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Television is the most powerful storyteller in American culture, one that continually repeats the myths and ideologies, the "facts" and patterns of relationships that define and "legitimize the social order." [Brown, J. & Steele, J.R. (1986, April/May). Sexuality and the mass media: An overview. SEICUS Report, (p. 7).]

Each day 75 million Americans tune into this description of "social order" on prime-time television programs. On Thursdays, that number jumps to 94 million. Each week, students spend in excess of 28 hours watching television. In the average American home, the television is on seven or more hours a day. In most homes, that is more time than students and their families spend sleeping and resting for the next day. [Glassman, B. (ed.). (1996). The macmillan visual almanac. (p. 121, 144). New York: Macmillan.]

In a society where 74% of American families have two or more televisions and over 25% have two or more VCRs, it is not surprising that by the time most students graduate from high school, they will have watched approximately 22,000 hours of television—twice as many hours as they will have spent in school. [Glassman, B. (ed.). (1996). The macmillan visual almanac. (p. 163). New York: Macmillan.]

In 1950, only 8.3% Americans owned and watched television. In just five years, that number skyrocketed to 68%; by 1965, the figure had risen to 95%. Presently, 98.2% of all Americans own and actively use at least one television set. Instead of reading a book or riding a bike, American children, adolescents, and adults passively watch television. [Glassman, B. (ed.). The macmillan visual almanac. (p. 164). New York: Macmillan.]

Many television critics are concerned that there are few adult discretionaries available to supervise child and adolescent TV viewing. The "civilian labor force," which includes non-institutionalized civilians aged 16 and older, has grown from 119 million in 1993 to 124 million in only 2 years. According to Linda Ellerbee [Lawrences, N. (1993/1994, December/January). What’s happening to our children. Midwest Today.]:


‘We have this monster that speaks with many voices and with many images, and on the other side we have a seven year old with a remote who doesn’t distinguish between cable and network, what’s appropriate and what’s not...’


Years ago, students returned home from school, talked with a parent about the school day, and began homework. In the United States, 5th graders spend an average of 46 minutes a day doing homework; in Japan, 5th graders spend 57 minutes on homework, while in China, 5th graders spend 114 minutes. Chinese students appear to spend significantly more than double the amount of time American 5th graders spend on their homework. As TV viewing has risen, national test scores have declined. When a student can become emotionally and physically stimulated by television, homework seems unbearably boring. [Glasserman, B. (ed.). (1996). The macmillan visual almanac (p. 580). New York: Macmillan.]

Today, a strong majority of children come home to an empty house. Although after school programs are more popular, there remains a significant amount of unsupervised time. Fathers, on average, spend less than ten minutes a day of uninterrupted quality time with his children. For mothers, the average is not significantly higher. The issue is not only TV, but also the lack of parental involvement in kids’ lives. Young people are more often looking to television characters and situations, in lieu of their parents, for role models and value systems.

It is estimated that by the time most children complete elementary school, they will have witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 other acts of violence on television (this figure excludes films and movies). In 1980, only 20% of American households subscribed to cable. In 1990, that percentage nearly tripled to 58%. [Glassman, B. (ed.). (1996). The macmillan visual almanac. (pp. 160, 164). New York: Macmillan.]

A far greater number of young people have at their immediate disposal a network which provides a stunning range of shows, from "Little House on the Prairie" to "Silence of the Lambs" and everything in between. Even more startling is that 45% of homes in 1993 subscribed to cable, allowing them access to 49 or more channels. An additional 26% subscribed to 37-48 channels. The advent of cable TV has increased the intake of violence by an average of 50% for families subscribing to a pay cable movie channel. [Abbott, W. (1994, June). To reduce TV violence. Christian Social Action (p. 5).]

Never in history has so much stimulating information been so freely offered to children, who are, as mentioned earlier, largely unsupervised. According to psychiatrists, whose clientele increasingly include extremely high numbers of children, the danger is desensitization. The constant repetition of violence and violent imagery desensitizes viewers in the same way a therapist desensitizes a phobia patient: by repeated exposure to what is frightening. Many will remember that several years ago, many people—adults and children—listened to and watched a woman be brutally beaten and raped in Central Park, New York City. One may wonder if these bystanders were desensitized by scenes previously seen on TV.

