Media Violence and the Captive Audience

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The media, including television programming, cartoons, film, the news, as well as literature and magazines, is a very powerful and pervasive medium for expression. It can reach a large number of people and convey ideas, cultural norms, stereotypic roles, power relationships, ethics, and values. Through these messages, the mass media may have a strong influence on individual behavior, views, and values, as well as in shaping national character and culture. Although there is a great potential for the media to have a positive and affirming effect on the public and society at large, there may be important negative consequences when the messages conveyed are harmful, destructive, or violent.

Many psychologists have studied the effect of the media on an individual’s behavior and beliefs about the world. There have been over 1000 studies which confirm the link that violence portrayed through the media can influence the level of aggression in the behavioral patterns of children and adults (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2001). The observed effects include, increased aggressiveness and anti-social behavior towards others, an increased fear of becoming a victim or target of aggressive behavior, becoming less sensitive to violence and victims of violent acts, and concurrently desiring to watch more violence on television and in real-life (A.A.P. 2001). According to John Murray of Kansas State University, there are three main avenues of effects: direct effects, desensitization, and the Mean World Syndrome (Murray, 1995, p. 10). The direct effects of observing violence on television include an increase in an individual’s level of aggressive behavior, and a tendency to develop favorable attitudes and values about using violence to solve conflicts and to get one’s way. As a result of exposure to violence in the media, the audience may become desensitized to violence, pain, and suffering both on television and in the world. The individual may also come to tolerate higher levels of aggression in society, in personal behavior, or in interpersonal interactions. The third effect is known as the Mean World Syndrome, which theorizes that as a result of the amount of violence seen on television and also the context and social perspective portrayed through the media, certain individuals develop a belief that the world is a bad and dangerous place, and begin to fear violence and victimization in real life (A.A.P. 2001).

The effect of the media on young children is especially salient. Young children often learn how to act and behave from what they observe at home, from the adults and older peers they come in contact with, and from what they see on television.

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"Media Violence and the Captive Audience." 22 Jun 2018
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Young children instinctively imitate actions and model the behavior they observe, however they do not have the intellect or maturity to determine whether the action is appropriate or good. Research shows that the average American child spends approximately 27 hours per week watching television (Minow and LaMay, 1995, p. 32). The American Psychological Association estimates that before the average American child finishes 8th grade, he or she will see 8,000 murders and 100,000 violent acts on television alone (Levine, 1995, p. 143). Further, by the time that child turns 18, he or she will have viewed over 200,000 televised acts of violence (A.A.P. 2001). Exposure to this much violence is bound to have an impact on the behavior and belief systems of young children.

The Surgeon General reported on a compilation of studies conducted in the early seventies about the effect of violence present in the mass media, television in particular, on American viewers. This report, issued in 1972, concluded that violence portrayed on television does influence child viewers, and "does increase the likelihood that [at least some children] will become more aggressive in certain ways," as was observed through behavioral changes in response to viewing this violence (Murray, 1995, p. 8). The report does not prove that all children become more violent in response to watching violence on television, however there is a strong connection among some. Children are affected differently and their subsequent behavior varies, however there is evidence that supports the theory that violence on television can have harmful effects on our youngest members of society.

Further studies of the effects of violence include investigations into the short and long-term effects that extensive exposure to televised violence may have on individuals. Researchers observed the behaviors, interactions, and manners of play of three groups of preschoolers before and after viewing different genres of television programming. The first group was shown programming that contained violent content. The second group was shown programs with a pro-social or positive message, such as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. The third or control group watched neutral television that neither conveyed a violent nor peaceful, pro-social message. During observations, the researchers found that the group of children who watched violent programming consequently exhibited more aggressiveness and were more active in their behavior during play and interactions with their peers. The second group, on the other hand, became more cooperative, caring, and pro-social towards the other children, while the control group showed no change in action or behavior. The researchers concluded that "following the violent programming, the children’s play [was] more aggressive. They [were] more likely to hit, punch, kick, and grab to get their way…violent entertainment teaches children how to use aggression for personal gain" (Murray, 1995, p. 11). This supports the theory that television can lead children to directly imitate what they have seen, whether the content has a violent or positive and peaceful message.

