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Public and academic concern about media’s contribution to real world violence are about as old as the mass media and the social sciences themselves (Wartella and Reeves 1985). Despite frequent framing of the matter as ‘controversial,’ extensive research—an estimated 3,000 (Donnerstein et al. 1994) to 3,500 (Wartella et al. 1998) studies in the United States alone—have examined the impact of media violence, and a number of recent major reviews (Huston et al. 1992, Murray 1994, see also Potter 1999, Paik and Comstock 1994, Comstock and Paik 1991), have concluded that media violence plays a measurable role in real-world violence. A variety of US agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control of the US Public Health Service (1991), and medical and public interest organizations, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Conference of Parent-Teacher Associations, have identiﬁed media violence as a public health problem. The review below focuses most heavily on US research and US media, most notably American television, primarily because a large majority of the published social science research on media and violence is US research on American audiovisual media. Potter (1999, pp. 44–5), for example, reports 42 published content analyses of US television since 1954, and just 19 from the rest of the world. Moreover, American media are among the world’s most violent—and most exported—and real-world violence is a recurring public policy issue. Further, much of this literature concerns impacts of media violence on children and adolescents, for the inter-related reasons that young audiences are considered the most impressionable and most vulnerable. Adults are generally viewed to be more resistant to the deleterious inﬂuences of violence, and, as some would argue (cf. Huesmann 1997), violent behaviors in adulthood may be traced to media use during childhood.
1. Theories Of Eﬀect
Three models have been proposed to describe the process by which such learning and imitation of media violence occurs: social learning theory, priming eﬀects theory, and a social developmental model of learning (Wartella et al. 1998).
First proposed by Albert Bandura in the 1960s, social learning theory is the best known theoretical account of violence eﬀects. Bandura asserts that through observing television models, viewers come to learn behaviors which are appropriate, that is, which behaviors will be rewarded and which punished. In this way, viewers seek to attain rewards and therefore imitate these media models. When both children and adults are shown an aggressive model who is either rewarded or punished for their aggressive behavior, models who are positively reinforced inﬂuence imitation among the viewers. Even research in the ﬁeld has demonstrated that aggression is learned at a young age and becomes more impervious to change as the child grows older. In a longitudinal study to examine the long-term eﬀects of television violence on aggression and criminal behavior, Huesmann et al. (1984) studied a group of youth across 22 years, at ages 8, 18, and 30. For boys (and to a lesser, though still signiﬁcant extent for girls), early television violence viewing correlated with self-reported aggression at age 30 and added signiﬁcantly to the prediction of serious criminal arrests accumulated by age 30. These researchers ﬁnd a longitudinal relationship between habitual childhood exposure to television violence and adult crime and suggest that approximately 10 percent of the variability in later criminal behavior can be attributed to television violence.
Priming eﬀects theory serves to augment the more traditional social learning theory account of television violence eﬀects. In the work of Leonard Berkowitz and his colleagues, this theoretical account asserts that many media eﬀects are immediate, transitory, and short-term (Berkowitz 1984). Berkowitz suggests that when people watch television violence, it activates or ‘primes’ other semantically related thoughts which may inﬂuence how the person responds to the violence on television. Viewers who identify with the actors on television may imagine themselves like that character carrying out the aggressive actions of the character on television, and research evidence suggests that exposure to media aggression does indeed ‘prime’ other aggressive thoughts, evaluations, and even behaviors such that violence viewers report a greater willingness to use violence in interpersonal situations.
Only Rowell Huesmann’s (1986; see also Huesmann1997) theoretical formulation of the social developmental model of violence eﬀects oﬀers a true reciprocal theoretical account of how viewers’ interest in media violence, attention to such violence, and individual viewer characteristics may interact in a theory of media violence eﬀects. Using ideas from social cognition theory he develops an elaborate cognitive mapping or script model. He argues that social behavior is controlled by ‘programs’ for behavior which are established during childhood. These ‘programs’ or ‘scripts’ are stored in memory and are used as guides to social behavior and problem solving. Huesmann and Miller (1994, p. 161) submit that ‘a script suggests what events are to happen in the environment, how the person should behave in response to these events, and what the likely outcome to those behaviors would be.’ Violence from television is ‘encoded’ in the cognitive map of viewers, and sub-sequent viewing of television violence helps to maintain these aggressive thoughts, ideas, and behaviors. Over time such continuing attention to television violence can thus inﬂuence people’s attitudes toward violence and their maintenance and elaboration of aggressive scripts.