Perhaps the most disturbing research is the correlation between screen violence and violence directed toward women. In 20 years, the number of forcible rapes skyrocketed from 37,990 to 109,060. Although these numbers are already staggering, rape is one of the most underreported of all crimes. Adolescents across America watch apathetically while women are chained up, beaten, degraded, and violated on America’s highly watched music television channel, MTV.

According to social learning theorists, people, particularly those who are vulnerable and impressionable, will imitate behaviors of others, especially when those models are rewarded or not punished for their behavior. This is especially true when the models are perceived as attractive and similar to the imitator and the modeled behavior is simple, prevalent, possible, and has functional value. In other words, if a particular behavior will help a young person obtain popularity, acceptance, and/or power (all very important pursuits in a young person’s development), then that behavior will become a very natural means to the end.

Brian Siano attempts to answer this question of the violent effect of television in light of evidence:


‘From the earliest years of TV broadcasting, parents and educators have expressed concerns that television is harmful, particularly to a vulnerable population such as children. Perhaps no single issue has received more attention than whether or not violence in TV programming is implicated in the creation of a more violent society.’


Children who spend excessive amounts of unsupervised time watching television tend to be children who demonstrate more aggressive and violent tendencies. Even movie writer Ben Stein has stated that " ‘…it’s been proven beyond any doubt that screen violence affects children.’ " Screenwriter and journalist Jeff Silverman supports Stein’s declaration by stating that "there’s a reason that L.A.—the capital of the movie industry—is the capital of kids getting caught with guns in school." [Alexander, A. & Hanson, J. (eds.). (1995). Taking Sides: Clashing views on controversial issues in mass media and society (3rd ed.). (pp. 18, 26, 27). Guilford: The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc.]

Further back, in 1982, Dr. Thomas Radecki, Psychiatrist at the Southern Illinois School of Medicine and Chairperson of the National Coalition on TV Violence (NCTV), announced that over 700 scientific studies and reports on the subject of television and film violence had been located, and he said " ‘the research clearly proves, beyond a reasonable doubt, that TV and film violence is a major cause of real-life violence in our society.’ " Radecki continued, " ‘adults are as strongly affected as children.’ " Although his statement is dated, it is still emphatically supported by today’s statistics. [National Coalition on Television Violence. (1982, March). Evaluating television violence. Enzage/Social Action, 10, 30.]

A recent news story reported that a ten-year old boy became angry with a girl and shot her in the head. She died. He cried, as he did not realize the gun would actually kill her.

What moves a ten-year old boy to shoot and kill another child? And where did he find the gun?

Developmentally, ten-year-old kids are still learning to distinguish between reality and fantasy. More poignantly, they have yet to understand that there are certain consequences for their actions. With little parental guidance, kids observe on television that Wil E. Coyote bounces back after being flattened by the Road Runner’s antics and the kick of a Power Ranger only hurts the bad guys, who don’t really die anyway. More startling is the lack of public disapproval of such random and unharmful acts of violence. In fact, most do not consider them violent: they are just cartoons. Yet, they are not "just cartoons" to youngsters who cannot make the distinction.

Furthermore, children who come to understand their world via an abundance of violent "fantasy" acts on television become young people who have little desire or ability to see the world, and its consequences, as it really exists.

Youth leaders have a daunting task—to expose the darkness with light. Since television is such a pervasive and undeniable part of our society, might it be harnessed in order to equip and empower young people to make good decisions and to do what is right? Teaching students to be critical viewers and active respondents is an important and practical aspect of youth work.


  1. How does violence manifest itself in television programs today?
  2. To what extent do you think young people are aware of the impact television violence has on them?
  3. Consider the most popular television programs this year. What is attractive to kids about these shows? How can you, as a youth worker, respond to those needs?
  4. How do students learn to distinguish between fantasy and real life?
  5. What are the positive effects of television, and how can they be utilized?
  6. How might this article be used with young people?


  1. Young people need an appropriate, safe, and nurturing place to develop their own sense of identity, apart from what is offered to them on TV.
  2. Parents are playing a significantly smaller role in the socialization and moral teaching of their children.
  3. Youth workers play a pivotal role in educating themselves, the young people they serve, and their parents about the persuasiveness of television in our society.
  4. Youth leaders have a responsibility to equip and empower students in being critical about what and how they watch television.

Jennifer E. Kemp cCYS

Abbott, W. (1994, June). "To reduce TV violence." Christian Social Action, pp. 4-7.




