Children's Entertainment

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II. Violence Concerns

The TV violence concern made its official debut in 1952 with the first of a series of congressional hearings. That particular hearing was held in the House of Representatives before the Commerce Committee (United States Congress, 1952). The following year, in 1953, the first major Senate hearing was held before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, then headed by Senator Estes Kefauver, who convened a panel to inquire into the impact of television violence on juvenile delinquency (United States Congress, 1955a; 1955b). Senator Kefauver established the model hearing by inviting several panels of experts or interested parties to discuss TV violence. In the typical hearing, there would be a panel of parents and teachers to testify about their concerns about television violence. The next panel was a group of experts from the criminal justice system or general field of social science, followed by a panel of TV executives.

In one of the early hearings, a developmental psychologist, Eleanor Maccoby (1954), who was -- and is still -- a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, and Paul Lazarsfeld (1955), who was a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, testified on the effects of television violence. Both of those social scientists noted that, while we really did not have much information on the impact of television (because social scientists were not studying that issue), we did know something about the way films influence children and we could make some suggestions about television. That early testimony initiated a series of congressional hearings on television violence and set a pattern for congressional hearings that have been held to this date. The most recent congressional activity in this area was the February 2, 1995, Children's Media Protection Act of 1995 introduced by Senator Kent Conrad.

There have been many hearings since the 1950's, but there has been only limited change -- until recently -- because this is a difficult issue. TV violence reduction is fraught with legal complications, with policy pitfalls, with social scientists arguing with each other. Nevertheless, our knowledge base has changed over time and there have been some significant changes in research and landmark reviews of that research.

There were many hearings, but the landmark events that map out where we have been and what we need to do have moved forward from those 1950's hearings. The National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was a presidential commission -- established by President Johnson in response to the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King -- to assess the role violence plays in our society. This was a broad-ranging national commission, sometimes referred to as the Eisenhower commission because it was chaired by Milton Eisenhower (who, I must say, was a former President of Kansas State University). The Eisenhower Commission issued it's report in 1969 -- actually, a bookshelf full of reports, there were about nine or ten staff report volumes. One of those volumes was devoted to media violence, not just television, but media violence. The sections that related to television violence reviewed the research that was available up to that date. The pace of research began to pick up speed in the 1960's with some early studies, which I will describe in a moment. Yet, there was a research base to review in the 1960's, and the conclusion of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was, and I paraphrase: Yes, from the research that we have, although it is thin and limited, we do know that there is reason for concern about violence in media, particularly violence on television, and particularly the violence on television that is seen by children (Baker & Ball, 1969).

The next landmark event occurred at this point. A very influential Senator, John Pastore from Rhode Island, who was chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, held another hearing. This hearing differed slightly from any of the prior hearings because Senator Pastore included more than the usual parents, teachers, social scientists, and network executives. He added a wrinkle by inviting the Surgeon General of the United States to attend the hearing. When the various panels had testified, he asked the Surgeon General to make some comments. The Surgeon General's Office had just concluded the first reports on smoking and health. At this point, you have to cast your minds back to the mid 1960's. There was quite an outcry over the first Surgeon General's report on smoking and health, because it indicated that there might be some link between smoking and lung cancer. So, it was this same health officer, the Surgeon General, who was asked to comment on what had been presented at the hearing. And, the Surgeon General responded by placing the TV violence controversy in the same context as the smoking and lung cancer controversy -- a public health context.

Now, that was the first time that TV violence had ever been framed as a public health issue. The Surgeon General suggested that he would approach the issue by establishing a panel of scientists and representatives from the industry to review the evidence and to develop a consensus report. And, he got his wish.

A 12-member panel was appointed with distinguished social scientists, professionals in psychiatry and child development, political scientists, and two representatives of the industry. Thomas Coffin, a psychologist who was Vice President for Research at NBC, and Joseph Klapper, a sociologist who was Director of the Office of Social Research at CBS, were among the industry representatives. Senator Pastore did not get his report in one year; it took longer, things always do. But, the funding established 60 research projects around the country, and it took three years to conduct the research and write the report. The report, released in 1972, concluded that violence on television does influence children who view that programming and does increase the likelihood that they will become more aggressive in certain ways. Not all children are affected, not all children are affected in the same way, but there is evidence that TV violence can be harmful to young viewers (Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behaviour, 1972; Murray, 1973).

The next landmark report was the 1982 study from the National Institute of Mental Health (1982). This review was a ten year follow-up to the Surgeon General's report. The conclusion: Now with 10 years of more research, we know that violence on television does affect the aggressive behaviour of children -- and adults for that matter -- and there are many more reasons for concern about violence on television. "The research question has moved from asking whether or not there is an effect to seeking explanations for that effect." (National Institute of Mental Health, 1982, p. 6)

The next report was in 1992 from the American Psychological Association Task Force on Television and Social Behaviour (Huston, et al, 1992), which concluded that 30 years of research confirms the harmful effects of TV violence. These conclusions were reaffirmed by the American Psychological Association Commission on Violence and Youth (1993; Eron & Slaby, 1994).

How are we affected? There seem to be three major avenues: Direct effects, Desensitisation, and the Mean World Syndrome:

The Direct effects process suggests that children and adults who watch a lot of violence on television may become more aggressive and/or they may develop favourable attitudes and values about the use of aggression to resolve conflicts.

The second effect, Desensitisation, suggests that children who watch a lot of violence on television may become less sensitive to violence in the real world around them, less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others, and more willing to tolerate ever-increasing levels of violence in our society.

The third effect, the Mean World Syndrome, suggests that children or adults who watch a lot of violence on television may begin to believe that the world is as mean and dangerous in real life as it appears on television, and hence, they begin to view the world as a much more mean and dangerous place.

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