Violence on television, both in programming and in commercial TV, is shown as a way to solve problems, gain control and respect, and to get one’s desires fulfilled. In addition, programming with violent content and displays of aggressiveness has been shown to incite higher levels of arousal than non-violent programs. Studies conducted using the Galvanic Skin Response, which is used to measure levels of arousal in subjects, has shown that although there is some research that has concluded the opposite, "the overwhelming weight of evidence…supports the thesis that exposure to filmed or televised violence leads children to a state of heightened excitability and to an increase in subsequent displays of aggression" (Bogart, 1973, p. 493). Additionally, if the violent action is positively rewarded or portrayed as heroic, more violent behavior is subsequently displayed.

Exposure to various mediums of mass media "at least under some circumstances…can lead children to accept what they have seen as a partial guide for their own action" (Bogart, 1973, p. 503). Television programming, films, cartoons, and other animated or life-like portrayals are especially influential because of the visual aspect and the vividness and virtual reality of the images. Children, especially those under age 8, instinctively imitate from a very early age, and are not entirely selective. Younger children are also dramatically impacted by the violence they witness on television, because they may not be able to distinguish between fantasy and real-life (A.A.P. 2001). The violent images they see on television, cartoons, and movies may be perceived as real, which can be very damaging and traumatizing.

There is an extreme abundance of violence accessible to children on television. In fact, there is four to five times more violence on programming specifically designed to reach a young audience than on prime time television and the news. It has been documented that "there are about 5 violent acts committed during every hour of prime time television and 20 to 25 violent acts committed during every hour of Saturday morning children’s programming" (Murray, 1995, p. 12). Since few children watch real-life violence on television news or documentaries, not much is known about the effect of real violence on young children. However, studies show that "fictional violence does have an undesirable effect" on youngsters (Bogart, 1973, p. 504). Since television does expose children to a great amount of fictional violence, and it has been shown that children cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality, this artificial violence is likely to be considered a true depiction of real life.

In many studies, children have been shown to respond to the violence that they have seen on television, and many "showed more aggressive responses to aggressive television content when they thought it was real" than when it was clearly described or portrayed as fantasy and fake; however according to Feshbach and Stevensen, "the young preschooler may be incapable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy…" (Bogart, 1973, p. 503). The fantasy realm of television extends into the realm of real-life world of many children. Young children have been reported to dream about television on a regular basis, and it is common for children to spontaneously imitate television behavior, sing songs, or pretend. The distinction is not apparent. In another situation, a child asked a researcher who was conducting a study, if Superman and Mighty Mouse were to fight, who would win? (Bogart, 1973). Children have also been shown to be unable or unwilling to recognize the difference between cartoons and human characters, real-life action and pretend acting, and they have difficulty understanding that their favorite characters or heroes do not exist in real-life. Children have been found crawling down into storm drains searching for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which are animated, fictitious characters who although are outcast from society, are portrayed as courageous but violent heroes. (Bogart, 1973). The children did not understand that the characters were made-up and existed only on television.

Children readily embrace the behavior of the characters, which they see as heroic, courageous, and good. However, often the "good guys" are extremely violent characters who are doing justice and therefore are not punished. Although comparatively few studies have been conducted on the effects of violence on television on young girls than on boys, studies show that as more aggressive female characters appear on television programming, girls are increasingly exhibiting similar responses (Mortimer, 1996).