Findings over the last 20 years by three different Surgeons General, the Attorney General’s Task Force on Family Violence, the American Medical Association, the National Institute of Mental Health, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other medical authorities indicate that televised violence is harmful to all of us, particularly to the mental health of children.

There is a severe behaviorial impact of televised violence. Millions of children today are looking to television and films for role models and value systems to form their understanding of their world. Many of these same children watch violent programming without adult supervision, making them even more susceptible to the values portrayed on the screen.

In April 1992, TV Guide commissioned a study on the content of contemporary television programming. Channels studied included local affiliates of ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, PBS, WTBS, the USA Network, MTV, and HBO. The TV Guide study concluded that violence remains a pervasive, major component of contemporary television programming, and it’s coming from more sources and in greater volume than ever before.

Abbott points to three methods which have been used extensively to demonstrate a causal relationship between television violence and real life violence. Field studies, laboratory experiments, and longitudinal studies have concluded that children who watch aggressive behavior on television tend to imitate it. In fact, television viewing patterns were a better predictor of later aggression than social class, parents’ behavior, child rearing practices, and many other measured variables.

Abbott proposes several guidelines in regard to dramatized TV violence: do not telecast programming containing an excessive amount of dramatized violence between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m; provide explicit viewer advisories for high frequency violence programs between the above hours; develop a standard scheme for classifying television programming; educate and inform children about the harmful effects of violence; and educate and inform viewers about the harmful effects of exposure to television violence.


  1. How have you witnessed television violence affect adolescent behavior?
  2. How often do you watch television? To what extent are the shows you view violent?
  3. What suggestions do you have for reducing television violence?
  4. Do you believe that voicing your opinion to state or federal leaders will make a difference? Is it the government’s responsibility to monitor television violence?
  5. In your mind, is television violence an important enough issue to fight for?


  1. Television violence demands a response.
  2. Young people need to understand the effects and persuasiveness of television violence.
  3. Parents and families need to monitor their children’s viewing habits. Youth workers have a potentially strong impact, both on parents and on the students themselves.

Jennifer E. Kemp cCYS

Budiansky, S. (1996, March 4). "Local TV: Mayhem central—the steady diet of disaster and gore makes the world seem a scary place." U.S. News and World Report, 120(9), 63-64.




WSOC in Charlotte began its newscast one evening this last fall with the following lead stories:


Murder suspect arrested. Drive-by shooting at church. Armed robbery. Truck slams into Pizza Hut. Truck slams into Wendy’s. Truck crashes on highway. Truck crashes, spills glue. Couple killed in gasoline fire. Rock climber falls to his death. Man drowns in boating accident. Baby drowns in swimming pool. Commercial.


Blaming television with what’s wrong in the country is not new. Recently, social scientists have argued that the overload of crime and disaster stories on local television gives the public a warped view of reality.

A year-long study at Los Angeles’ KABC found that 51% of the lead stories were about crime. Within that group, 78% of the stories focused on violent crime, while 27% were about murder. Yet, statistics suggest, that murder account for only 2% of the felonies reported in L.A.

The study also found a dramatic racial skew in crime coverage. Fifty percent of the crimes committed by blacks in L.A. are violent; 47% of white crime is also of violent nature. Yet, 61% of crime stories broadcast by KABC involved violence by black perpetrators, while only 36% of the crime stories aired involved whites.

The question arguably remains—does the sheer repetition, pervasiveness, and overrepresentation of sensational and violent crime in today’s media falsely shape public opinion?


  1. Do you watch the local news? How often and for how long?
  2. Where do you develop your beliefs about crime and the criminal justice system?
  3. Do you think that local TV overrepresents violent and sensational crime? How?
  4. Are African Americans treated unfairly by the local news? In what way?
  5. Does television make people think that things are worse off than they are? List examples of recent headline stories that you have witnessed on TV.


  1. The topic of television violence is an important subject to be discussed with youth. This topic could be included in a unit on the media—the impact of TV, music, and the movies.
  2. This topic could be discussed in a parents’ meeting. Review articles and brainstorm ideas about how to approach this subject when watching the local news with young people.

Rob Malenich cCYS

Kolbert, E. (1994, December 14). "Television gets closer look as a factor in real violence." The New York Times.




Dr. Leonard D. Eron, a Yale University psychology professor, has studied the causes of aggression among children for many years. Interested in how children were treated at home, he interviewed parents in 1960.

