Children's Television Programs More Violent than Adults' Programs?
North American culture in 2004 is a media-rich one. In addition to the Internet and magazines, there are literally hundreds of television stations in nearly every home. This has led to heated debate over the prevalence of violence on television. The wealth of literature on violence in television indicates that this is a matter of great interest to social psychologists. Furthermore, the indication by some studies that violent children's programming leads to violent behavior, has fueled calls for greater oversight in the area of violence and aggression as it pertains to children's TV. In this study I look at the distinction between aggression and violence, and examine the incidence of both on programs for children, compared to programs for adults.
The topic of television violence and children has generated much research over the past several years. Cantor (2000) examines some of the negative impacts of violence in children's programming. These include an increased likelihood of acting violently, desensitization to violence, as well as increased fear and nightmares. "There is a good deal of research evidence that in general, violence that is shown to be justified and that if committed by attractive protagonists is more likely to be imitated." (Cantor, 2000).
Simmons et al. (1999) point out that television viewing is an activity typical to everyone in the household. "Television has become the central activity in most homes today...98% of all households have at least one set...it is watched an average of 7.5 hours per day...[and] children watch more than 28 hours of television each week." (Simmons et al., 1999). Since many adults don't closely monitor their children's television programs, they are often unaware of the content of these shows. Given the level of violence in adult programming, it is interesting to consider whether children's shows are more or less violent, and the potential impacts of this content.
Smith et al., in 2002, published an extensive study of prime-time violence and its depiction in programs aimed at both children and adults. They found that children's shows portray a less realistic type of violence, however, with more accompanying humor and unlikely (if any) consequences. They say,
Children's programs also contain the most violent interactions per prime-time hour when compared to other genres...children are especially likely to witness repeated acts of violence...these programs are more likely to depict unrealistically low levels of harm and humorous violence than some other genres. Children who view programs designed for them during prime time, therefore, may learn that violence is common, funny, and not very harmful. (Smith et al., 2002)
On the other hand, Peters and Blumberg examined cartoon violence in particular (2002) and questioned whether the violent acts seen in cartoons should be interpreted as genuine violence, or a fantasy-based behavior with no relation to the real world. Because preschoolers watch so much television, largely cartoon shows, the issue of violence in cartoons, and its possible effects is also of interest. Peters and Blumberg point out that, "the NTVS [National Television Violence Study] found that nearly two-thirds of serials for children contained violent acts." (2002). They go on to mention that the cartoon genre "anime," popularized in Japan was an unusually violent (and popular) style of cartoon with children. This study on cartoon violence goes on to conclude that this may actually present a learning opportunity for parents who choose to co-view with their kids.
Lazar's study on social workers and children focused on the impact of television violence to young children. Her conclusion was that violent programming has become so pervasive that many of us don't even realize its impact. Furthermore, adults show a preference for violence on their television shows, a preference that may have an effect on the viewing habits of their kids.
Society is becoming more concerned with examples of extreme violence. Some experts believe these cases have their roots in the omnipresent media violence that surrounds us. Whether this is more prevalent in adults' programming or in children's, and the form of the violence, can have important implications for how much violent TV affects us and our children.
The variety of conclusions drawn in the scientific literature about the prevalence and the effects of television violence has a lot to do with how violence is defined and measured. Some researchers have chosen to look at acts of violence that have a specific harmful result. They define violence through intent as well as effect. Other studies use different definitions of violence and aggression with some looking only at intent to harm. Still others incorporate other variables to gain a more complete picture of violence in adults' and children's programming.
With the omnipresence of television throughout our culture there are numerous ways to measure the prevalence of violence in programming. In addition to different definitions of violence and aggression, researchers look at different aspects of the program itself. In children's programming, cartoons are often considered separately from other shows. Comedies are examined apart from dramas. Whole new genres of television, such as reality TV, are commanding prime-time time slots for children as well as adult viewers. From this abundance of criteria that can affect a study on violence and television, it becomes clear that succinctly describing the variables involved and the definition of terms is vital.
For the purposes of this study comparing violence in children's versus adults' programming, I have decided to look at two factors, aggression and violence. The definitions for these concepts recognize that they exist on a continuum with aggression being less serious, but often developing into violence.
In defining aggression, I have concentrated on the intent of the act, rather than the result. Aronson (2002) says, "social psychologists define aggression as intentional behavior aimed at causing either physical or psychological pain. It is not to be confused with assertiveness." The first variable considered in viewing both children's and adults' programs were instances of aggression. This could include verbal aggression or physical aggression such as pushing. I kept track of aggressive acts in six hours of prime-time television. What differentiated the aggressive acts from the violent ones, according to the definition, was that the aggressive acts did not result in physical harm to the victim. I also kept track of violent acts in six hours of prime-time television.
Something was considered to be violent if it resulted in actual physical harm to the target. Using the above definitions, I viewed three hours of prime-time adults TV shows, and three hours of children's shows to investigate our hypothesis regarding the prevalence of television violence.
Based upon a review of the literature, I hypothesized that acts of aggression would be more common in children's television programs (as compared to adults' programs), whereas acts of violence would predominate in adults' programming.
Acts of aggression, I felt, would be more common in kids' programs because they take into account intent, although, I felt the programmers would be less inclined to depict violent acts which inflict physical harm. In terms of adult programming, I felt television producers would be more inclined to show the actual physical effects of the violent actions, in the belief that adults would be more equipped to understand the context for the violence.
Methods and Procedures
To undertake this research, decisions had to be made concerning what programs would be selected during the sample period of six hours (three hours for adult-oriented programming and an additional three hours for children- and youth-oriented programming), and from what networks.
The first decision was to define prime-time as being the period from 7 p.m. To 10 p.m. While recognizing that this period might be too late in the evening for many children to be watching television, this period was included for both categories (adult and children/youth) of the sample. Many of the children's programs that were available during this time period were reruns of programs that were also offered earlier in the day. Therefore this limitation was minimized by the inclusion of repeat programs that would have been seen while younger children were awake and viewing television.
A further consideration concerning the 7 p.m. - 10 p.m. time period was that many stations broadcast local, regional and national news, weather and sports from 6 p.m. To 7 p.m., thereby eliminating a significant sampling of children and youth programs from non-specialty networks during the supper hour. As a result, the time period for sampling for this research project became 7 p.m. - 10 p.m.
I wanted to achieve a degree of randomness in the selection of programs and networks. For programs, I wanted the representation to cover at least two of the major program categories for both adult and children/youth programs. For adults, these categories include sitcoms, dramatic series, reality television and movies. For children/youth, the categories include dramatic series, cartoons, sitcoms, music videos and movies. Random selection was achieved by cutting up a T.V. Guide, using weekday programs that aired during the week of May 10 - May 14, 2004. The…