programming Overall: University of California, Santa Barbara Study" by
Wilson et al. (1998), National Television Violence Study 2, p. 14. Copyright 1998 by Sage Publications.
Reprinted with permission of the authors.Nature of the perpetrator:
The first contextual feature is the nature of the perpetrator. Different types of characters use violence on television. Studies show that viewers of all ages are more likely to emulate and learn from characters who are perceived as attractive (see Bandura, 1986, 1994). Thus, a perpetrator of violence who is attractive or engaging is likely to be a more potent role model for viewers than is a neutral or unattractive character. Certain characteristics of perpetrators increase their attractiveness. Studies suggest that viewers assign more positive ratings to those characters who act prosocially (e.g., benevolently, heroic) than to those who are cruel (Hoffner & Cantor, 1985; Zillmann & Cantor, 1977). Moreover, research reveals that children as young as 4 years of age can distinguish between prototypically good and bad characters in a television program (Berndt & Berndt, 1975; Liss, Reinhardt, & Fredriksen, 1983).Nature of the victim:
The second contextual feature is the nature of the victim. Just as the perpetrator is an important contextual feature of violence, so is the target. The nature of the victim is most likely to influence audience fear rather than learning, however. Studies show that viewers feel concern for characters who are perceived as attractive and often share such characters' emotional experiences (Zillmann, 1980, 1991). This type of empathetic responding has been found with characters who are benevolent or heroic (Comisky & Bryant, 1982; Zillmann & Cantor, 1977), as well as characters who are perceived similar to the viewer (Feshbach & Roe, 1968; Tannenbaum & Gaer, 1965). Thus, a well-liked character can encourage audience involvement. When such a character is threatened or attacked in a violent scene, viewers are likely to experience increased anxiety and fear.Reason for violence:
The third contextual feature is the character's reason or motive for the violence. Viewers interpret an act of violence differently depending on a character's motives for engaging in such behavior. Certain motives like self-defense or protecting a loved one can make physical aggression seem justified. Studies show that justified violence increases the chance that viewers will learn aggression because such portrayals legitimize or sanction such behavior (Berkowitz & Geen, 1967; Berkowitz & Rawlings, 1963; Geen & Stonner, 1973). In contrast, violence that is undeserved or purely malicious decreases the risk of imitation or learning of aggression (Berkowitz & Powers, 1979; Geen, 1981).Weapon used:
The fourth context variable is the use of weapons. Characters can use their own physical strength to enact violence against a victim or they can use some type of weapon. Conventional weapons like guns and knives can increase viewer aggression because such devices often trigger the memory of past violent events and behaviors (Berkowitz, 1984, 1990). Indeed, a recent meta-analysis of 56 published experiments found that the presence of weapons, either pictorially or in the natural environment, significantly enhanced aggression among angered and nonangered subjects (Carlson, Marcus-Newhall, & Miller, 1990). This type of priming effect is less likely to occur with novel or unconventional weapons such as a chair or a lead pipe.Extensiveness/ graphicness:
The fifth contextual feature is the extensiveness/graphicness of the violence. Television programs and especially movies vary widely in the extent and graphicness of the violence they contain. A violent incident between a perpetrator and a victim can last only a few seconds and be shot from a distance or it can persist for several minutes and involve many close-up views of the action. Research indicates that extensive or repeated violence can increase desensitization, learning, and fear in viewers (Huesmann, 1986; Linz, Donnerstein, & Penrod, 1988; Ogles & Hoffner, 1987).Realism:
