In September 1974, robbers in Ogden, Utah, attempted to kill their victims by forcing them to drink Drano (a cleaning product), stating that they would have chosen another method had they not seen the depicted as shockingly effective in Magnum Force, starring Clint Eastwood, two nights earlier.[iii] That same year, a made for television film, Born Innocent, was shown in the U.S., depicting the rape of a girl with a broomstock. The next day a gang of four children copied the crime, raping a nine year old Californian girl and her eight year old playmate on a beach in the same manner.[iv]
Unfortunately, 1974 was not such an extraordinary year – for ‘copy-cat’ killings are a gruesome but familiar fact of life. In case after case, we hear evidence that perpetrators of violence have been inspired by violent television representations: the film Child’s Play was alleged to have inspired both the child killers of toddler James Bulger and the two boys from Edlington, near Doncaster, who in 2010 who brutally tortured two boys of a similar age.
Each time such an incident happens, we hear people argue that television violence has played a vital part in ‘social decline’ and encouraged criminality. I used to laugh off such suggestions. After all, I quite enjoyed the Child’s Play films myself when I was barely a teenager and they certainly hadn’t turned me into a homicidal maniac. But while conducting research for my book I’ve realised that it’s almost certain that witnessing violence does contribute to criminality.
Primed for violence
For example, even when children aren’t themselves abused, witnessing domestic abuse seems to slightly increase future antisocial behaviour and violence.[i] And experiments show that children are quite apt to respond to witnessing violence by becoming more excitable and aggressive. For example, one study randomly assigned 396 seven to nine year old boys to watch either a violent or non-violent film before playing hockey. Those boys who had above average levels of aggressiveness (measured long before the test) committed more fouls if they had watched the violent film, while those who were not particularly aggressive did not.[ii] Wider research confirms this general rule that witnessing violence increases violence in those who are already aggressive – though the effects are usually quite small and short-term in their nature. Children, for example, will quite happily imitate all manner of behaviours they see (on tv and elsewhere) at ages as young as 14 months but a bit of education soon teaches children that certain behaviours aren’t socially appropriate (or rewarded).
This picture is obviously somewhat nuanced but so far so good for the anti-television violence brigade. Where the evidence is more debatable, however, is on whether (and why) television viewing has longer term influence on violence. It is certainly true that children who watch a lot more television violence tend to be somewhat more antisocial later in life (about 20% more violent according to some studies) but we have a classic chicken and egg problem here. In other words, it’s rather unclear whether people are antisocial because they watch more tv violence or vice-versa. Alternatively, it might be that some other factor related to viewing of television violence (such as low parental supervision) might be the crucial factor.
One of the leading scholars in this area, L. Rowell Huesmann, is quite convinced there is a significant long-term effect – having collected data on a large number of people’s television viewing habits, a range of other variables (mostly to do with parenting styles) and eventual violence levels. He concludes that early television viewing is more influential than later viewing behaviour, and that tv violence is most damaging when children identify with the perpetrators of violence. In other words, first person shoot-’em up computer games played at age 5 would be pretty bad news, while teenage viewing of violence by a doll shouldn’t be too damaging.
For me, I think Huesmann somewhat over-interprets the evidence he has. First, I’m not satisfied that he sufficiently accounts for the fact that children who are more likely to be violent are also more likely to be more drawn to violence on television – and will more easily identify with violent protagonists. Second, given that parenting practices are hugely important for future aggression and violence levels, I think his measures of parenting aren’t sufficient to measure ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parenting. Basically, I’m just not convinced that the problem isn’t that less able (or caring) parents are both less likely to bring up well-adjusted children and more likely to let their children watch inappropriate violence on tv. I certainly couldn’t rule out some longer term impact of watching large amounts of tv violence but I suspect it is very, very small once you fully take into account wider related factors (such as parenting and the personality traits that make certain children more drawn to violence in the first place).
So, my verdict: watching violence on television or computer games is bad news for violence in the short-term but a bit of parental supervision and explanation should prevent major side-effects. As for children watching hours and hours of violent television or inflicting violence on others in games, this is probably to be avoided for a far wider set of reasons than simple crime reduction. Computers and television can be good learning tools, but, as my mother used to say ‘moderation in all things’.
As an afternote, people who argue that the introduction of television led to the crime wave from the 1960s to 1990s are bonkers.
[i] ‘Influence of adult domestic violence on children’s internalizing and externalizing problems: An environmentally informative twin study’ in Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 41, pp. 1095-1103, 2002
[ii] Huesmann, L. R. & Kirwil, L., ‘Why observing violence increases the risk of violent behavior in the observer’, in Flannery, D., Vazsonyi, T, and Waldman, I., The Cambridge handbook of violent behaviour and aggression (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
[iii] ‘Hi-Fi shop murders in Ogden Utah’ At: www.essortment.com/hi-fi-shop-murders-ogden-utah-45273.html; validated at Warchol, G., ‘Hi-Fi Torture Victim Dies 28 Years Later’ in The Salt Lake Tribune, 15 July 2002. At: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/716825/posts
[iv] ‘Submission to the Select Committee on Violent Offending From: The New Zealand Psychological Society’ in New Zealand Psychologist, 1978, 7, 49-57.