Outcries about the level of violence on television and the effect that it is having on our children have been around for a long time. Generally, these outcries involve a concerned parent who doesn’t want their child seeing violence on TV for fear that they will grow up and become some type of thug, or even worse, a serial killer.
That may be a stretch, but the basic gist of these arguments usually aligns with the logic that, “you are what you watch.” In essence, if little Billy sees a shooting on TV, he’ll want to go out, buy a gun, and shoot someone too. It’s true you need to monitor what your children are exposed to, but the one-to-one relationship ascribed to violence on TV and violent acts is more complex than it may appear. Over the last 20 years the amount of violence portrayed on TV has increased exponentially, both in number of instances and degree of violence.
However, violent juvenile crime is down about 35% from where it was 15 years ago. While there has been a slight uptick in the last few years, it would be difficult to justly lay the blame on TV. So why does this prejudice against television persist? The answer lies with where it began. The Bobo Doll Experiment Thinking that broadcasted violence affects real life violence comes from the idea that children follow an observational learning model. That is, they watch how other people react to situations and they respond by mimicking actions that look enjoyable or beneficial and avoiding actions that look non-enjoyable.
Much of this thinking is based on a famous study by psychologist Albert Bendura in which a child observed an adult violently assaulting a punching bag with a clown face. When presented with the toy, the child would repeat the actions of the adult, proving that children imitate the violence they see and – by extension – that they will probably hit one of their friends or shoot someone as a result.
This idea is not without a certain logic. But simplistic evidence like this does not take into account other factors. The child knew he or she was punching a toy, that the adult appeared to have fun punching it (and who can blame them, that toy is awesome) and the child saw no appreciable consequences for playing with the toy like that. In some cases, the presentation of television violence can actually be beneficial to a child’s understanding of the effects of real-world violence (i.e. consequences). For example, if little Billy is horrified at the violence he saw on TV – a mildly traumatic response – he may be more averse to committing violence against others, because of the bad feelings it stirs up. And he may be more willing to explore peaceful ways of settling arguments in the future rather than resorting to violence.
Gerard Jones, author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, argues that pretend violence can actually be beneficial for developing healthy attitudes toward real-life violence as an adult. It allows children a fantasy space where they can experience the feelings and emotions of violence without actually participating in anything harmful.
On the flipside, children who are sheltered from violence don’t have that safe outlet and can have a harder time dealing with violent emotions as they get older. Taming Baby Rage Jones’ conclusions are compatible with those expressed by Richard Tremblay, professor of Psychiatry and psychology at the University of Montreal. In an interview he gave to Scientific American Tremblay explains that violence in children is innate, natural behavior that they learn to replace with better means of communication.
After studying 35,000 children over the last 20 years Tremblay postulates that excessive aggression in children is better correlated with poorly developed social skills. So TV may still be to blame but not for the popular reasons, and no more so than video games, the internet and any other media that detracts from developing social skills. What do you think though? Is violence on TV completely bad, or is it ok?