The realism of the violence is the sixth contextual feature. Portrayals of violence that seem realistic are more likely to encourage aggression in viewers than are unrealistic scenes (Atkin, 1983; Geen, 1975; Thomas & Tell, 1974). Realistic depictions of brutality also can increase viewers' fear (Geen, 1975; Geen & Rakosky, 1975). However, this does not mean that cartoon or fantasy violence on television is harmless. Research shows that children under the age of 7 have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy on television (Morison & Gardner, 1978). In other words, what seems unrealistic to a mature viewer may appear to be quite real to a younger child. This helps to explain why younger children will readily imitate violent cartoon characters.Rewards and punishments:
The next contextual feature is rewards and punishments. Violence that is glamorized or rewarded poses a risk for viewers, but so does violence that simply goes unpunished. Studies show that rewarded violence or violence that is not overtly punished encourages the learning of aggressive attitudes and behaviors (Bandura, 1965; Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961, 1963; Paik & Comstock, 1994). In contrast, portrayals of punished violence can decrease the chances that viewers will learn aggression. Rewards and punishments can influence audience fear as well. Viewers who watch violence go unpunished are more anxious and more pessimistic about the consequences of real-life violence (Bryant, Carveth, & Brown, 1981).Consequences of violence:
Another important contextual feature involves the consequences of violence. Numerous studies indicate that showing the serious harm and pain that occurs from violence can discourage viewers from imitating or learning aggression (Baron, 1971 a, 1971 b; Goransen, 1969; Sanders & Baron, 1975; Wotring & Greenberg, 1973). The assumption here is that cries of pain evoke sympathy and remind the viewer of social norms against aggression.Humor:
The last contextual feature is humor. Viewers interpret violence that is cast in a humorous light as less devastating and less harmful (Gunter, 1985). Humor also may seem like a reward for violence. For these reasons, the presence of humor in a violent scene can increase the chances that viewers will imitate or learn aggression from such a portrayal. Indeed, studies have revealed that exposure to violence in a humorous setting increases aggressive behavior (Baron, 1978; Berkowitz, 1970). Humor can also desensitize viewers to the seriousness of violence (Jablonski & Zillmann, 1995).Foundation 4: Not all viewers are affected by violence in the same way
In their viewing of television violence, both children and adults are influenced by the contextual features described above. To illustrate, rewarded violence increases the likelihood of learning aggression regardless of the age of the viewer, whereas punished violence decreases that risk. Nevertheless, some unique concerns arise when we think about young children, particularly those under the age of 7.
Because young children's cognitive abilities are still developing, they often interpret television messages differently from mature viewers (see Wilson et al., 1997, for complete review). For instance, the ability to understand the difference between reality and fantasy emerges gradually over the course of a child's development (Morison & Gardner, 1978; Taylor & Howell, 1973). As a result, younger children are more likely to perceive fantasy and cartoon violence as realistic, making this type of content more problematic for young ages.
In addition, younger children are less capable of linking scenes together to make sense of events that occur at different points in a program (see Collins, 1983). Therefore, if punishment for violence is delayed until the end of the program, this deterrent may go unnoticed by a young child. Punishment or any other contextual feature must occur in the same scene in order for a younger viewer to connect it to the original violent behavior.
These differences in cognitive ability mean that not all viewers will be affected in the same way by a violent portrayal. Children below the age of 7 may be especially vulnerable because they cannot easily discount fantasy violence as unreal and have trouble connecting events in the plot unless they are in the same scene. It is important to consider the age of the viewer when thinking about the harmful effects of television violence.