Children learn how to act or behave from a wide range of stimuli and examples around them. Television is becoming more of a part of children’s lives and therefore is having more and more of an influence. Not only do the visual characteristics of television augment the impact on the viewer, but television is also readily accessible and can reach a vast and diverse audience. The popularity of a child has shown to influence the amount of television he or she watches. Children who are less popular tend to watch more television, which discourages other, more constructive activities such as socializing, playing sports, reading, or developing hobbies. "The child who is unpopular in the third grade tends to watch television more as he gets older and continues to be unpopular" (Bogart, 1973, p. 504). It has also been shown that television habits, which are established early in childhood (by around age 8), influence the aggressive behavior throughout childhood, teenage years, and later in life. Children who are already aggressive prefer to watch violent television to programming with non-violent or pro-social content. Since "aggressive behavior [often] leads to peer rejection…aggressive children have few options for alternative activities" and therefore tend to watch more television overall (Ledingham, 1993, p. 7). Children who prefer to watch more violent subject matter have been shown to behave more aggressively both at that time and years later, which draws a possibility that the effects of television violence may be cumulative. As John Neale states, "A preference for violence in the third grade is causally related to aggressive behavior ten years later" (Bogart, 1972, p. 504).

Some adults who were exposed to an enormous amount of violence and television as young children demonstrate the negative impact of that violence through their adult behavior. Leonard Eron, a professor of psychology at University of Michigan, followed children from age eight to adulthood, and studied the effect of television violence on their behavior at different stages of life. He studied mainly boys, and found that young boys who were exposed to a great deal of television violence continued to watch more violent television as adults. These adult men had the potential to commit more serious crimes at age 30, and also exhibited "more aggressive behavior when drinking…" and were more likely to punish their own children more harshly and aggressively (Levine, 1995, p. 145). Other research has examined the long-term effects of and the relationship between early television viewing and aggressive behavior 10 to 20 years later. These findings similarly concluded that the subjects who watched the greatest amount of violent television throughout childhood and later on, were more likely to be aggressive and were more likely to be convicted of criminal offenses (Murray, 1995, p. 12).

Susceptability and Character:

There are many other factors that influence violent behavior. It may be that such behavior in children is a result of a complex combination and interaction among several factors, which augment susceptibility to the effects of media violence, preference to viewing violent programs, and imitation of the aggression seen. Exposure to violence and abuse in real-life (at home, or in the community), use of drugs and alcohol, or stressful family or socioeconomic situations (such as poverty, deprivation, marital breakup) may make children more easily angered, frustrated, or ashamed, and more prone to act aggressively or impulsively. Children who have behavioral, emotional, or impulse control problems may be more vulnerable to the influence and more likely to imitate televised aggression, especially if that "violence is very realistic, frequently repeated or unpunished," or shown as satisfying (Children and TV Violence, 1997, p. 1).

Although other factors may play a significant part in influencing behavior and violent tendencies, extensive, prolonged exposure to television and other mediums of mass media can manipulate an individual’s perceptions of him/herself, other individuals, society, and the world at large. It is difficult to measure, quantify, or analyze these effects and the far-reaching impact that they have. However, when probing into the role of the mass media in shaping the national character and culture of America and the American people, the media clearly conveys a particular set of ideas, characteristics, values, behaviors, traits, and knowledge to a large and attentive audience.

Although, "no one knows how to measure the forces that shape character…society understands what forces make for good character" (Bogart, 1973, p. 518). Some of television’s most significant effects and influences are extremely hard to measure, and often have an "invisible" nature, however they may add up and form cumulative "patterns that would leave their traces upon the culture…"(Bogart, 1973, p. 516). The media can be an extremely powerful distributor of messages about normative roles and stereotypes, values, and power relationships. These, in turn, affect the "autonomous preferences" of the viewers and the way that the individual recipients view themselves, others, and relationships within society at large. (Bogart, 1973, p. 516). A potent example of the media influencing public opinion, attitude, rules, and actions is the traditional treatment of Negroes in the United Stated prior to the mid 1960’s, and also present day exclusion and "othering" as well. However, the problem of assessing and "evaluating the subtle effects of television violence" on society parallels the difficult situation of measuring the effect of the media on shaping cultural beliefs and preconceptions. (Bogart, 1973, p. 519).

