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LETER : TV violence: case studies and role models in the visual media

From Dr Marie Messenger Davies

Sir: With regard to Melvyn Bragg's article "You can't blame it on the box" (4 August), I have recently reviewed the literature on screen violence and children for a paper addressed to paediatricians. I was struck by the absence of case studies: specific examples of children who have been damaged sufficiently by exposure to screen violence to have been brought to the attention of health professionals, and whose experiences have been documented in an objective fashion in the relevant research literature (as distinct from anecdotes in the press). The very few examples of case studies that I found reported fear reactions (nightmares, sleeplessness, disturbing flashbacks) rather than aggression, and they were in response to films, rather than to television programmes.

It may be that such cases are documented elsewhere, for instance in police or social work files. It seems to me essential, if the argument about screen violence is not to continue in the fruitlessly inconclusive way demonstrated in your recent correspondence, that such examples are collected, analysed and reported on. Despite Dr Wober's assertion (letter, 7 August) that "screen violence has a small effect on some people, in interaction with other influences", the fact remains that we have no idea who these people are. Hence we can neither offer them appropriate therapy, nor defend ourselves against them.

We also need much more accurate definitions of "screen violence", and the types of violence that vulnerable individuals are likely to be affected by. Does it make a difference if the violence comes in cartoon form, or in King Lear, or in a Scorsese movie, or in Nightmare on Elm Street? Does it make a difference whether it is viewed in the cinema, or at home on video, or with, or without, the presence of parents? Is all violence equivalent both in its meanings and in its effects? We have no answers to these questions, because we remain stuck in a distinctly unscientific approach to the problem which insists that screen violence is nasty (which it certainly is) and therefore it must be having some effects on children. Television is the most widely and frequently used mass medium that has ever existed, watched by billions of people for several hours every day. A more scientific question might be why, given this scale of consumption, it seems to have so few harmful effects. Vulnerable individuals are another matter, and they need to be identified more precisely.

Yours faithfully,

Marie Messenger Davies

Director of Studies,

Media Studies

London College of Printing & Distributive Trades

London EC1

7 August