Television and violence: A Christian response to the debate over effects

In the wake of increasing crime, including shootings in the school and the workplace, the question is often raised: Does violence in television shows promote or motivate violence in real life?

Popular belief often portrays television as a major and direct cause of violence, and some research would seem to support this view. While there is still considerable confusion among academics over media effects, little has happened to change popular views on the subject. Popular criticism of television paints a picture of addiction, anaesthetizing viewers into passive automatons and hypnotized zombies. Television is often blamed for the perceived poor performance of children in schools, despite the fact that Western literacy rates have never been higher. The problem is that while literacy has risen, the demand for literacy has risen faster. Popular criticism of the illiteracy of the current generation of school children is a habit dating into last century, long before the age of television. Research has also dispelled the fear that television neutralizes creativity: children play just as creatively with television stories as they do with those they read in books.

Ironically, popular critics often claim that television has not only turned children into passive zombies, it has made them hyperactive with short attention spans and powerful inclinations to violence. But how television can do both at the same time is never explained. Exactly what does a hyperactive zombie look like? Behind this popular belief lies an assumption that individuals imitate specific acts of violence from television. Hence the periodic calls made for stricter control of television content, particularly in relation to children’s viewing time. Of course, many who call for television censorship do so not on their own behalf, but on behalf of those whom they feel are more susceptible to its influence. Typically we feel it’s always other people who are badly affected by television, never ourselves.1 Interestingly enough, children often have the same paternalistic thinking, feeling that programs do them no harm, while being bad for other children.

Behaviorist research

Sound research is needed to clear up such contradictory views. But the quality of the work in television has often varied, and results have often accorded with the opinions of previous researchers. The majority of the approximately 10,000 studies conducted on television violence have been performed within the framework of behaviorist theory. Perhaps the best-known experiments were those of Bandura and his associates, who demonstrated that children’s viewing had a direct and measurable effect on their behavior toward large stuffed Bobo dolls. Those children who had seen a violent film about the dolls behaved with much greater aggression toward them than those who were given dolls without having seen the film.2

However, while many behaviorist experiments showed an apparent connection between viewing and behavior, there is considerable doubt as to the validity of the conclusions when generalized. Behaviorist research tended to ignore the way that artificially controlled viewing conditions affected viewers’ perceptions of both the television viewing and the expectations of their reactions. One child in Bandura’s experiment was overheard by a researcher to say, “Look Mummy, there’s the doll we’ll have to hit.”3

Such a reaction is not surprising. A child in an unfamiliar environment came to the natural conclusion that the film was modeling desired behavior toward the identical dolls he or she was shown. Current opinion is that the violence shown towards the Bobo dolls was at least as much a product of the children’s perceived expectations of the experimenters as it was the result of their violent viewing. Furthermore, to assume that a child in this situation would then transfer the behavior to people is a fallacy. It would require that a child fail to recognize the difference in acceptable behavior toward a dummy and live people. In fact, children understand the modality of television from a reasonably early age, distinguishing in rather sophisticated ways between what is real and what is not. Audience studies show that viewers do not automatically adopt the values of a program. Rather, they usually resist television values that overtly contradict their own.4 Analysis of other behaviorist experiments showed that artificial conditions led to artificial results.5 In short, behaviorist research has too often failed to take account of the different ways in which audiences interpret television.

The problem for researchers and the public alike is that we are most likely to reach a conclusion about television violence that supports our preconceived ideas. In order to arrive at intelligent conclusions about the effects of television viewing, we must first recognize our own preconceptions and expect that they may be modified, shaken, or contradicted.

Multi-disciplinary research

Research that combines the methodologies of various disciplines is providing the most useful conclusions on the effects of television violence. What is being discovered is complex and yet more in keeping with common sense than earlier conclusions. Logic would argue that if the behaviorist conclusions were right about immediate and measurable effects from watching violent television, then most Western societies would be full of violent people. While violence is a major problem in Western societies, it does not peak after episodes of violent shows, nor are the majority of television watchers generally considered violent.

In any case, representations of violence on television do not follow actual patterns of real-life violence. For example, police shows frequently portray officers with drawn guns, whereas a survey of American police officers revealed that, while fulfilling their duty, on average they fired their gun once every 27 years.6 Most real violence is less spectacular and usually more personal than that typically depicted on television. It is wise to drop the idea of a one-to-one correlation between television violence and real life.