This theory suggests that while viewing violence may not cause aggressive behavior, it certainly has an impact on the formation of cognitive scripts for mapping how to behave in response to a violent event and what the outcome is most likely to be. Television portrayals, then, are among the media and personal sources that provide the text for the script which is maintained and expanded upon by continued exposure to scripts of violence.
Huesmann has demonstrated that there are key factors which are particularly important in maintaining the television viewing–aggression relationship for children: the child’s intellectual achievement level, social popularity, identiﬁcation with television characters, belief in the realism of the TV violence, and the amount of fantasizing about aggression. According to Huesmann, a heavy diet of television violence sets into motion a sequence of processes, based on these personal and interpersonal factors, that results in many viewers becoming not only more aggressive but also developing increased interest in seeing more television violence.
It must be emphasized that all serious scholars of the impacts of media on violence are careful to note that media are not the only, nor perhaps among the most important, contributors to real-world violence. Violent behavior is a complex, multivariable problem, formed of many inﬂuences. Racism, poverty, drug abuse, child abuse, alcoholism, illiteracy, gangs, guns, mental illness, a decline in family cohesion, a lack of deterrents, the failure of positive role models, among others, all interact to aﬀect antisocial behavior. As Huesmann has argued, aggression is a syndrome, an enduring pattern of behavior that can persist through childhood into adulthood. The impact of media violence appears strongest as a predictor of real-world antisocial behavior as one facet of a ‘culture of violence.’
2. Types Of Eﬀects
As Potter (1999, Chap. 9) notes, media-violence eﬀects fall into ﬁve categories—physiological, emotional, cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral—and both immediate or short-and long-term eﬀects have been studied. While some attention has focused on direct, short-term imitative or modeling eﬀects (cf. Phillips 1980, 1982, but see Hessler and Stipp 1985), more attention and public policy concern has focused on the long-term impact of repeated exposure to violence. More generally, three overarching categories of eﬀect receive most attention: learning of aggression, desensitization to real-world violence, and the cultivation of fear in repeated exposure to media violence (Wilson et al. 1997).
Clearly, not all violent depictions should be treated equally, nor all viewers. The (US) National Television Violence Study (Wilson et al. 1997) identiﬁed several contextual factors within a representation that may inﬂuence audience reactions to media violence which include the following.
2.1 The Nature Of The Perpetrator
Where individuals perceive perpetrators of violence as attractive, as heroes, and/or as similar to themselves, the likelihood of stimulating attention (Bandura 1986) and aggression (Paik and Comstock 1994) increases.
2.2 The Nature Of The Victim
While the commission of violence on an attractive character with which an audience member identiﬁes might serve to inhibit aggressive behavior, its principal impact would seem to be in arousing fear among the audience members.
2.3 The Reason For The Violence
Wilson et al. (1997, p. 24) note that violence viewed as justiﬁed likely heightens aggression, while violence viewed as unjustiﬁed arouses fear. The impact of justiﬁcation has been documented with ﬁctional as well as realistic programming (Meyer 1972), and with adult as well as child viewers (Liss et al. 1983). In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 217 media studies documents that a justiﬁed portrayal of violence can enhance aggressive behavior among viewers (Paik and Comstock 1994).
2.4 The Presence Of Weapons
A number of studies, including a meta-analysis of 56 published experiments (Carlson et al. 1990) have demonstrated that the presence of weapons, either pictorally or in the natural environment, can enhance aggression among subjects. While, for ethical reasons, the large majority of such research involves adult subjects, in at least one study (Frodi 1975) the presence of weapons enhanced aggression among adolescents. ‘Conventional’ weapons such as guns and knives are more likely than unconventional means for priming the eﬀect, social learning theory would suggest, because their use as a means of aggression are stored in memory (Berkowitz 1990, Leyens and Parke 1975).