The perspective of the audience seems to greatly affect the response that is evoked. This is particularly true in scenes of violence and aggression. Through the normative roles and values conveyed through the media, the individual is persuaded to identify with one of the characters on the screen. In scenes of violence, this point of view determines how the scene affects the viewer, and whether he or she relates to and shares the experience with the attacker or with the victim. If the viewer shares the experience of the victim, he or she in turn feels helpless, afraid, subordinate, powerless, less valuable, and may experience shame or rage because of the attack. Meanwhile, viewers who associate themselves with the attacker, share the feelings experience of power, control, domination, and respect (Hyman, 1974, p. 534). In fact, it is believed that the amount of violence and victimization that occurs on the screen is less important than the relationship between the victim and the aggressor and the traits that each possesses.

The context of violence within scenes of aggression is also very important in determining the viewer’s response and the principles, qualities, behaviors, norms, and actions that are promoted or esteemed. It has been shown that we, as human beings, are more likely to imitate a character with which we ourselves can identify, and who possesses or embodies characteristics and values that we deem valuable. Typical examples include wealth, power, and respect. We aspire to acquire these traits and become more like that character.

Through the portrayals and relationships expressed through the media, we are taught to embrace certain roles and social rules, which both define and perpetuate power relationships and "othering." In this way, we are conditioned from an early age to accept certain attitudes, values, and behaviors of those who represent a normative role that is reinforced by the media and general cultural attitudes. Through film, television, the news, advertisements, and other media sources, we are trained to sympathize with certain characters, situations, and values, and to dislike others whom we come to perceive as "enemies," who are undeserving of sympathy and requiring justice to be served. (Hyman, 1974, p. 535). Whom we identify or sympathize with is influenced by the cultural attitudes we are taught to embrace.

According to a 1970 report by the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, the relationships that are constructed and depicted in scenes of violence on television may encourage and promote "violent forms of behavior and foster moral and social values about violence in daily life that are unacceptable in a civilized society" (Andison, 1977, p. 316). Although it is difficult to measure the effects of the media on socialization, many experts agree that the media is a potent vehicle of attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, political, social, and occupational roles, norms, and values. It is through these that an individual learns "the distinctive patterns that fit an individual into the particular place and subgroup in which he lives" (Hyman, 1974, p. 529). Traditional gender, race, and class roles and expectations are conveyed through the portrayal of the characteristics identified with victims and aggressors.

Acting the Roles:

Violence in the media establishes and affirms social relationships by shaping our opinions about who is the aggressor and who is or should be the victim in the situation. There are certain groups and persona that are more likely to be targets of violent action. In general, the "typical perpetrator is a white male…in the prime of his life, with a lot of money," while, "The principle victims have tended to be female, non-white, foreign-born, and elderly" (Murray, 1995, p. 6). Women are at least twice as likely to be portrayed as victims than as aggressors, while minority women are even more likely to be victimized ("Killing Screens", 1994). This portrayal of members of minority groups, women, and lower classes, may cause individuals to feel more controllable, powerless, and inferior to those depicted as the majority; specifically middle class white males.

Traditionally, women are passive and weak, and are conditioned to be selfless, caring, and to put others’ feelings before their own. Meanwhile, men are valiant, virile, and forwardly aggressive in going after what they want. The media teaches men to be macho and powerful aggressors, while teaching women to be proper, "lady-like," and submissive victims. These individuals are conditioned to accept their subordinate place in society (Greenfield, 1984, p. 43). From an early age, we are taught to acknowledge and consent to different social roles. Since there are very few programs that promote pro-social behavior, few people are exposed to the benefits that television can provide. For example, it was noted earlier that when children in controlled studies were exposed to television programs promoting non-violent and pro-social behavior, such as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street, they exhibited less aggression and more cooperative behavior during play and interactions with other children. After viewing these types of programs, children were also shown to have "gained in cultural pride, self-confidence, and interpersonal cooperation…children developed more positive views toward children of other races" (Greenfield, 1984, p. 43). This may be because shows such as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street portray characters from various ethnic and minority groups in a non-stereotypical, equal, and positive way.

