The issue of media violence and its effects on youth has been a subject of great research and debate for decades. Extreme acts of violence by youth such as the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 have brought this issue back into the public eye and led researchers to delve even deeper into its investigation. While poverty, street violence, marital breakup, sexual abuse, parental violence, single parenting and brain defects are all proven causes of youth aggression, there is a considerable body of research which indicates that, not only is there a strong correlation between media violence and youth aggression, but also, according to some researchers, proof of a cause and effect relationship between the two.
Besides an increase in the quantity of violence shown on TV over the last 20 years, research indicates that the graphic nature of violence depicted has intensified. Research by the Parents Television Council found that; incidents of sexual violence and sadism doubled between 1989 and 1999, and the number of graphic depictions of violence increased more than five-fold. (Parents Television Council, 1999)
Analysing programming over three consecutive TV seasons from 1994 to 1997, the National Television Violence Study (NTVS), the largest content analysis undertaken to date, found that nearly 2 out of 4 TV programs contained some violence, averaging about 6 violent acts per hour. Fewer than 5 percent of these programs featured an anti-violence theme or pro-social message emphasizing alternatives to or consequences of violence. (NTVS, n.d, cited by Kaiser Family Foundation. Key Facts: TV Violence, 2003.) What makes these findings even more disturbing is the amount of time children spend watching television. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which surveyed children in 23 countries found that on average, children watch three hours each day, and spend 50 percent more time watching TV than they spend on any other activity outside of school, (UNESCO, 1998)
So, the facts are clear; there is a great amount of violence being shown on television, the graphic nature of violence depicted has intensified and children spend a lot of time watching. However, while it is unfortunate that children spend so much time in front of the tube rather than social activities, which are critical to brain development, these facts alone say nothing about any proof of causation of aggression.
Over the last 30 years researchers have undertaken many different studies of media violence effects and have come to many different conclusions. Some studies have concluded that children who are exposed to high levels of media violence have an increased tendency to behave aggressively. Perhaps the most famous studies which have drawn this conclusion are the laboratory experiments by Albert Bandura. In these experiments, three groups of children were shown a short film, in which an adult was seen attacking an inflatable Bobo Doll, either hitting it with a stick, kicking, punching or throwing it about a room. Each film clip provided a different conclusion to each group. Group A was only shown the doll being hit, Group B saw the adult rewarded for aggressive actions towards the doll and Group C saw the adult being punished for aggressive actions towards the doll. After viewing the film, each of the groups were allowed into the room with the doll as Bandura observed their behaviour, finding that groups A and B imitated the aggressive behaviour of the adult they had seen, whilst group C was remarkably less aggressive.
Over the years, laboratory experiments such as this have consistently shown that exposure to violence can have short-term effects on children. However, such experiments have been criticised because of the lack of realism in an artificial lab setting.
Field experiments though, are undertaken in a more naturalistic setting and therefore avoid this type of criticism. One field experiment of TV violence effects was carried out in the early seventies by Tannis Macbeth Williams and other researchers from the University of British Columbia, who observed the introduction of television into a small Canadian town, and studied the level of violent behaviour and aggression in the community prior to, and after its introduction. Just two years after the introduction of television the level of aggressive acts such as hitting, biting and shoving amongst children, increased by 160 percent. (Joy, L.A., M.M. Kimball and M.L. Zabrack, 1986)
Nevertheless, such research has been criticised from an entirely different angle. Professor Jonathan Freedman of the University of Toronto points out that Japan, which has far more violence shown on TV than countries such as Canada and the United States, has a much lower crime rate. "Children in Japan watch probably the most violent, the most lurid and graphic television in the world and the rate of violent crime there is miniscule compared to Canada and the United States." (Freedman, 1994)
Several longitudinal studies have concluded that children who are exposed to high levels of media violence are more likely to behave aggressively as adults. Professor Jeffrey Johnson of Columbia University, who conducted a 17-year study tracking 700 families in New York, reported that children who viewed more than one hour of TV a day were four times more likely to commit violent acts in adulthood. Another large scale longitudinal study was carried out by Professors Leonard Eron and L. Rowell Huesmann of the University of Michigan, who found that childhood exposure to TV violence, predicted adult aggression in both sexes.