Another complexity is the problem of dealing with the nature and degree of violence. While everyone agrees that cold-blooded murder with an iron pipe is violent, women are more likely to rate a verbal confrontation as violent, while men are more likely to confine their definition to physical force. Essentially violence is an act which is defined socially, not purely behaviorally.7 For example, cutting open a stranger with a sharp knife might be rated violent, unless of course the “victim” was a patient and the “aggressor” a surgeon with a scalpel. But if the surgeon was a Nazi experimenting on concentration camp prisoners, our view might change again. In each case the behavior remained the same. Only the changing social context caused a difference in interpretation. Sports such as football and boxing routinely valorize violent behavior that would be unacceptable on the street. Even violence by police toward criminals is usually interpreted as less violent than exactly the same actions performed by criminals toward police.

The complex nature of violence

The complex nature of defining violence is reflected in the way audiences interpret violence. Children interpret television according to their own sense of social justice and order. They are capable of reading television as a series of codes, rather than as a literal representation of reality. Studies show that children are frequently aware of the staged nature of television shows and can point out their artificial nature. They can resist and even oppose the message of television, because they recognize the difference between representations and reality. For example, Aboriginal children in Australia have sometimes aligned themselves with the “bad” Indians against the heroes in Westerns, because they empathize with their social oppression.8

The way in which violence is portrayed significantly affects the degree of this impact. Children interpret certain television codes as pure fantasy, and the elements, violent or otherwise, are not taken literally. This is particularly true of cartoons, which contain more acts of violence per minute than any other form of television, but also applies to acted shows such as wrestling where cause and effect are obviously exaggerated. Children know that the violence is an exaggerated representation of conflict, which itself is an irreplaceable element of any dramatic form, be it drama, quiz shows, or sport. Other codes are read more literally. Realistic drama can have a strong impact on viewers, young ones especially, because the codes conform closely to their perceptions of reality. Even then, as children grow older, they are able to distinguish between the actors playing roles and the events they portray. Perhaps the viewing that has the highest impact is documentary violence, seen on news, documentaries, and reality television shows, because children know that this is real.9

Social ideology also affects the interpretation of violence. While violent scenes are common on television, violence is not generally condoned in society, or at lest it is channeled into highly regulated forms such as certain sports. This ideological structure influences the way children understand the violence they see on television, and makes them much less susceptible to it than say racist or sexist stereotypes, which are often supported by the social and ideological structures that the children inhabit. A child’s family, school, church, and general social circumstances will have an important role in determining the effects of television on that child.10

We must recognize that television is not the cause of social violence in children or anyone else. In reality, life is much more complex than that. Violent societies existed prior to television, many of them more violent than today’s Western society. Violent behavior is the product of personal, social, and economic conditions, and will not be solved by simply banning the box. It is easy to pick on a whipping boy for all of society’s ills, but social violence does not necessarily increase with the arrival of television. For many years Japan has had significantly lower levels of violence than the United States. But Japan’s television is generally rated as more violent. The difference must be explored in the cultures of each nation rather than through an analysis of violent media.

We must also ask to what extent modern urban societies depersonalize individuals. A city lifestyle tends to force people to ignore others around them on the bus, train, street, and elevator, even when they are touching. Which is the grater influence: the codes of fictional television dramas or the daily real-life impact of paying no heed to others?

This is not to say that violence has no effect or that it does not matter what is shown on television, or that children can watch anything. Extended exposure to other forms of violence in the media, including films and video games, may also have a detrimental impact. Common sense tells us that we cannot watch so much television without it having some effect, for, as 2 Corinthians 3:18 reminds us, it is by contemplating that we become changed.

Television: a culturizing force

Television acts as powerful culturizing force in its own right, and does affect children. In particular, television can have powerful effects on children under the age of seven. In the early years, children respond to television images in precisely the same way as they do to real-life people, failing to understand that one is an image and the other reality. Very young children need to be shielded from representations of violence. Young children find it difficult to understand how parents can cheer a football tackle yet punish them for doing the same to their siblings. Unfortunately, even many children’s programs have levels of conflict too intense for young children, who can be affected by violence as tame as an argument. For pre-school children, the most benign programming is recommended.

Children also develop discrimination at different rates, and parents need to monitor their children individually, assessing their stage of development. Most parents are over-optimistic about the ability of their children to cope with violence, often for concealed selfish reasons. Preventing the child from watching some violence could force the adults to miss out.

