School Climate & Safety Commentary

Reducing Violence on Television

By Paul Simon — October 04, 1989 5 min read

I checked into a motel room late one night a few years ago after a long day of appointments in Illinois. I flipped on the room’s TV set, hoping to catch the late news. Instead, I saw an actor being sawed in half with a chain saw, in vivid color.

The scene unsettled me that night. I wondered what it would do to a 10-year-old or to a 14-year-old.

When I returned to Washington, I asked my staff to gather studies on television violence. They discovered nearly 3,000 scholarly articles and studies.

As I dug deeper, I found, first, a remarkable consensus in several research fields about the harm that excessive TV violence does to children and adults; second, a confirmation that U.S. television is more violent than ever before and may be the most violent of any industrialized society’s; and third, that self-regulation not long ago was an accepted practice in the American television industry, but today is illegal.

In the 1950’s, when television violence was tame compared with that seen today, psychologists tended toward a theory that it had a cathartic effect that reduced viewers’ aggressive behavior. Researchers today find no data to support that theory, but find abundant evidence of its harmful effects. The research generally identifies three problems connected with TV violence: Children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others; they may become more fearful of the world around them; and they may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.

The American Academy of Pediatrics finds that “repeated exposure to televised violence promotes a proclivity to violence and passive response to its practice.” In 1982, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop reported a cause-and-effect relationship between viewing and aggressive behavior after asking the National Institute of Mental Health to review the sizable body of research.

Data published in the New England Journal of Medicine show that graphic depictions of suicide on television are often followed by a dramatic rise in teen suicides. Thirty-five boys and young men between the ages of 8 and 31 killed themselves playing Russian roulette while imitating a scene from The Deer Hunter, which they had seen on television. And after a televised depiction of the New Bedford, Mass., pool-hall rape was shown, a 12-year-old boy assaulted a 10-year-old girl on a pool table.

Researchers had a unique before-and-after testing opportunity when TV came to a small Canadian community that had never had it before. They found that verbal and physical aggression rose among primary-school children after television became a part of the town’s life.

A study begun on a group of 8-year-olds by Leonard Eron and Rowell Huesmann of the University of Illinois tried to identify all causes of aggression in childhood: child-rearing practices in the family, neighborhood experiences, and other factors. At the end of the 10 years, the single best predictor of violence in these children, now 18, was what they had watched on television when they were 8--not what their families did, not what their social class was, not any of the other things that were measured.

By age 16, the average child has seen 200,000 acts of violence on TV, including 33,000 murders. The audience under 16 numbers about 50 million. If even one-tenth of 1 percent are harmed, we are needlessly impressing 50,000 young people with this gratuitous electronic mayhem.

As I digested these findings, I began to ask myself this question: Is a free society like ours--one that shuns government censorship and has a commercial television industry--powerless to protect itself and its children from the harm caused by excessive TV violence?

After discussions with television policymakers and visits to the networks’ divisions of standards and practices, I answered that question with the “television violence act,” which I expect will soon clear the Congress. The bill gives the television industry the limited exemption from the antitrust laws it needs to legally develop voluntary guidelines on television violence.

I first began exploring this approach when a network executive stressed in one meeting that he and his counterparts couldn’t even meet to discuss an industrywide approach to the problem because the antitrust laws prohibit it. His comment intrigued me.

The Justice Department filed a case in 1979 challenging the advertising sections of the National Association of Broadcasters’ television code on antitrust grounds. The n.a.b. settled the case in 1982 and scrapped the entire code, fearing additional antitrust suits based on other portions of the code. This change, coupled with added competitive pressures on broadcasters, has spawned an “arms race” in TV violence from which none will retreat for fear of los6ing ratings points. As in all arms races, the public is the loser.

I wondered why we couldn’t give the industry a limited exemption from the antitrust laws so that it could solve the problem itself. As a lifelong civil libertarian, I found the antitrust approach particularly attractive--all the more so because I sit on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which oversees the antitrust laws.

Most in the industry continue to deny that TV violence is a problem at all. Ironically, they claim that 25 minutes of exposure to violence has no impact, while 30 seconds of exposure to a commercial has great impact. The obvious answer is that television sells--whether a political product, or soap, or violence.

In writing the bill, I wanted to focus on entertainment programming only, so I wrote report language and built a legislative history making clear that the exemption is not aimed at the content of news programs. One reason is that entertainment programs tend to glorify violence, while news programs do not. Like our politicians, television can appeal to the best in us or to our worst instincts.

Too often, television today is contributing to a tide of violence. A democratic, pluralistic society can find ways to protect itself against excessive televised violence. It’s time for the television industry to forge a partnership with America’s families to scale back the atmosphere of violence that is erupting in our communities, on our Main Streets, even in our schoolyards.

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A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 1989 edition of Education Week as Reducing Violence on Television


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