When he went back to this longitudinal study in 1970, he found the best predictor of aggression among boys, now in their teens, to have nothing to do with how they were treated by their parents, but how much television they had watched ten years earlier. In 1980, he revisited the same group and found the correlation still held. "Those who watched television were more aggressive and more likely to commit crimes."

From the 1960s to the present, violence has increased both in the popular arts and among young people. The opinion now prevails in society and Congress today: violent entertainment not only reflects, but influences, real violence in our society.

Some reject this conventional wisdom. Television executives and artists who produce violent media maintain it is not what is on the screen or in lyrics but society at large that bears the responsibility for excessive violence.

Jonathan L. Freedman is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the author of several articles challenging the prevailing notion. "Aggressive kids tend to watch more television, that’s true. But the question is whether one causes the other."

Dr. Eron, now at the University of Michigan, stands by this thesis and cites his study of subjects in their thirties: "I found that the violent programming they had watched was related to the seriousness of the crimes they committed, how aggressive they were with their spouses, and even to how aggressive their own kids were."

There is caution, if not disagreement, even from practitioners who work with violent youth. Stephanie Arno is a New York City probation officer working with young offenders: "The idea that television violence plus youth equals youth violence, that’s something made up by social scientists. These kids live with violence day in and day out."

Others are more concerned about the indirect effects of television violence. They see its "violent images giving children an exaggerated sense of life’s dangers—what one researcher calls the ‘mean world syndrome.’ "

Phil Yerrington, a police officer in Davenport, Iowa, comments, "Television does not promote violence, but it makes it less scary." Experts worry about the desensitizing effect of violent media images. Research has shown how both men and women can begin to treat rape more casually after being exposed to slasher and violent pornographic films.

According to Dr. George Gerbner, professor of communications at Annenberg School of Communication (University of Pennsylvania), the networks average 25 acts of violence an hour (on Saturday mornings when children do most of their watching) for the past 15 years. Before that, in the 1970s, it more like a dozen acts of violence an hour.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs recently found 2,605 acts of violence between 6:00 a.m. and midnight. The heaviest concentration of violence was in early morning and afternoon when children are most likely to be watching.

Three 16-year-olds interviewed in Brooklyn, New York downplayed the influence of violent media and criticized it for not being realistic.

Many youth counselors, however, say they recognize the influence of media violence in the conduct and role play of teenagers with whom they work. Sheila Alson is coordinator of a "Resolving Conflicts Creatively" program in New York City schools: "They see a show and they come in the next day and role play. When the story’s a violent story, those are the roles they’re playing out. Then the play fight that they’re doing turns into a real fight."

Brooklyn police officer Victor Reyes sees television giving young people the message that "if somebody talks down to you and you don’t do anything, you’re a chump."

Most youth workers will not accept a theory that places most of the blame for violence on the media. Chief prosecutor for Family Courts, New York City, Peter Reinharz, puts it this way:


I have a tremendous problem understanding what all the hype is about. It’s making another set of excuses for kids who are uncontrollably violent. If you’re telling me some people can’t tell the difference between television and reality, that may be true, but this is someone who’s in need of more than censorship.



  1. How much thought have you given as to whether art primarily reflects or influences society? What is your opinion on this now?
  2. In your opinion, is the rise in media violence and violent crimes of youth in the 1980s coincidental? How do you explain it?
  3. What can research show and what are its limitations?
  4. What is the reason that there is so much violence on television just when children are watching?
  5. What are your recommendations for decreasing violence among young people?


  1. A country that does not respond to violence in the youth culture is not only a culture that does not care about young people in the poorer classes. It is a society that does not care about itself.
  2. No one system nor single discipline can understand and adequately respond to such problems as that of violence among youth in our society. Such issues must be approached as public health issues.
  3. Our society needs a new understanding of the common good if effective discussion of this issue is to take place.

Dean Borgman cCYS

Zoglin,R. (1996, February 19). "V-chips ahoy." Time. pp. 58-61.
(Download this review as a PDF)


In an attempt to regulate the amount of violence that children and adolescents are able to consume via television, President Clinton signed into law the sweeping telecommunications bill passed by Congress—authorization to use the V-chip. The V-chip is a small computer chip that may be installed into any television. It allows parents to limit the amount of television violence exposed to their children.

Of nearly 2,700 shows analyzed in a 20-week survey of 23 channels, over half (57%) contained some degree of violence. According to the study, much of the violence was the kind that desensitizes kids and encourages imitation: violence with no apparent consequences.