It can be difficult to accept that perhaps television violence is not quite as devastating as popular belief would have it. The question arises that if television is not that influential, how come advertisers spend billions of dollars a year appropriating its persuasive powers? The answers again lie in the viewing process. Television is most effective when telling people what they already believe, and advertising reinforces socially acceptable, indeed socially rewarded, behavior. However, television violence has a reduced impact on people’s behavior. Because we live in societies that by and large do not condemn violence, we learn that screen violence is a code by which stories are told, but not one by which real life is conducted. The exception would be, of course, children who grow up in a violent home. They learn that violence was an effective way for the strong to get what they want. In such cases, television confirms their beliefs. But we need to recognize that their violent behavior was learned from the home and their social environment, and merely reinforced by the screen. It is often such people who provide the evidence popularized in the media that television causes violence. Some even testify that it was particular films or programs that led to specific crimes. We need to carefully examine such claims for other factors that may have produced violence. For while television may contribute to the behavior of violent people, to argue that it is the cause of it is to fail to understand the influence of real-life experience in shaping attitudes toward violence. We also need to remember the Christian concept of choice, that even Adam and Eve in a perfect environment made a bad decision. It is so easy to blame television for choices that are ultimately our own responsibility.

The fact that the media itself promotes a view that the media causes crime may appear to be a powerful argument supporting the impact of television violence, but in fact it is in the media’s interests to promote such a view. Ironically, by blaming itself, the media protects its profitability. The media never got anywhere by contradicting popular belief. Furthermore, if the media pointed out the real causes of violence, people would be distracted from the advertising that encourages them to spend more on themselves. The most effective way to reduce crime is not through tougher sentencing, more police, and the banning of violent programs, but by promoting effective relationships between people. If more people were committed to Christian social action, helping the unemployed find meaningful work, creating worthwhile activities for underprivileged groups, spending their surplus income on those less well off than themselves, all in the context of sharing the love of Christ, crime would drop significantly. But such behavior would interfere with television’s goal of our spending more money on ourselves.

Solution to violence

Christians particularly recognize that violence is a product of our sinful natures, and cannot simply be cured by banning external influences such as films. Even social action would only reduce, not eradicate, crime. But the real solution to crime–the change of heart that the gospel of Jesus brings–is unpopular. It is easier to blame the media than to take personal responsibility. Again, there is no profit to the media in making people feel guilty. Its prosperity is in telling people that they are good, particularly if they purchase more products.

From a Christian perspective, perhaps television violence is the least of its evils, simply for the reason that most of us understand it to be socially unacceptable behavior. We are most at risk when we agree with the media, for television is most powerful when it coincides with our values, for then we are often unconscious of its influence. The relative lack of protest from Christians about materialism, the cult of beauty, and the racism and sexism of the medium suggests that perhaps these values form part of our attitudes and are being reinforced by television. The religion of Jesus was, and should remain, deeply opposed to discrimination on the basis of gender, race, age, appearance, or wealth. To some degree the violence debate is a smoke screen that conceals the real damage that television causes, by confirming our prejudices while allowing us to feel good because we condemn a lesser evil.

Daniel Reynaud (Ph.D., University of Newcastle), lectures in Media and English at Avondale College, and has published on a variety of media, as well as authoring Reading With New Eyes: Exploring Scripture Through Literary Genre. This article is adapted from his recent book, Media Values. His address is P.O. Box 19, Cooranbong, 2265, N.S.W., Australia. E-mail: daniel.reynaud@avondale.edu.au

Notes and references

  1. Jane Root, Open the Box (London: Comedia, 1986), p. 12; Mike Clarke, Teaching Popular Television (London: Heinemann, 1987), p. 175.
  2. Bob Hodge and David Tripp, Children and Television (Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1986), pp. 193, 204, 205.
  3. Ibid., p. 207.
  4. John Fiske, Television Culture (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 71; Hodge and Tripp, p., 140. See also the chapter “Audiences Studies”, in my Media Values (Cooranbong, NSW, Australia: Avondale Academic Press), pp. 75 ff.
  5. John Tulloch and Graeme Turner (eds.), Australian Television (Sydney, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1989), p. 169.
  6. Colin Stewart, The Media: Ways and Meaning (Milton, Qld.: Jacaranda, 1990), p. 132.
  7. Hodge and Tripp, p. 20.
  8. Tulloch and Turner, p. 170; Hodge and Tripp, pp. 213-218.
  9. Fiske, p. 288.
  10. Tulloch and Turner, p. 169.