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Violence in Children’s Television

For years the effects of violence and the media has been a controversial topic of debate. While some argue that violence in the media has no repercussions, others argue that its effect is detrimental to society. Within this debate, violence in television has been focused on the most as a prime media source. Perhaps this is because of its influence over society, perhaps this is because of the numerous hours watched daily by the average American. Regardless violence and television has become an ever-present part of this debate. Even more specific however is the effect this violence in television has on children. This goes to the core of the debate, as children targeted by this violence are a major concern in society. Many different researchers have studied the effect of violence in television on children, and most end to agree that it has a negative impact, however controversy still arises as media organizations claim that there is no direct correlation between violence and children’s response to television. Overall though, there is a general psychological consensus between these two factors. Violence in television has a negative impact on children through three major revenues; direct effects, desensitization, and the mean world syndrome.

Violence in television has a direct effect on children. The direct effects process suggests that children who watch a lot of violence on television may become more aggressive and/or they may develop favorable attitudes and values about the use of aggression to resolve conflict. “Television violence can lead to aggressive behavior in children, over 1,000 studies confirm the link, (American Academy of Pediatrics). Along with aggressive behavior violence also increases anti-social behavior in children (American Academy of Pediatrics). According to an American Psychological Association task force report on television and American society (Huston, 1), by the time the average child (who watches -4 hours of television daily) leaves elementary school, he or she will have witnessed at least 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other assorted acts of violence on television. Just think of the level of violence in a Saturday morning cartoon. Extensive viewing of television violence by children causes greater aggressiveness. “When Leonard Eron surveyed every 8-year-olld in Columbia County, New York, in 160, he found something he wasn’t looking for an astonishing, unmistakable, correlation between the amount of violence youngsters saw on television and the aggressiveness of their behavior” (Mortimor, 16). Eron and his research colleague Rowell Huesmann, as leading researchers on the effects of media violence on the young, have a message that is simple Aggression in a learned behavior, it is learned at an early age, and media violence is one of its teachers. In a 160 survey Eron questioned 8-year-old kids, their parents, and their teachers on their television viewing habits and their behavior in and out of the classroom. And lo and behold, the more aggressive that kids were in school, the higher the violence content of the shows they watched. In 171 they found about 500 of the now 1-year0olds from the original sample of 875 youngsters. The results were just as powerful if not more so. As they say, “the correlation between violence-viewing age 8 and how aggressive the individual was at 1 was higher than the correlation between watching violence at age 8 and behaving aggressively at age 8. It seems there was an accumulative effect going on here.” In other words, their viewing choices and behavior as 8-year-olds were better predictors of their behavior at age 1 than either what they watched on TV or how aggressive they behaved in later life. There is no doubt that television violence and aggressiveness are correlated, however just how this is achieved is another question.

American children watch an average of three to four hours of television daily and television can be a powerful influence in developing value systems and shaping behavior. “Children learn programs on how to behave that I call scripts…” says Huesmann. “Where is a likely place for those scripts to come from? From what you’ve observed others doing in life, film, TV… So as a child, you see a Dirty Harry movie where the heroic policeman is shooting people right and left. Even years later, the right kind of scene can trigger that script and suggest a way to behave that follows it. Our studies suggest that’s very possible.” More so Huessmann finds that watching TV violence affects the viewers beliefs and attitudes about how people will behave. A good research example dates back to the earliest study done on violence and television by researcher Bandura in what has come to be known as his Bobo Doll case study. In this study Bandura took a group of 8-10 year old children and exposed them to different amounts of violence on television. He then placed them in a room with a bobo doll. And sure enough, the children who were exposed to more violence acted more violently toward the bobo doll. This study served not only as a foundation of the link between violence and television and aggression, but also as a case study in modeling. Modeling is the belief that children imitate their behavior on that which they are exposed to, and in the case of the bobo doll study, this belief of modeling proved true. More specifically, children who view shows on which violence is very realistic and frequently repeated or unpunished, are more likely to imitate what they see (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry). “Significant relationships have been found between children’s belief that television violence is realistic, their aggressive behavior, and the amount of violence they watch, “ (Huessmann, 186). Another factor influencing behaviors is that children identify with certain violent characters. “Especially for boys, identification with a character substantially increases the likelihood that the characters aggressive behavior will be modeled,” (Eron, 65). While it is known that television violence causes aggressive and anti-social behavior, why it does this is a present topic of debate. Some say it is because of direct effects, however others attribute this behavior to the desensitization.

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The second effect, desensitization suggests that children who watch a lot of violence on television may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, and more willing to tolerate ever-increasing levels of violence in our society. A recent study was the first to show a direct link between the violence children view and the way they treat their friends. Researchers with the National Institute on Media and Family studied 1 children in fourth, fifth, and sixth grades. Those children who watched the most violent shows were most likely to use violent behavior as a model. “What we found out was that kids whom teachers and peers rated as the meanest were the ones who watched the most violent television,” said David Walsh PHD and study co-author. Another study conducted by Aletha Huston-Stein and her colleagues assessed the effect of viewing either violent or prosocial _non-violent) TV programming. In this study about 100 preschool-aged children were divided into two groups and were assigned to watch a particular diet programming. The children watched either a diet of Batman and Superman cartoons or a diet of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. The researchers found that the youngsters who watched Batman and Superman cartoons were more physically active, both in the classroom and the playground. Also, they were more likely to get into fights and scrapes with each other, play roughly with toys, break toys, snatch toys from others, and get into little altercations. The other group, the group that watched Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, was much more likely to play cooperatively with their toys, spontaneously offer to help the teacher, and engage in what might be called “positive peer counseling”. In the latter instance, the focus on Mr. Rogers sessions was similar to “peer counseling”�being kind, being sensitive to others needs, and being concerned about others feelings (Murry, 1). What both these studies point towards is that children who watch a lot of violence on television do become less sensitive to violence in the real world around them and less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others. In both studies the children who watched violent programming were meaner to others and more violent in their real-world activities.