To summarize, several important ideas provide the foundations for this research. Based on an extensive body of evidence, we know that exposure to television can contribute to: (1) learning aggressive thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors, (2) becoming desensitized to the seriousness of violence, and (3) feeling frightened of becoming a victim of real-life violence. Research was also reviewed documenting that not all violence on television poses the same risk. Some contextual features can increase the risk of harmful effects whereas other features can actually decrease the likelihood of such outcomes. Finally, the risks associated with television violence depend not only on the nature of the portrayal but also on the nature of the audience. Younger children are more vulnerable to certain types of depictions because of their limited abilities to make sense of television.Methods
Given the four foundations reviewed above, the goal of the UCSB study was to measure violence across the entire landscape of U.S. television. In the second year of the study, we examined the nature and the amount of violent depictions during the 1995/96 viewing season. Our emphasis is on the contextual features of violence that either increase or decrease the risk of learning aggression, fear, or desensitization. In the section that follows, the methods employed in the study are delineated. More precisely, the sample, definition of violence, the units of analysis, contextual variables, and training and reliability of coders are explicated in the section below.Sample
A total of 3,235 programs were randomly sampled from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. across 23 channels from October 1995 to June of 1996 to build a composite week of television programming for each source. The 23 channels were comprised of the broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox), broadcast independents (KCAL, KCOP, KTTV) , public broadcasting network (PBS), basic cable (A&E, AMC, Cartoon Network, Disney, Family Channel, Lifetime, Nickelodeon, TNT, USA, VH-l, and MTV), and premium cable (Cinemax, HBO, Showtime). All programs in the sample were aired and taped in the Los Angeles market. A total of 15% (N = 478) of the programs were religious programs, game shows, infomercials, instructional shows, or breaking news. Per the NTVS contract with the National Cable Television Association, these five types of programs were sampled and included in the representative week of television programming but were not coded or assessed for violence. Thus, a total of 2,757 programs were assessed for violence in this study.Definition of violence
The fundamental definition of violence places emphasis on a number of elements including intention to harm, the physical nature of harm, and the involvement of animate beings. More precisely, violence is defined as "any overt depiction of a credible threat of physical force or the actual use of such force intended to physically harm an animate being or group of beings. Violence also includes certain depictions of physically harmful consequences against an animate being or group that occurs as a result of unseen violent means". Based upon this definition, there are three primary types of violence: credible threats, behavioral acts, and harmful consequences.Units of analysis & contextual features
Violence is measured at three distinct levels or units of analysis. First, we identify each violent incident, or interaction between a perpetrator and a victim. Second, we analyzed each violent scene, or instance of ongoing, uninterrupted violence. A violent scene, such as a bar fight, often contains several violent incidents between different types of characters. Finally, we analyzed the violence at the end of the entire violent program. Examining violence at the program level allows us to differentiate the way aggression is portrayed in a historical film such as Schindler's List from an action adventure movie such as Terminator 2, which both contain roughly equal amounts of violence but the message or use of violence in these two cinematic pieces is drastically different. By measuring the context of violence at all three of these levels we provide rich and thorough information about the meaning or context of violence in television programming.
Contextual features were assessed at the level most sensitive to capturing the nature or way in which violence is portrayed on television. At the incident level, we assessed variables such as the nature of the perpetrator and target, the reason for the violence, the means or weapons used, and the immediate consequences of violence (i.e., harm/pain). At the scene level, the presence of humor, rewards/punishments, and the extensiveness/graphicness of violence was measured. And at the end of each violent program, the presence of an anti-violence theme, the duration of harm/pain portrayed, the punishments delivered to all good/bad characters, and the realism of the violence was measured.Coding and reliability
Many precautions were taken to ensure that a consistent standard of judgment was used to evaluate the television programming in the sample. An elaborate codebook was developed to provide detailed and precise definitions of terms and rules of judgment for coders to follow. We trained more than 50 undergraduate research assistants to become thoroughly adept at applying the rules laid out in the codebook. The research assistants received 60 hours of classroom training and 40 hours of laboratory practice in making coding judgments prior to beginning coding programs for this study.
Coders worked individually in quiet labs as they assessed programs for violence. Every two weeks, each coder was tested to make sure the same rules and definitions were used across individuals. Agreement or reliability among the coders was consistently high throughout the coding process, underscoring the scientific rigor of the study.Results
As noted above, the goal of the second year study was to assess the amount and context of violence on U.S. television during the 1995/96 season. In addition to studying television overall, we also looked at variability in the portrayal of violence across different types of channels (broadcast networks, independent broadcast, public broadcast, basic cable, and premium cable), and in different genres of programming (children's, comedy, drama, movies, music videos, reality-based). We also assessed whether the profile of violence on television has changed from the first year of the study (1994/95) to the second year (1995/96). In the section that follows, the major findings from the study are reviewed.
There has been no meaningful change in violence on television since 1994/95.