2.5 The Extent And Graphicness Of The Violence
A review (Wilson et al. 1997) for the National Television Violence Study suggested that more research is needed, but several tentative conclusions about extent and graphicness could be reached: (a) extensiveness of violence within media presentations should be associated with increased desensitization to violence, at least in the short to medium-term; (b) graphicness of violence should be associated with increased cultivation of fear; (c) longitudinal studies clearly suggest that extensiveness of viewingviolent media presentations heightens the likelihood of engaging in aggressive behavior.
2.6 The Degree Of Realism Of The Violence
In brief, realistic violence has been found to induce aggressive behavior, and to induce fear, more than violence believed to be less realistic or more fantastic. An extremely important qualiﬁcation deals with younger children, who may be unable to distinguish realistic from fantastic characters, behaviors, and situations. In one study, however, where perceived realism was manipulated for older children (9 to 11 in Feshbach 1972; 10 to 13 in Atkin 1983), those subjects who were led to believe that footage was realistic news were more likely subsequently to behave aggressively than those led to believe it was taken from an entertainment program.
2.7 Whether Violence Is Rewarded Or Punished
Rewarded violence is more likely to be imitated than violence which is punished. Signiﬁcantly, and particularly for children (since, as we will show below, television programming most frequently presents violent actions that are neither rewarded nor punished), the absence of punishment may enhance imitation, even in the absence of explicit reward (Bandura 1965, Walters and Parke 1964). Paik and Comstock’s meta-analysis (1994) suggests that rewarded violence stimulates aggression among both child and adult audiences. One study suggests that punishment of criminal violence decreases fear (Bryant et al. 1981).
2.8 Consequences Of Violence
In general (and exceptions are noted in Wilson et al. 1997, p. 30), mediated depictions of violence which show either pain cues or other short or longer-term negative eﬀects or consequences of violence are likely to depress the learning of aggression. There is little research on the eﬀects of pain cues or violence consequences on desensitization and the cultivation of fear.
2.9 Presence Of Humor
As the National TV Violence Study review also noted, further research is needed here as well, but the present state of knowledge suggests, other things being equal, that violence coupled with humor is more likely to heighten aggression, and to increase desensitization, than violence without the presence of humor:
Several mechanisms can be used to explain such a facilitative eﬀect of humor on aggression. Humor might elevate a viewer’s arousal level over that attained by violence alone, and increased arousal has been shown to facilitate aggression. … Humor could serve as a reinforcement or reward for violence, especially if the perpetrator is funny or admired or his or her wit. And humor may diminish the seriousness of the violence and therefore undermine the inhibiting eﬀects of harm and pain cues in a scene. … However, we should underscore that our conclusion about the facilitative eﬀect of humor on aggression is tentative until more systematic research … is undertaken (Wilson et al. 1997, p. 32).
3. Young Viewers
As noted, research indicates that certain factors may be processed diﬀerently by young viewers. First, children below about age 8 have more diﬃculty distinguishing reality from fantasy and often imitate superheros with magical powers such as the Power Rangers (Boyatzis et al. 1995). Second, young children may have diﬃculty connecting scenes and drawing inferences from the plot. Timing of punishments and rewards becomes important in this instance. In many programs, the crime or violent behavior may go unpunished until the end of the program. Young children may have diﬃculty connecting the ending punishment with the initial violent act and may, therefore, believe that the violence went unpunished (Wilson et al. 1997). Thus, learning of aggressive attitudes and behaviors from television varies by both the nature of the portrayals and the nature of the viewers. The presence of contextual factors in the portrayals which may inhibit young children’s social learning of aggression decreases the negative consequences of such portrayals and should be encouraged. Not all violent portrayals are the same and the context of violence is clearly quite important. Similarly, young children, those under the age of seven or eight, may be particularly susceptible to learning from exposure to television violence because of diﬀerences in how they make sense of television compared to adults.
4. The Media Environment
Television’s role as the central mass medium in much of the world for the past half-century, and its ubiquity and ability to enter almost every home, often without parental supervision, has meant that more public and scholarly concern has focused on its contents than on any other medium’s, and this concern has accompanied its diﬀusion into every corner of the earth.
Unfortunately, cumulative and comparative research on television’s violent content is hampered by a lack of consistency in deﬁning violence and especially deﬁning the population and sampling frame in studies of television.
