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TV Violence and Aggression

Has a new study found a smoking gun or a weak link?

by Mark D. Johnson
March 17, 2003

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TV Violence and Aggression_Mark D. Johnson-Has a new study found a smoking gun or a weak link? When I was a pre-teen in the mid-1970s, one of my favorite shows was “The Six-Million Dollar Man,” starring Lee Majors as a man working for the government with two bionic legs, one bionic arm, and one bionic eye. He could run extremely fast, jump incredibly high, and throw oafish thugs the length of a football field. He was a superhero with man-made special powers. I can recall pretending to be bionic with my friends, acting in slow motion, “throwing” each other across the room or into a bush. It sure seemed like harmless fun. But a new study implies that kids who watch such shows and identify with violent characters are about twice as likely to be violent as young adults.

I’m pleased to reveal that the only violence I have ever carried out has been toward insects, but thinking back to the shows I watched as a child, I believe the researchers behind this study would have defined me as “at risk,” meaning that there was a higher chance that I would become an aggressive adult. It appears, however, that some aspect(s) of my life kept this tendency in check and steered me instead toward a peaceful lifestyle. Having read the study online, I found it to be an impressive document and agree that the findings merit attention. But ultimately, I can’t consider it to be the final word on the topic, despite the fact that it backs the findings of numerous other studies.

The study, by L. Rowell Huesmann and colleagues at the University of Michigan, was released in the March issue of Developmental Psychology. It is considered important because this is the first to indicate that the pattern holds true for both sexes, and not just males. The researchers gathered data from interviews in the late 1970s with children 6-9 and follow-up interviews when the children were in their mid-twenties, making this one of the first studies to track aggressive behavior from childhood to adulthood in an effort to determine the impact of viewing media violence as a child.

The correlation was found to hold true even when other influential factors, such as home environment, social class, intelligence, and known childhood aggressiveness, were accounted for. As summarized in an Associated Press article, males with high-violence exposure were “about twice as likely as other men to have pushed, grabbed or shoved their wives during an argument in the year preceding the interview. Women [with such exposure] were about twice as likely as other women to have thrown something at their husbands.”

Without going into extensive detail, the research appears very thorough. The children were interviewed twice, and data was gathered regarding which shows they watched, how often, how realistically they viewed the shows, and the degree to which they identified with violent characters. The shows “Six-Million Dollar Man”, “Starsky and Hutch”, and Roadrunner cartoons were considered “very violent.” Parents were also interviewed, and socio-economic and IQ test information was taken. 60% of the original sample was re-interviewed some fifteen years later, along with spouses and friends, and police records were checked to determine adult aggressiveness.

The difficulty I have in fully accepting these findings, aside from my personal experience, stems from what I consider to be an extremely small sample. The original sample consisted of 557 children from Oak Park, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, and two parochial Chicago schools. 329 of those participated in the follow-up interviews in the 1990s. 92% of the participants were Caucasian. I’m certainly no expert in statistics, but this doesn’t seem like a very random sample to me, yet they are taken to represent average U.S. children of that time period. While Huesmann et al admirably go to great lengths to address alternate theories, it seems to me that there are far too many factors involved to suggest a strong link between TV violence and adult aggression among a sample so small. I may be showing my ignorance, but one need only ask “Why didn’t ALL high-violence watchers turn out to be aggressive?” There are obviously other forces at work.

This is not to say that the study has no merit. It adds to what some experts call a mountain of evidence pointing to a direct relation between TV violence and real-life aggression. One interesting conclusion from the study concerns the child’s identification with a show’s perpetrator of violence. “A violent act by someone like Dirty Harry that results in a criminal being eliminated and brings glory to Harry is of more concern than a bloodier murder by a despicable criminal who is brought to justice. Parents need to be educated about these facts.”

Alas, parents do indeed need to be educated about how television content can have an effect on their children, though much of it is plain, common sense. If we believe that people, and young people in particular, are not influenced by televised words and imagery, then why do TV advertisers spend billions of dollars to sway us? One other question comes to mind: where are the studies assessing a possible link between television sexual content and promiscuity? Surely someone can round up a few hundred kids and draw some conclusions. Or are we not supposed to worry about that?

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