The debate regarding the media’s relationship to violence in society has been a hot issue for most of the past century. From the beginning of the wide use of mass media, from films to radio to television, researchers have tried to explain any association or correlation between media effects and violence. Of particular interest and concern has been the issue of violence in the media and the impact that this has on children. Although important research efforts have increased our understanding of the topic there is still a great that needs to be done in terms of the application and implementation of the findings to policies and television programming.
It has become generally acknowledged by many communications studies that exposure to violence in the media can both influence an increase in the observer’s use of violence to resolve situations as well as a desensitization to acts of violence. This exposure to violence in the media makes viewers less critical of real life violence. Since the mass media often represents violence as “happy violence” devoid of pain, suffering and consequences they are not providing the viewer with an accurate or realistic portrayal of violence. Many studies have also confirmed a commulative effect of exposure to violence so researches have tried to trace patterns from childhood exposure to adult social behavior.
In the 1960’s the government made a concerted effort to increase the understanding of media effects as well as the influence of violence on television. The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was in charge of investigating these issues and making recommendations to the President. The media task force’s report was titled “Violence and the Media”. It was believed that real violence was caused in part by the desire of action groups for media attention. It was also thought that violence in society could be reduced if the news gave groups the ability to enhance their communication.A particular focus of the study was the media’s portrayal of violence and the public’s personal experiences. The violence in television was shown to be the majority of people’s primary source or experience of violence. This reported the media’s ability to socialize the viewers to the norms and values of the culture. Previously the ability of television to do so had been disputed the media was seen to only be a reinforcer and not a creator. Television was also believed to have the effect of creating or supporting the “scary world view” that the world is violent and that to survive people must be violent. This study laid a strong foundation from which future studies drew.
The Surgeon General’s Report on Television and Social Behavior (1971) was a highly criticized study because of the vagueness of its implications but progress in the field of study were still made. The studies were based on content analysis of TV violence with particular attention to modeling and observational learning as evident in the subjects. The conclusions that were drawn from the five volumes of research were that television programming is heavily saturated with violence, there has been increased exposure to this violence by both adults and children, and that viewing of violence in the media increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior. This project is of particular interest due to the large size of the study and extent of federal funding that was used to support it.
The research performed by Alert Bandura resulted in strong evidence for short-term effects of exposure to violence in the media. In his studies children watched models perform aggressive acts against a doll. These acts of aggression were presented under three circumstances, 1. The children saw the model rewarded for aggressive behavior, 2. The children saw the model receive no consequences for their aggressive behavior, and 3. The children saw the model punished. All three groups were able to imitate the aggressive behavior which contradicts earlier notions that the influences of violence were not negative if the violence was not glorified. The group that witnessed punishment was the least likely to be violent though. This study touched on the issue of Acquisition Vs Acceptance. It is clear that children learn aggressive behavior from watching but whether the imitate it and become violent themselves seems to be the result of a multitude of complex factors.
The “Help or Hurt” study done by Robert Liebert and Robert Baron further displays the short-term effects of exposure to violence. The research design used experimental and control groups to determine the effect that the observation of violence would have on the subjects social behavior. The experimental group which was exposed to the violence was shown to push the red button, which was believed to hurt another child’s chances of receiving a prize, more often and for a significantly longer period than the children shown as exciting non-violent film. The conclusion was that exposure to violence is related to the acceptance of aggression.
An in depth study done by Lefkowitz, was a ten-year longitudinal study. Questionnaires and interviews were used and the children and parents were asked to rate each other on their display and use of aggression. The results showed that the habits if 8 year-old boys were good predictors of their aggressive behavior through childhood and adolescence. The more the boys watched violent TV at the third grade level the more aggressive they were 10 years later. This study showed a strong correlation between these factors but proof of causation is not possible.
This research leaves analysts with three possible explanations for the interaction of violence and aggressive behavior: 1. Viewing violence leads to aggressive tendencies, 2. Aggressive tendencies lead to the choice of watching violence in the media, 3. Aggressive tendencies and the viewing of violence are both products of some third condition or set of conditions. Due to confounding factors and the complexity of the issue these possibilities will remain the focus of further studies to come.
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