Neither the overall prevalence of violence nor the way in which violence is presented has changed appreciably during the last year. In the first year of this study (1994/95), 58% of programs contained violence. In the second year (1995/96), 61% of programs contain violence (see Figure 1). This small difference does not represent a significant shift, according to the standards of change used in this study. Thus, the prevalence of violence on television has not increased or decreased meaningfully from Year 1 to Year 2. It is important to note that these statistics do not reveal the nature or extent of violence in television programs; rather, they indicate only that some violence occurs within these shows.
A separate analysis of the different channel types shows remarkable stability as well, with one exception. The percentage of programs with violence on the broadcast networks has increased slightly from 47% to 54%. This small increase holds up even when we examine only prime-time programming on the broadcast networks. Though showing no significant change from Year 1 (85%) to Year 2 (86%), premium cable channels continue to have the highest proportion of programs with violence.
We also found that the way in which violence is presented has not changed from 1994/95 to 1995/96. For example, violence still typically involves extensive violent action, often includes a gun, is trivialized by humor, but seldom is graphic or gory (see Figure 1). These patterns characterize the entire television landscape, and for the most part, also hold true across different types of channels and genres of programming. This extraordinary degree of consistency shows that there are very stable formulas or patterns for depicting violence on television.Violence on television is still frequently glamorized
Good characters frequently are the perpetrators of aggression on TV. A full 40% of the violent incidents are initiated by characters who have good qualities that make them attractive role models to viewers. Not only are attractive characters often violent, but physical aggression is frequently condoned. More than one third (37%) of violent programs feature "bad" characters who are never or rarely punished anywhere in the plot; another 28% contain bad characters who are punished only at the end of the story. Good characters hardly ever experience repercussions (i.e., regret, criticism) for violence on television. Finally, 75% of violent scenes contain no form of punishment for the aggression. That is, perpetrators rarely show remorse at the time they engage in aggression, and are seldom condemned by others or immediately apprehended. This is of particular concern for younger children, who often lack the capability to link punishments shown later in a program to earlier violent acts.
This glamorization of violence poses risks for the audience. Studies show that children will imitate violent characters who are heroic or attractive (Liss et al., 1983). In addition, viewers are more likely to learn aggressive attitudes and behaviors from violence that is rewarded or implicitly condoned than from violence that is clearly punished (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963).Figure 1. Overall Industry Averages: Year 1 vs. Year 2 Comparisons% of Programs with Violence
% with an Anti-Violence Theme
% that show Long-Term Negative Consequences
% with Violence in Realistic Settings
% with Unpunished Violence
% with Blood and Gore
% with Humor
% that show No Pain
% that depict Harm Unrealistically
% with use of a Gun
% with Repeated Behavioral Violence
Perpetrators Who are Attractive
Source: Adapted from 'Violence in Television Programming Overall: University of California. Santa Barbara Study" by Wilson et al. (1998), National Television Violence Study 2. p. 158. Copyright 1998 by Sage Publications. Reprinted with permission of the authors.Most violence on television remains sanitized.
Violence is typically shown with little or no harm to the victim. In fact, more than half of the violent incidents (55%) on television depict no physical injury or pain to the victim. Looking across the entire program, only 13% of violent shows portray the long-term negative consequences of violence such as physical and psychological suffering.
Research indicates that showing the realistic consequences of violence, such as pain cues and suffering, can decrease the chances that viewers will learn aggression from television violence (Baron 1971a, 1971 b; Wotring & Greenberg, 1973). Therefore, sterilized portrayals of violence pose risk for the audience.
There are still very few programs that feature an anti-violence theme.
Rather than showing violence merely to excite or entertain, a program can feature violence in a way that discourages it. The overall message in such a program is actually an anti-violence one. This study identified four ways in which a program can emphasize an anti-violence theme: (l) alternatives to physical aggression are presented and discussed; (2) pain and suffering from violence are depicted throughout the plot, especially with regard to the victims' families, friends, and community; (3) the main characters repeatedly show reluctance or remorse for committing acts of violence; and (4) on balance, violence is punished far more than it is rewarded.
Only 4% of the violent programs on television convey an overall anti-violence theme. In other words, violence is seldom used in an educational way to emphasize the personal and social costs of such antisocial behavior.
