The idea that screen violence might encourage aggressive behaviour is not new. Since the Seventies, research into television's effects on people's behaviour, and in particular an important report published in the early Eighties from the US National Institute of Mental Health, concluded that violence on TV does lead to aggressive behaviour among children. In 1983, the Bulletin of the British Psychological Society agreed that greater exposure to violent material on the television was associated with a stronger predisposition toward aggression.
In the same year, a study published in the US journal Psychological Reports compiled 58 incidents of violence between 1970 and 1982, all of which were allegedly inspired by one particular movie, The Deer Hunter. Even before the link suggested by the judge in the James Bulger murder trial between the killing and the video Child's Play 3, several movies have been cited in court cases as responsible for real-life violence, including the insanity case of John Hinckley, Ronald Reagan's attempted assassin, who appeared to have been heavily influenced by the film Taxi Driver, and a young mother in North America charged with killing her daughter - inspired by The Exorcist.
The temptation to explain away these examples just by their being American should be resisted: an Independent Broadcasting Authority study from 1984 found that British television audiences rated home- grown crime dramas as more violent and disturbing than their imported US equivalents.
In fact the main debate among psychologists and psychiatrists is not whether there are links, but about precisely what are the ways in which viewing violence can trigger violent behaviour, and how important this stimulus is compared to other causes of violence. The notion that watching films or television does not influence behaviour seems odd given the millions that advertisers spend buying broadcast time with precisely that intention. It is the degree to which different people are affected that may vary.
Young children might be more vulnerable than adults for example, as there is evidence that they are often unable to understand the complexity of many plots, and so may interpret violence and its consequences in a different way to an adult watching the same material.
A 1982 study analysed the amount of violence in Western popular mainstream television. In a sample of 109 programmes, it found an average of nine acts of physical aggression and 7.8 acts of verbal aggression per programme hour, whereas other methods of conflict resolution occurred rarely. This is bound to teach children over time that violence is a viable and acceptable solution to problems in life. Perhaps most worryingly of all, this study found that aggression, especially verbal abuse, was often portrayed as humorous, and there was little evidence of violent behaviour attracting negative consequences.
Among psychologists, one controversy has been whether dangerous children tend to watch violent programmes that reinforce their already aggressive predispositions. There is some research that supports this. However, research also shows it is not just violent children who are so influenced. Data from several long-term studies of children, including one covering 22 years, indicate that lower intellectual competence in a child suggested later aggression, and that less intelligent children watch more television in general and more aggression-laden programmes (ie, crime dramas, cartoons) in particular than brighter children.
This suggests a circular process in which scripts for aggressive behaviour are learnt at an early age and become more firmly entrenched as children watch more violence, so that aggression becomes self-perpetuating.
But it is not just a case of confirming children's predispositions to violence. Other research examining the problem of 'desensitisation' concludes that the more violence children watch on TV, the less they come to see it as violence, and more an acceptable part of life. As these children become older, there is an increase in the amount of time it takes for them to become frightened by violence.
Another, more sociological theory, is that televison and video are fascinating for children to watch because they address children's fantasies far more directly than books or radio, through the visual presentation of heroes and heroines. These fantasies are often the only ways children have of overcoming feelings of inferiority; thus the screen idols become the tools by which they satisfy cravings for adequacy. It is worth noting that most aggressive television characters commit violence in the drive for superiority over others and are characterised by inflated prestige.
For a large group of socially disadvantaged children the contrast between TV and reality serves to increase their sense of failure and emphatically points out their lack of skill, intelligence, and ability. Yet the discrepancy between TV myth and daily reality enforces the mystique surrounding hero figures. Hence the drive to impersonate violent heroes becomes overpowering.
But TV does not only produce violent heroes, it also produces reasons to be violent. Part of television's mythology is the belief that people who don't give you what you want are by nature 'bad' and 'wrong' (as they always are when they oppose TV heroes) and hence the only way of making one's way in the world, and through the obstacles presented by others, is by violence.
A French study of 1,565 12- to 17- year-olds in 1983 examined the forms of screen violence that contributed most to child violence. These were found to be: brutality presented in the context of personal relationships, savagery presented as serving a good cause, and gratuitous violence.
The message of all this research may seem depressingly negative. But studies have shown that adverse effects can be minimised if parents restrict the amount of viewing, encourage some programmes and discourage others, and talk to children frequently about the meaning of what they see on television. As strong identification with aggressive screen characters correlates with child aggression, parents should observe carefully which video characters their children are starting to identify with and discuss with them the attraction of particular plots and heroes.
It is important for parents who feel they are fighting an unequal battle with Hollywood to realise that their own comments and conversations with their children about what they are watching can help to reduce agression in their offspring.
In the end, though, none of these links are simple cause and effect. Some psychologists suggest that even apparently unrelated phenomena, such as a nation's aggressive foreign policy, may influence children's attitude to violence through watching the television news.
The long history of research into video violence and crime suggests that until there is active collaboration among all parties concerned - government, parents, teachers and the film and television industry - progress will not be significant. It is one thing to be able to agree on the conclusions of research; but that is a far cry from setting in train a policy for change.
The writer is clinical lecturer in psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, London.
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