Television violence has been a public concern ever since the small screen first dominated living rooms in the 1950s. While the argument mostly bubbles under, it comes to the fore whenever someone apportions blame to television for a real life violent incident. What is the relationship between on-screen violence and brutality in real life? Does television require more regulation? Or is it merely a convenient target of blame? This paper will examine the arguments for and against more regulation of television violence and analyse some of the research done on the subject in the US, Britain, Canada and Australia.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the American federal agency charged with consumer protection and competition jurisdiction. After the Columbine massacre, the FTC conducted a review of self-regulation and industry practices in the motion picture, music recording and game industries. Their 2000 study has implications for television as a transmission medium for these industries. The study acknowledged that exposure to violence in entertainment media is not necessarily the most important factor in violent crime but did find a high correlation between them. The commission examined the self-regulatory programs of the entertainment industries and found them wanting. It recommended three actions: 1) the establishment of a code to prohibit target marketing to children 2) increased compliance at the retail level and 3) parental education about ratings and labels. The report advocated strong penalties for non-compliance and continued vigilance by Congress to monitor progress.
The FCC findings corroborate research done by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. L. Rowell Huessman’s team examined the longitudinal relations between TV violence viewing at ages 6 to 10 and adult aggressive behaviour 15 years later for a sample growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Their results suggested males and females from all social strata are placed at increased risk for the development of aggressive behaviour in adulthood if exposed to high levels of violent television in early childhood. The study argues that prevention programs aimed at reducing exposure are more easily targeted at the viewer rather than the production source due to society’s strong protection for free speech. It cited parental supervision, co-viewing, and commenting on programs as mitigating factors as they reduce children’s identification with the perpetrator. The study criticised the undermining of the V-chip technology to control viewing by producers of violent shows who scuttled a content-based rating system.
The V-chip was studied in a 1997 report by the Action Group on Violence on Television (AGVOT) for the Canadian Radio-Television and Communications Commission. It recommended the technology should be rolled out with a common classification system. But the encoding software is not always reliable and does not react properly to scheduling changes. Moreover, promotions and movie advertisements are not encoded. The study found a high degree of community support for the V-chip but it requires harmonisation with the US to be successful.
American studies are moving in a different direction. In 1998, the National Television Violence Study brought together the findings of three annual studies on violence on American TV. It had four components; a review of the scientific literature, content analysis of violence, analysis of ratings, and an evaluation of media campaigns targeted at adolescents. The study found TV violence contributes to three types of harmful effects on viewers. These were; the learning of aggressive behaviours, a desensitisation to violence, and increased fear of victimisation of violence. Factors such as attractive perpetrators or victims, or where violence was justified, extensive, rewarded or humorous, all contributed to greater harmful effects. The report encouraged more responsible TV programming and viewing. It eschewed censorship or content regulation and instead called on viewers to reconsider viewing habits and conduct a national dialogue about the cause and effect of violence.
Here, the Australian Broadcast Authority (now replaced by ACMA) did its own study on community attitudes to violence on Australian free-to-air TV in 1989 and 2003. The surveys examined whether a relationship existed between concerns about violence on TV and whether people changed their behaviour to avoid violent content. Its research showed community levels of concern about television violence had decreased in the intervening 14 years. In 1989 25% of adults spontaneously mentioned violence as a concern. This had reduced to 14% by 2002. The later survey showed a strong agreement that Australian adults should be able to watch whatever they like on TV.
University of Western Sydney professor Virginia Nightingale produced a monograph in 2000 about children’s views on media harm. Her research explored awareness and experiences of media regulation and how children understand harmful media materials. The majority of young people surveyed (70%) agreed children needed rules to protect them from harmful media. A substantial number said they used the classification information and viewer warnings. Some went so far as to recommend changes for increased specificity so they could use them more effectively. The study did not favour more censorship or stricter classification but rather desired more consistency in how classification decisions are made. It concluded that the impact of violence on children is determined by whether they believe the events ‘really happened’. Films such as Titanic and Saving Private Ryan made a huge impression because they were based on real events. Nightingale recommended community regulatory activity should take children’s own reports of their media experiences into account.
British psychologist Tony Charlton also concluded it was people not programmes that impact behaviour. Writing in the Observer, Charlton documented how television changed the remote Atlantic island of St Helena when it arrived in 1995. The event provided researchers with a rare opportunity to examine before and after effects of television in a real life setting. The project found that television does not adversely influence children’s social behaviour. The research team concluded social controls in the community were more persuasive in shaping behaviour. He cites factors such as the disintegration of support networks, urban apathy and lack of parental supervision as having greater impact than regulatory controls on television violence.