Portrayals that have a high risk of teaching aggression to children under 7 are concentrated in the very programs and channels targeted to young viewers.
Certain depictions can be labeled "high risk" because several plot elements that encourage aggression are all featured in one scene. These high-risk portrayals involve: (1) a perpetrator who is attractive; (2) violence that seems justified; (3) violence that goes unpunished (no remorse, criticism, or penalty); (4) minimal consequences to the victims; and (5) violence that seems realistic to the viewer. It should be noted that what is perceived as "realistic", and therefore what qualifies as "high risk", differs according to the age of the viewer.
In a typical week of television, there are over 800 violent portrayals that qualify as high risk for children under 7. Where are these hazardous portrayals located on television? Of all genres, children's programs contain the greatest number of these high-risk violent portrayals (N = 409). In other words, most of the portrayals that pose particular concern for teaching aggressive attitudes and behaviors to young children are contained in the very programs that are targeted to young viewers. Furthermore, nearly all of the children's programs that contain these kinds of portrayals are cartoons.
Of all channel types, child-oriented basic cable (Cartoon Network, Disney, and Nickelodeon) contains the most high-risk portrayals for young viewers. The individual channels and time periods that primarily feature cartoons are most responsible for this finding. However, it should be noted that not all cartoons contain high-risk portrayals. Adults often assume that violent cartoons are not a problem for children because the content is so unrealistic. However, this assumption is directly contradicted by research on the effects of viewing violence by younger children. Numerous studies show that animated programs have the potential of increasing aggressive behavior in young children (Hapkiewicz, 1979). Thus, violent cartoons should not be regarded as harmless, particularly for children under 7 years of age who have difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy.
For older children and teens, high-risk portrayals that encourage aggression are found mostly in movies and dramas.
A similar formula poses a high risk of teaching and reinforcing aggression among older viewers: an attractive perpetrator who engages in justified violence that goes unpunished, that shows minimal consequences, and that seems realistic. Unlike younger children, older children and adolescents are capable of discounting portrayals of violence that are highly fantastic, such as cartoons. Thus, older viewers are susceptible primarily to more realistic portrayals of violence.
In a typical week, there are nearly 400 portrayals of violence that qualify as high risk for older children and adolescents. Movies and drama programs are the two genres most likely to contain high-risk portrayals for older children and teens.Recommendations
The recommendations offered here follow from the findings of the 1995/96 content analysis of violence on American television. These recommendations were designed to address three specific audiences in the United States: the television industry, public policy-makers, and parents. However, each of these recommendations can also be applied to International audiences concerned about the harm that exposure to certain types of violent television portrayals may have on viewers.For the television industry
• Produce more programs that avoid violence; if a program does contain violence, keep the number of violent incidents low.
We do not advocate that all violence be eliminated from television, nor do we profess to know exactly how much is "too much." But we do know that the overall amount of violence on American television has not changed appreciably from 1994/95 to 1995/ 96. It is still the case that more than half (61 %) the programs in a composite week of TV contain some violence. Furthermore, most programs with violence feature numerous violent incidents rather than a single scene. Our recommendation is to begin efforts to cut back.
• Be creative in showing:
o violent acts being punished,
o more negative consequences, both short-term and long-term, for violence,
o more alternatives to the use of violence in solving problems,
o less justification for violent actions.
This recommendation recognizes that not all violence is the same, that some portrayals pose more risk to the audience than others. Conveying the message that violence gets punished, that it is not always justified, that there are alternatives to aggression, and that violence causes serious consequences (i.e., pain and suffering) for the victims are all ways to reduce the risk of a negative influence on viewers. We encourage producers to move beyond the "old formula" where violence is presented as a defensible course of action to solve problems, where characters continually get away with such behavior, and where the suffering of victims is seldom shown. Fewer glamorized and sanitized portrayals would significantly reduce the risk for viewers, even if the overall number of violent portrayals were held constant.
• When violence is presented, consider greater emphasis on a strong anti-violence theme.
