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Violence on the Tube

One Saturday morning many years ago, I was watching an episode of the Roadrunner on television. As Wile E. Coyote was pushed off of a cliff by the Roadrunner for the fourth or fifth time, I started laughing uncontrollably. I then watched a Bugs Bunny show and started laughing whenever I saw Elmer Fudd shoot Daffy Duck and his bill went twirling around his head. The next day, I pushed my brother off of a cliff and shot my dog to see if its head would twirl around. Obviously, that last sentence is not true.

Some people believe that violence on the tube is one of the main factors that leads to real-life violence, but in my opinion, television is just a minor factor that leads to real-life violence and that it is the parents responsibility to teach kids the difference. According to Rathus in Psychology in the New Millennium, observational learning may account for most human learning (239). Observational learning extends to observing parents and peers, classroom learning, reading books, and learning from media such as television and films.

Nearly all of us have been exposed to television, videotapes, and films in the classroom. Children in day-care centers often watch Sesame Street. There are filmed and videotaped versions of great works of literature such as Orson Welles Macbeth. Nearly every school shows films of laboratory experiments. But what of our viewing outside of the classroom? Television is also one of our major sources of informal observational learning. According to Sweet and Singh, viewing habits range from the child who watches no television at all to the child who is in front of the television nearly all waking hours.

They say that on average, children aged 2 to 11 watch about 23 hours of television per week, and teenagers watch about 22 hours per week (2). According to these figures, children spend less time in the classroom than they do watching television. During these hours of viewing, children are constantly being shown acts of violence. Why? Simple: violence sells. People are drawn to violence in films, television dramas, books, professional wrestling and boxing, and reports of crime and warfare. Does violence do more than sell, however?

Do media portrayals of violence beget violence in the streets and in the home? It seems clear enough that there are connections between violence in the media and real violence. In the 1990s, for example, audiences at films about violent urban youth such as Colors, Boyz N the Hood, and Juice have gotten into fights, shot one another, and gone on rampages after the showings. The MTV cartoon characters, Beavis and Butt-head, who comment on rock videos and burn and destroy things, may have been connected with the death of a 2-year-old and a burned room in Ohio.

The victims 5-year-old brother, who set the blaze that killed the 2-year-old, had begun playing with fire after he observed Beavis and Butt-head to say that fire is fun. A few more examples are shown on the picture to the left (Leland 47). Obviously, these are just a few isolated incidents. If everyone acted this way after watching violence then we would really have a problem. Children are routinely exposed to murders, beatings, and sexual assaults just by turning on the television set.

The public is wary of it, of course. Psychologists, educators, and parent groups have raised many questions about the effects of media violence. For example, does media violence cause real violence? If there are causal connections between media violence and real violence, what can parents and educators do to prevent the fictional from spilling over into the real world? Media violence affects children through observational learning, disinhibition, increasing arousal and priming aggressive thoughts, and desensitization.

The Mean World Syndrome, which 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, is another way in which media violence affects children (Murray 9). Children learn from observing the behavior of their parents and other adults. Television violence supplies models of aggressive skills.

Acquisition of these skills, in turn, enhances childrens aggressive competencies. In fact, children are more likely to imitate what their parents do than heed what they say. If adults say they disapprove of aggression but smash furniture or slap each other when frustrated, children are likely to develop the notion that aggression is the way to handle frustration. Classic experiments have shown that children tend to imitate the aggressive behavior they see on television, whether the models are cartoons or real people.

In one such experiment, a child watches a film where an adult beats up on a life-size doll. The child is then put in a room with the same doll and is observed. The child almost always beats up on the doll in the same ways as seen in the film. The expression of skills may be inhibited by punishment or by the expectation of punishment. Conversely, media violence may disinhibit the expression of aggressive impulses that would otherwise have been controlled, especially when media characters get away with violence or are rewarded for it. % of violent acts in programs went unpunished (Telecommunications: Clinton Backs Antiviolence Chip 536). Media violence and aggressive video games increase viewers levels of arousal. In the vernacular, television works them up. We are more likely to engage in dominant forms of behavior, including aggressive behavior, under high levels of arousal. Media violence has cognitive effects that also prime aggressive ideas and memories. Media violence provides scripts , or ideas on how to behave in situations that seem to parallel those they have observed.

Desensitization suggests that children who watch a lot of violence on television may become less sensitive to violence in the real world around them, less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, and more willing to tolerate ever-increasing levels of violence in our society. We become used to, or habituated to, many stimuli that impinge on us repeatedly. Repeated exposure to television violence may therefore decrease viewers emotional response to real violence.

If children come to perceive violence as the norm, their own attitudes toward violence may become less condemnatory and they may place less value on constraining aggressive urges. The question repeatedly arises as to whether media violence should be curtailed in an effort to stem community violence. Because of constitutional guarantees of free expression, current restraints on media depictions of violence are voluntary. Films, perhaps, are more violent than they have ever been, but television stations now and then attempt to tone down the violence in shows intended for children.

Still, our children are going to be exposed to a great deal of media violence. If not in Saturday morning cartoon shows, then in evening dramas and in the news. Or theyll hear about violence from friends, watch children get into fights, or read about violence in the newspapers. Even if all those sources of violence were somehow hidden from view, they would learn of violence in Hamlet, Macbeth, and even in the Bible. Thus, the notion of preventing children from being exposed to violent models is impractical. We might also want our children to learn some aggressive skills so that they can defend themselves against bullies and rapists.

What, then, should be done? First of all, consider whether we are overestimating the threat. Although media violence contributes to aggressive behavior, it does not automatically trigger aggressive behavior. Many other factors, including the quality of the home environment, are involved. A loving, comfortable home life is not likely to feed into aggressive tendencies. In conclusion, it is parents and educators responsibility to inform children that the violent behavior they observe in the media does not represent the behavior of most people.

Also, the apparently aggressive behaviors they watch are not real. They reflect camera tricks, special effects, and stunts. Another important thing to tell children is that most people resolve conflicts by nonviolent means. Since it is impossible to censor television because of first amendment rights and television is a small contributor to real-life violence, parents should concert their efforts towards spending time with their children and actually watching a violent show with their children and discussing in depth what is being shown.

If children consider violence inappropriate, they will probably not act aggressively, even if they have acquired aggressive skills. For in the words of Andrew Greeley, Music, film, and television reflect behavior rather than cause it. (C2) If I had known all this years before, maybe my brother wouldnt have a headache all the time and my dogs head wouldnt be facing the wrong way.

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