Violence perpetuates Violence:

The cultural messages that are internalized or appropriated by individuals are consequently applied to real-life relationships, social interactions, self-perception, and preferences, therefore perpetuating the cycle. In response to the feelings of shame that result from the subordination portrayed through the social relationships inherent in scenes of violence, the individual desires justice redeemed respect, and recompensation of some sort. According to James Gilligan, violence is closely linked to justice and feelings of shame. All violence is an attempt to achieve or maintain what the violent individual may perceive as justice. In the majority of cases, violence is used as a means for restoring pride and respect which was damaged through a previous experience of violence, whether it was targeted behavioral violence or "invisible" and inherent in the basic structure and institutions of society (Gilligan, 1997). Shame is a common precursor to violent and aggressive action when violence is seen as the only possible means to diminish one’s feelings of shame, restore pride, confirm self-worth, regain honor and respect, reassert esteem, and seek justice and retribution (Gilligan, 1997).

Gilligan also believes that poverty and discrimination are the most deadly and destructive form of violence, because continued exposure to societal pressures and comparisons leads to an internalized feeling of inferiority, less self-esteem or worth, and chronic shame. The systematic shaming process which is inherent in American society and is perpetuated through media violence, stereotypes, standards, normative roles, and power relationships propagates violent responses. The media spells out our definition of what is good and valuable, and also presents a standard or ideal against which we compare ourselves and our lives, and model our behavior in a way appropriate to our position (Gilligan, 1997). We are pressured by society to meet these expectations, and if we fail we feel defective or inferior, leading to shame and a desire to change. The media "provides a ‘definition of the situation’ to the audience–calling for aggressive or non-aggressive behavior, defined as appropriate to individuals of a given sex and social class" (Gecas, 1972, p. 695). Since the media saturates every encounter and interaction that we have, it is very effective at normalizing or naturalizing a particular view of the world, that establishes and maintains "the boundaries between the sexes and the social class strata of the society" (Gecas, 1972, p. 695). The content and messages, which are presented and normalized, are often the views held by the decision-making and most dominant group within a society. (Gilligan, 187). This perpetuates the interests of the ruling class and maintains the status-quo and inequalities that exist between different groups. Therefore, the cycle of violence continues.

Studies have shown that individuals identified as belonging to different racial or class groups have differential television habits and preferences, which influence their perception and attitude towards violence, both on television and in real-life. In general, "lower income boys perceived violence as more acceptable, more enjoyable and more like real-life than middle-class boys" (Bogart, 1973, p. 513). They also seemed to find scenes containing violence more humorous, and less gruesome. Minority boys from low-income families were even less likely to see violence in scenes as shocking or repugnant than white boys from low-income families (Bogart, 1973). In general, violence is more readily accepted as a solution to conflict where there is more exposure to violent television, among low-income and disadvantaged families, who have been shown to be more aggressive and reinforce these aggressive tendencies through television (Bogart, 1973).

Violence, throughout history, has been a central part of life, art, and drama. Human beings are naturally aggressive, and have an instinctive tendency to resort to violence as a means of self-preservation, competition, and survival. Ironically, these primal aggressive urges are kept in check by the very structural and societal institutions that perpetuate the relationships and sentiments, which, in turn, endorse further violence and aggression. American culture glorifies violent acts of heroism, violence, and justice which glamorize dominant cultural values and neglect social problems and consequences (Fiske, 1989). It seems evident that our fascination and preoccupation with violence surely preceded television, however the modern day media serves to promote and perpetuate violence.