The use of an anti-violence theme on television continues to be rare. In both Year 1 and Year 2, only 4% of all programs in a typical week employed violence to emphasize an anti-violence message. This is an area where a substantial effort or initiative could make its impact felt clearly and immediately. We encourage the television industry to create more programs that: (1) present alternatives to violent actions throughout the program; (2) show main characters repeatedly discussing the negative consequences of violence; (3) emphasize the physical pain and emotional suffering that results from violence; and (4) show that punishments for violence clearly and consistently outweigh rewards.For policy makers
• Recognize that context is an essential aspect of television violence and rely on scientific evidence to identify the context features that pose the most risk.
Treating all acts of violence as if they were the same disregards a rich body of scientific knowledge about media effects. An appreciation of key contextual factors is crucial for understanding the impact of televised violence on the audience. Our high-risk composite analysis demonstrates that portrayals that are not necessarily explicit but that present violence as attractive, rewarding, and painless pose a significant threat of increasing children's aggressive behavior. At the base of any policy initiative in this realm is the need to define violence and, assuming that not all violence is to be treated equally, to differentiate types of violent depictions that pose the greatest cause for concern.
• Continue to monitor the nature and extent of violence on television.
Evidence of the harmful effects associated with televised violence is well established. The stakes are high in terms of social implications in this realm not so much because of the effects of viewing any one violent program but more because of the fact that most everyone watches TV, most people watch a lot, and most of television contains violence.For parents
Perhaps the most important recommendations regarding the harmful effects of viewing violence can be offered to parents. It may take years to alter significantly the profile of violence on television. In contrast, parents can begin immediately to change the way they think about violence on television and the way they make decisions about their children's viewing.
• Be aware of the three risks associated with viewing television violence.
Evidence of the potential harmful effects associated with viewing violence on television is well established. The most troubling of these involves children's learning of aggressive attitudes and behaviors. Arguably more pervasive and often underemphasized are the other two risks associated with television violence: fear and desensitization. An appreciation of these three effects will help parents to recognize the role of television in children's socialization.
• Consider the context of violent depictions in making viewing decisions for children.
As demonstrated throughout this article, not all violent portrayals are the same in terms of their impact on the audience. Some depictions pose greater risks for children than others, and some may even be prosocial. When considering a particular program, think about whether violence is rewarded, whether heroes or good characters engage in violence, whether violence appears to be morally condoned, whether the serious negative consequences of violence are avoided, and whether humor is used. These are the types of portrayals that are most harmful.
• Consider a child's developmental level when making viewing decisions.
Throughout this article, we have underscored the importance of the child's developmental level or cognitive ability in making sense of television. Very young children are less able to distinguish fantasy from reality on television. Thus, for preschoolers and younger elementary school children, cartoon violence and fantasy violence cannot be dismissed or exonerated because it is unrealistic. Indeed, younger children identify strongly with superheroes and fantastic cartoon characters, and often learn from and imitate such portrayals. Furthermore, younger children have difficulty connecting non-adjacent scenes together and drawing causal inferences about the plot. Therefore, punishments, pain cues, or serious consequences of violence that are presented later in a plot, well after the violent act, may not be comprehended fully by a young child. For younger viewers, then, it is particularly important that contextual features like punishment and pain be shown within the violent scene, rather than solely at the end of the program.
• Recognize that certain types of violent cartoons pose particularly high risk for young children's learning of aggression.
Our findings suggest that certain animated programs can be particularly problematic for younger viewers. We have identified a type of portrayal that we label "high risk" because it contains an array of elements that encourage the learning of aggressive attitudes and behaviors. In particular, a high-risk portrayal for learning is one that features an attractive character who engages in violence that is condoned and that does not result in any serious consequences to the victim. Parents of younger children should closely monitor cartoon programming with an eye for this type of portrayal. Parents of older children and adolescents, on the other hand, should review movies and drama programs because these genres are most likely to contain realistic portrayals of the type defined above that pose high risk for more mature viewers.
1. This article is a shortened version of the UCSB report appearing in the executive summary of the National Television Violence Study (Vol. 2), published by the Center for Communication and Social Policy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This synopsis was published with permission of the Center.References
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