The most extensive single content study of US television was the 1994–7 National Television Violence Study (National Television Violence Study 1997, Center for Communication and Social Policy 1997, 1998). Examined were the 6 a.m.–11 p.m. contents of a multistage probability sample constructed sample week of programming on 23 network-station, independent-station, and basic-cable and premium-cable channels; thus about 8,000 programs were analyzed over the 1994–5, 1995–6, and 1996–7 television ‘seasons.’ Certain programs, including ‘hard news,’ religious shows, sporting events, quiz shows, and educational shows, were sampled but not analyzed. About three-ﬁfths of the remaining programs contained some visual violence, a ﬁgure that like most summary statistics remained stable over the three years of the study. In descending order, premium cable, basic cable, independent-station, broadcast network station, and public broadcast stations’ programming were likely to contain violence. By content genre, in decreasing order, movies, dramas, children’s shows, music videos, and reality-based and comedy programs were likely to contain violence. Violence was far more prevalent during prime-time than during daytime hours.
Of signal concern to the NTVS researchers was the context of televised violence; it was often glamorized (more than a quarter of all violence was perpetrated by ‘good’ or attractive characters, and some 40 percent by characters with at least some good qualities); sanitized (about 7 8 of violent scenes show no blood and gore; almost half show no harm to victims of violence, although more than half of violent interactions show inﬂiction of harm that would be lethal in ‘real life,’ and about half depict no pain cues in victims of violence); and unsanctioned (in a majority of scenes, violence perpetrators were neither rewarded nor punished [‘punishment’ was considered any noticeable sanction, including a perpetrator’s oral expression of remorse], and among other scenes, rewards and punishments were about equally likely; in three-quarters of cases, characters perpetrating violence were either never punished, or were punished only at the program’s conclusion). Moreover, only three percent of programs with violence had any antiviolence theme (Center for Communication and Social Policy 1998, Chaps. 3–4). Potter (1999) has an extensive discussion of deﬁnitions of media violence and the results of content analyses from a variety of studies.
5. Media Violence And Public Policy
As noted, the consensus in the social scientiﬁc community regarding media violence is that it serves as a contributor to aggression in the real world, and virtually all public opinion surveys conﬁrm that wider publics believe this as well. Nonetheless, such ﬁndings are ‘controversial’ in the media industries, and among a minority of academics (see, e.g. Fowles 1999 and sources cited therein). In the United States in particular, since the 1950s the media industries—television in particular, but also recorded music, motion pictures, pictorial comic books, and video games— have responded to public and governmental outcries against violent content by promises to reform under self-regulation. Motion pictures, video-games, and recorded music all list ‘ratings’ for their products which suggest age-groups for which the industry self-regulatory groups think the content for these products is appropriate. The US Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated that the television networks create a ‘voluntary’ ratings system or face creation of one by the federal government. The system the broadcast industry has created suggests appropriate age categories and levels of sex, language, and violence to allow consumers and parents to make program choices. The same act mandated a ‘v-chip’ in newly manufactured television sets to allow parents to screen or ﬁlter out violent programs. There is to date insuﬃcient research to indicate whether and what sorts of parents and other viewers are using either the ratings or the v-chip technology to screen violence. However, experimental research by Cantor and her colleagues (Cantor and Nathanson 1998, Cantor et al. 1997) suggests that young children may use aged-based ratings systems to shield themselves from violent content while for older children and adolescents, there may be a boomerang or ‘forbidden fruit’ eﬀect whereby ratings attract them to more ‘adult’ violent or sexually explicit material. In the United States Congress, a moratorium on discussion of television violence is in eﬀect, pending further information on the eﬀects of ratings and the v-chip, but the legislature is focusing its attention on violent video-games, the target of signiﬁcant public criticism in the wake of a number of ﬁrearms murders in public schools.
It is clear that where children and television violence are concerned, the question that remains is not whether media violence has an eﬀect, but rather how important that eﬀect is in comparison with other factors in bringing about the current level of crime in the United States and other industrialized nations. Future research should also aim to establish who precisely is most susceptible to media violence, and, most importantly, what sorts of intervention might help diminish its inﬂuence. At the same time, any interventions that help establish policies and practices to reduce the socially inappropriate ways of portraying violence and increase the socially responsible ways (such as using violence to assert antiviolence messages) should be encouraged as well. Long-term solutions to problems caused by violence in the real world, however, will require attention to a much wider variety of causal agents.
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