Although numerous studies confirm the negative behavioral and social effects of violence portrayed in the media, violence continues to occur on American television programming at a higher rate than any other nation in the world. (Bogart, 1973, p. 514). This may be attributed to a number of underlying causes, but one explanation lies in the commercialized and capitalistic structure of American broadcasting. Because broadcasting corporations rely on advertising to fund programming, advertisers want to make as much money as possible and reach a large audience. Since viewer ratings determine which programs are most successful and popular, advertisers are willing to pay more money for commercials on stations and during programs that attract the attention of the largest, widest audience.

Broadcasters create and air violent programs because ratings indicate that that is what the American public prefers to see, and those programs attract more money from corporate advertisers (Bogart, 1973, p. 501). In fact, it is estimated that advertisers spend over "$470 million on broadcast sponsorship aimed at children, one of the hottest and fastest growing consumer markets." Children are easily influenced by television and advertising, and it is projected that parents spend almost $170 billion on children’s toys and merchandise that was seen on television (Minow and LaMay, 1995, p. 56). And since violence is in high demand, toy manufacturers sponsor violent cartoons and violent ads to endorse their products and appeal to easily susceptible children. The producers of animated films "consider themselves primarily businessmen making films rather than creators of ideas." (Bogart, 1973, p. 500). They do not feel that they have creative control, but instead are filling the demand for violent content in television. This seems to be a self-perpetuating supply and demand relationship. Television broadcasters feel that they are merely interpreting the ratings, and giving the public what it wants. Meanwhile, public demand is sustained because as studies show, individuals’ preferences can be skewed by violence on television. (Mortimer, 1996). However, as long as violence is profitable, producers will continue to broadcast violent programming for children and adults.

Studies show that the more children watch television, the more likely they are to be affected by media violence. Young children learn how to act by imitating the behavior and interactions they observe at home, among their peers, and on television. They instinctively replicate these attitudes and patterns of self-conduct, without possessing the intellectual ability to determine if it is good or appropriate. Thus, if the behavior expressed around them is physically or emotionally destructive, they may be more likely to incorporate aggressiveness into their own behavior.

In conclusion, extensive viewing of violent television by children has the potential to cause greater aggressiveness. Children who view programs in which violence is very realistic, frequently repeated, rewarded, glorified, justified, or unpunished, are more likely to imitate what they see. This is due to their inability to distinguish between fantasy and real-life, and their inability to fully differentiate between right and wrong.

Many studies confirm the link between the extensive viewing of television violence and negative behavioral and social implications. Not only is the amount of violence influential, but the context and relationships portrayed through scenes of violence may have serious affects on the viewers. Through defining the values and traits associated with the victim and aggressor, the media can convey powerful social messages. Whom the viewer identifies and associates with may affect the impact that the scene has. The emotions and normative roles portrayed may be internalized and carried into real-life, perpetuating social inequity and feelings of shame, injustice, or victimization. These sentiments may make one less sensitive to real-life and fantasy violence, more fearful of the world, and more likely to perceive and to prefer to utilize violence as a means to restore justice or recompensate the victim.

The media may be instrumental in propagating and reinforcing behavioral and institutional violence. Through the extensive broadcasting of violent content, and the mass communication of unjust relationships, stereotypes, standards, expectations, and normative roles, the media cultivates violent behavior and fearful or pessimistic attitudes about the real world.

There is a continuing discussion as to whether violence in the media is actually responsible for the violent behavior in children and in society, or whether it is a scapegoat to describe the violent society in which we live. It is apparent that our society today is extremely violent. Television is a symptom of real-life. In order to manage the problem of violence in our culture, we must stop blaming the symptoms and ignoring the heart of the issue. Violence is everywhere and is impossible to avoid, however by avoiding the issue it will not disappear.

The media, although it may provoke or perpetuate aggressive behavior, cannot be held fully responsible. Instead, it may be regarded as one influence that is working in a total situation among many others, and is likely to reinforce preexisting social and individual tendencies, predispositions, attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and value systems, which promote hostility and violence.

Works Cited:

American Academy of Pediatrics. 2001. "Some Things You Should Know About Media Violence and Media Literacy." <www.>. Retrieved 23 Nov. 2001.

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