However, both studies have been subject to harsh criticism. "Highly misleading" said Guy Cumberbatch (2002), head of the Birmingham-based Communications Research Group, when discussing Johnson's findings with BBC Radio. Cumberbatch argued that the group of 88 children (out of the 700) who watched less than one hour of television a day is such a small figure "it's aberrantâ€¦this is a case of torturing the data to make it fit a theory." In an interview with the American Booksellers Foundation For Free Expression (ABFFE), Pullitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes (n.d) said he found the studies by Eron and Huesmann to be "poorly conceived, scientifically inadequate, biased and sloppy if not actually fraudulent research."
Another potential response to media violence which researchers have identified is the notion of desensitisation; that heavy viewing of TV violence gradually grinds away the viewer's sensitivity to violence, increasing their probability of committing or tolerating violence in the real world. According to University of Michigan Professor Brad Bushman (2009), "People exposed to media violence are less helpful to others in need because they are 'comfortably numb' to the pain and suffering of othersâ€¦" Bushman, together with Iowa State University Professor Craig Anderson, undertook two studies of this effect. In the first study, the professors observed 320 high school students after having them spend 20 minutes playing either a violent or non-violent video game, when a few minutes later they were exposed to a staged fight in which a 'victim' was seen in great pain after feigning a sprained ankle. The results of the study showed that those who had played non-violent games took approximately 16 seconds to help the victim, whereas the others who played violent games took around 73 seconds. Furthermore, those who had played violent games were less likely to report or even notice the fight. The second study was similar to the first, only this time the researchers staged an emergency outside a movie theatre, timing participants who had just seen either a violent or non-violent film, to find out how long it took each group to help a woman who had 'accidentally' dropped her crutches. It took 26 percent longer for those who had seen a violent film to help the woman retrieve her crutches. Such experiments certainly give quite a clear indication that people exposed to violent media take longer to help someone else.
Even so, Christopher Ferguson (2010), an associate professor at Texas A&M International University in Larendo, has criticised recent studies by Anderson, saying that the effects found are "generally low" and that "the analysis contains numerous flaws." In his defence Anderson (2010) noted that his team, "never said it's a huge effect. But if you look at known risk factors for the development of aggression and violence, some are bigger than media violence and some are smaller." It is important to note the significance of every study, regardless of limits and flaws; as science should be constantly testing new theories in order to improve understanding of woolly or un-proven issues.
Finally, we have the effect of trauma, which, according to a great number of studies, has been proven without doubt. One study by Professors Joanne Cantor and K. Harrison (1999), found that of the 138 students interviewed, 90 percent reported they still experienced nightmares and other trauma symptoms from media images they had seen as children. Other studies which have been in consensus with the notion that TV violence can cause trauma include those by Professors Singer, Slovak, Frierson (1998) and Professor Owens (1999), to name a few.
In summary, despite there being a large body of research claiming proof of a cause and effect relationship between media violence and youth aggression, there appears to be a legitimate argument against every claim, save the effect of trauma (although no doubt there may be some critics out there who will disagree on this effect also). It is important to extract from all the various and arguments, those irrefutable facts which shine through the muddy waters. Although research has proven a correlation between media violence and youth aggression, the debates and research over causation will continue. It would be presumptuous to draw any strong conclusions of causation from the research to date, as critics have pointed out either flaws in research methods or shown contrary evidence. Anderson's note that some known risk factors for the development of aggression are "bigger than media violence and some are smaller" is a reminder that media violence is but one factor within a "tangle" (Haismann, 2010) of others listed earlier: poverty, street violence, marital breakup, sexual abuse, parental violence, single parenting etc. This also raises the question, is it even possible to isolate and measure the effects of media violence from all other factors? We shall have to wait and see what methods researchers can devise to answer this question. In the meantime the best advice for those concerned about the effects of media violence is rather simple; limit and monitor the amount of television children are exposed to.