The other part of desensitization says that children are more willing to tolerate ever-increasing levels of violence in our society. This factor goes hand in hand with the other two, for as children become desensitized to violence in the real world around them and the pain and suffering of others, they quite naturally will put up with the ever-increasing amount of violence in society. One research study that shows this was conducted on children’s attitudes toward television violence in 18, and the results were shocking. 16 students in different schools were asked to fill out questioners on their attitudes toward violence in the media. The overall pattern of results showed that children in Group 1, those with more liberal attitudes towards screen violence, reported watching more television on an average school day then there more concerned counterparts. What this study shows is that children who watch more television are more willing to put up with increasing violence in society. Overall this study proves the third part of the desensitization theory. A Time Mirror Poll reported on March 1, found that the majority of Americans feel that “entertainment television is too violent… that this is harmful to society… and that we as a society have become desensitized to violence.” However while some suffer from desensitization, others suffer in the exact opposite way from over exposure to violence in television by what has been defined as the mean world syndrome.

The third effect, the mean world syndrome, suggests that children who watch a lot of violence on television may begin to believe that the world is as mean and dangerous in real life as it appears on television, and hence, they begin to view the world as a much more mean and dangerous place. Television violence is especially damaging to young children (under age 8) because they cannot easily tell the difference between real life and fantasy so violent images on television may seem real to young children. Hence viewing these images can traumatize them. With regards to the issue of the mean world syndrome, there have been numerous studies conducted by a research group at the University of Pennsylvania led by George Gebner (Gebener, 10,1). For more than 5 years, this group has studied the content of prime time and Saturday morning television. With regard to violence, the findings indicate that over the years, there are about 5 violent acts committed every hour of prime time television and 0 to 5 violent acts committed during every hour of Saturday morning children’s programming. In later studies, Gerbner and his colleagues began to explore the relationship of the amount of television viewing and viewers perceptions of the world. For example the researchers would ask questions about the viewers perception of risk in the world. The researchers found that the amount of television viewed predicted fearfulness�heavy television viewers (those who watch four hours or more a day), as opposed to light viewers (those who watched an hour or less a day), were much more fearful of the world around them, much more likely to over estimate their level of risk, and to over estimate the number of persons involved in law enforcement (Gerbner, 1). And so the research team began to develop the notion of the mean world syndrome Watching a lot of television determines your perceptions of the risks of the world because there is so much violence on television.

With regards to the mean world syndrome, how violence is portrayed affects the level of risk for children viewers. “The effect of violent content depends on how it is portrayed, and not all violent depictions pose the same degree of risk for viewers,” according to Ed Donnerstein, study senior researcher and dean of social sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A study he conducted found that most violence is glamorized and sanitized. Across the three years of the study, nearly 40% of violent incidents on television are initiated by “good” characters who are likely to be perceived as attractive role models. Long-term negative consequences of violence are portrayed in just 15% of programs, averaged over years. “These patterns teach children that violence is desirable, necessary, and painless” says Dale Kunkel, a senior researcher for the study. Nearly /4 of violent scenes contain no remorse, criticism, or penalty for violence, and “bad” characters go unpunished in 40% of programs. Children who view shows in which violence is very realistic, frequently repeated or unpunished, are more likely to imitate what they see. Television violence often fails to show the consequences of violence. This is especially true of cartoons, toy commercials, and music videos. As a result children learn that there are few if any repercussions for committing violent acts. A high-risk portrayal includes an attractive perpetrator, violence that seems justified, violence that goes unpunished, minimal consequences to the victim, and violence that seems realistic to the viewer. High-risk violent incidents for children under age 7 are most often in cartoons. “Younger children have difficulty distinguishing televised fantasy from reality, and therefore at increased risk of imitating cartoon violence,” says Barbara Wilson, a study senior researcher. The average preschooler who watches mostly cartoons is exposed to over 500 high-risk portrayals of violence each year. All these high-risk situations create the mean world syndrome seen in children. They begin to view violence as scary, not from cartoons but from realistic violence. Overall children can be traumatized by both low-risk and high-risk violence portrayals.

Violence in television can be very damaging to children. It has been shown to effect children through three different revenues; direct effects, desensitization and the mean world syndrome. Many studies have shown children to become more aggressive and anti-social the more violent shows they watch. Further it has been shown that children who watch more violent television are less sensitive to the pain and suffering of other, and more open to violence in society. More so, children suffer from a mean world syndrome where they view the world as scary and dangerous in real life. While all of the previous has been proven through research, controversy still exists on the best way to address these problems. While media personals argue that because there is no direct correlation between these factors society need not regulate children’s television, many people including parents and psychologists disagree with this notion and are urging government officials to start regulating children’s television and stop all the violent portrayals seen in cartoons and other programming. Things need to change and they can only change if we begin to question society and its morals. Furthermore, parents need to step in and take responsibility for their children’s viewing habits. Parents can regulate what their children watch or can help to explain the difference between violence portrayals and reality. Overall violence in children’s programming is a problem that needs addressing. What would happen if children’s programs ceased to be violent? What negative impacts would this have? The answer in none, that is except for those to the medium of television, which would be limited. Only good can come from censoring what children watch on television, so a change needs to be made. There needs to be some responsibility held by the medium of television for their actions of putting violence on children’s television. Violence on television is detrimental to children, adults, and society as a whole. We need to change the amount of violence in television for the betterment of society and the future generations within it.

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