In response to the study, many network executives argued that they had already reduced the amount of violence and had added warning labels for the little that remains. Another argument against paring down the violence for kids is that television would be a "pretty barren place for adults."

The V-chip supposedly offers a solution. The chip allows parents to receive encoded information about the content of a particular show and "block out" certain types of shows. It costs as little as $1.00.

A major concern about the V-chip issue is by whom and how the shows will be rated. The definition of violence is quite subjective. Many are concerned that the networks will not be able to provide an accurate rating, since many networks argue that there is nothing wrong or violent about their programming.

Broadcasters assert that a government mandated ratings system threatens free speech rights. As noted in the article, one source suggested, " ‘A centralized rating system that is subject to the review and approval of the government is totally inconsistent with the traditions of this country.’ " Accompanying the instiution of the v-chip is the potential for a decreased audience for certain kinds of shows. Thus, advertising revenue could decrease, and the network may earn less money. According to "Law & Order" creator Dick Wolf:

‘The thing nobody is taking into account…is that there is going to be a V-chip warning on "Homicide," "NYPD Blue," "Law & Order," "ER," "Chicago Hope." Many of the adult dramas deal with real-life substantive issues. Once that happens, you are going to have a television landscape that’s far, far different from what you have today.’

Those urging the V-chip maintain that most young people do not have the capacity to fully grasp or evaluate the violence depicted on the screen. The V-chip will present a solution to this problem. Also, V-chip advocates hope that its use will change the television landscape, encouraging less violent television.

According to Zoglin, one of the most condemning observations of the longitudinal study is the way violence is presented: 47% of the violent acts resulted in no observable harm to the victim; only 16% of violent shows contained a message about the long-term negative repercussions of violence; and in 73% of all violent scenes, the perpetrator went unpunished.

Although there is considerable debate over the issue of television violence, some believe that the V-chip is a long-awaited step in the right direction.


  1. Do you think that there is any causation to the finding that there is a correlation between an increase in television options and availbility and an increase in crime? Is it just coincidence? Explain.
  2. What primetime shows would you consider most violent? How popular are they with your students or children? Why do you think this is so?
  3. What are the possible benefits and drawbacks of widespread use of the V-chip?
  4. Would Jesus use a V-chip?


  1. Widespread use of the V-chip requires high parental involvement.
  2. Further discussion, including both parents and children, will be necessary to determine the effectiveness of the V-chip.



Abbott, W.S. (1994, June). "To reduce TV violence."  Christian Social Action, pp. 4-7.



Brown, J. & Steele, J.R. (1996, April/May). "Sexuality and the mass media: An overview." SIECUS Report, pp. 3-9.


Brown, J., Childers, K., Bauman, K. & Koch, G. (1990). "The influence of new media and family structure on young adolescents’ television and radio use." Communication Research, 17, 65-82

Centerwall, B. (1992). "Television and violence: The scale of the problem and where to go from here." Journal of American Medical Association, 267, 3059-63.

Childers, K. & Brown, J.D. (1989). "No blank slate: Teen media awareness mirrors upbringing." Media and Values, 46, 8-10.

Comstock, G., & Strasburger, V. (1990). "Deceptive appearances: Television violence and aggressive behavior: An introduction." Journal of Adolescent Health Care, 11, 31-44.

Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M., & Signorelli, N. (1994). "Growing up with television: The cultivation perspective." Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, 17-41.

Kaplan, M. (1992, August). "Everything you ever wanted to know about cable sex." US, p. 79.

Lawrence, N. (1993/1994, December/January). "What’s happening to our children?" Midwest Today, pp. 6-14.

National Coalition on Television Violence. (1982, March). "Evaluating television violence." Engage/Social Action, 10, 9-40.

(2Mar06) "New PTC Study Finds more Violence on Children's TV than on Adult-Oriented TV," Parents Television Council Publications, Online Press Release.

Zoglin, R. (1996, February 19). "V-chips ahoy." Time, pp. 58-61.


Alexander, A. & Hanson, J. (eds). (1995). Taking sides: Clashing views on controversial issues in mass media and society (3rd ed.). Guilford: The Dushkin Publishing Group, Inc.

Bandura, A. (1994). Social cognitive theory of mass communication.Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research.

Glassman, B. (ed.). (1996). The Macmillan visual almanac. New York: Macmillan.

Healy, J. (1991). Endangered minds. New York City: Simon and Schuster Trade.



Jennifer E. Kemp cCYS