The Effects of Television Violence on Children

Hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation

Presented by APA Member Dale Kunkel, PhD
Professor of Communications
University of Arizona

June 26, 2007

I have studied children and media issues for over 20 years, and am one of several researchers who led the National Television Violence Study (NTVS) in the 1990s, a project widely recognized as the largest scientific study of media violence. In my remarks here today, I will briefly report some key findings from the NTVS project, as well as summarize the state of knowledge in the scientific community about the effects of media violence on children.

The Effects of Television Violence

Concern on the part of the public and Congress about the harmful influence of media violence on children dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, and remains strong today. The legitimacy of that concern is corroborated by extensive scientific research that has accumulated over the past 40 years. Indeed, in reviewing the totality of empirical evidence regarding the impact of media violence, the conclusion that exposure to violent portrayals poses a risk of harmful effects on children has been reached by the U.S. Surgeon General, the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and a host of other scientific and public health agencies and organizations.

These harmful effects are grouped into three primary categories:

(1) children’s learning of aggressive attitudes and behaviors; (2) desensitization, or an increased callousness towards victims of violence; and (3) increased or exaggerated fear of being victimized by violence. While all of these effects reflect adverse outcomes, it is the first – an increased propensity for violent behavior – that is at the core of public health concern about televised violence. The statistical relationship between children’s exposure to violent portrayals and their subsequent aggressive behavior has been shown to be stronger than the relationship between asbestos exposure and the risk of laryngeal cancer; the relationship between condom use and the risk of contracting HIV; and exposure to second-hand smoke in the workplace and the risk of lung cancer. There is no controversy in the medical, public health, and social science communities about the risk of harmful effects from children’s exposure to media violence. Rather, there is strong consensus that exposure to media violence is a significant public health concern.

Key Conclusions about the Portrayal of Violence on Television

Drawing upon evidence from the National Television Violence Study, as well as other related research, there are several evidence-based conclusions that can be drawn regarding the presentation of violence on television.

1. Violence is widespread across the television landscape.

Turn on a television set and pick a channel at random; the odds are better than 50-50 that the program you encounter will contain violent material. To be more precise, 60% of approximately 10,000 programs sampled for the National Television Violence Study contained violent material. That study identified an average of 6,000 violent interactions in a single week of programming across the 23 channels that were examined, including both broadcast and cable networks. More than half of the violent shows (53%) contained lethal acts, and one in four of the programs with violence (25%) depicted the use of a gun.

2. Most violence on television is presented in a manner that increases its risk of harmful effects on child-viewers.

More specifically, most violence on television follows a highly formulaic pattern that is both sanitized and glamorized.

By sanitized, I mean that portrayals fail to show realistic harm to victims, both from a short and long-term perspective. Immediate pain and suffering by victims of violence is included in less than half of all scenes of violence. More than a third of violent interactions depict unrealistically mild harm to victims, grossly understating the severity of injury that would occur from such actions in the real world. In sum, most depictions sanitize violence by making it appear to be much less painful and less harmful than it really is.

By glamorized, I mean that violence is performed by attractive role models who are often justified for acting aggressively and who suffer no remorse, criticism, or penalty for their violent behavior. More than a third of all violence is committed by attractive characters, and more than two-thirds of the violence they commit occurs without any signs of punishment.

Violence that is presented as sanitized or glamorized poses a much greater risk of adverse effects on children than violence that is presented with negative outcomes such as pain and suffering for its victims or negative consequences for its perpetrators.

3. The overall presentation of violence on television has remained remarkably stable over time.

The National Television Violence Study examined programming for three years in the 1990s and found a tremendous degree of consistency in the pattern of violent portrayals throughout the television landscape. Across the entire study of roughly 10,000 programs, the content measures which examined the nature and extent of violence varied no more than a percent or two from year to year. Similar studies that have been conducted since that time have produced quite comparable results.

This consistency clearly implies that the portrayal of violence on television is highly stable and formulaic -- and unfortunately, this formula of presenting violence as glamorized and sanitized is one that enhances its risk of harmful effects for the child audience.

In sum, the evidence clearly establishes that the level of violence on television poses substantial cause for concern. It demonstrates that violence is a central aspect of television programming that enjoys remarkable consistency and stability over time.

Implications for Public Policy

It is well established by a compelling body of scientific evidence that television violence poses a risk of harmful effects for child-viewers. While exposure to media violence is not necessarily the most potent factor contributing to real world violence and aggression in the United States today, it is certainly the most pervasive. Millions of children spend an average of 20 or more hours per week watching television, and this cumulative exposure to violent images can shape young minds in unhealthy ways.

Given the free-speech guarantees of the First Amendment, the courts have ruled that there must be evidence of a “compelling governmental interest” in order for Congress to take action that would regulate television content in any way, such as the indecency regulations enforced by the FCC. In my view, the empirical evidence documenting the risk of harmful effects from children’s exposure to televised violence clearly meets this threshold, and I should note that former Attorney General Janet Reno offered an identical opinion to this Committee when she testified before it on this same issue in the 1990s.

There has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about the U.S. Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit) ruling regarding “fleeting expletives” that were cited as indecent by the FCC (Fox et al. v. FCC, June 4, 2007). Some have suggested this ruling threatens the future of any content-based television regulation. While

I am not a legal expert, let me draw several important distinctions between this indecency case and the situation policy-makers face with the issue of television violence. First, there is no clear foundation of empirical evidence to document the effects of children’s exposure to indecent material in any quantity, much less modest and fleeting examples of it. In contrast, there is an elaborate, solid foundation of evidence regarding the cumulative effects of televised violence on children. While “fleeting expletives” occur occasionally on television, they are generally quite rare. In contrast, violent portrayals are not only common, they are pervasive across the television landscape, and are found in a majority of programs.

Indeed, it is the cumulative nature of children’s exposure to thousands and thousands of violent images over time that constitutes the risk of harmful effects. Just as medical researchers cannot quantify the effect of smoking one cigarette, media violence researchers cannot specify the effect of watching just a single violent program. But as exposure accrues over time, year in and year out, a child who is a heavy viewer of media violence is significantly more likely to behave aggressively. This relationship is the same as that faced by the smoker who lights up hour after hour, day after day, over a number of years, increasing their risk of cancer with every puff.

The scientific evidence about the effects of televised violence on children cannot clarify which path is the best for policy-makers to pursue to address the problems that research in this area has identified. That decision rests more in value judgments, based upon the relative importance that each of you place on protecting children’s health as contrasted with the other competing interests involved, such as freedom of speech concerns. But when you make that judgment – as each Member of this committee will eventually be called upon to do – it is critical that you understand that television violence harms large numbers of children in this country, and significantly increases violence in our society.

To conclude, the research evidence in this area establishes clearly that the level of violence on television poses substantial cause for concern. Content analysis studies demonstrate that violence is a central aspect of television programming that enjoys remarkable consistency and stability over time. And effects research, including corelational, experimental, and longitudinal designs, converge to document the risk of harmful psychological effects on child-viewers. Collectively, these findings from the scientific community make clear that television violence is a troubling problem for our society. I applaud this Committee for considering the topic, and exploring potential policy options that may reduce or otherwise ameliorate the harmful effects of children’s exposure to television violence.