A theoretical element of media violence Various hypotheses have been offered to describe processes of influence which violent TV might have on children’s behavior. All I can do here is to refer to some of these proposed processes briefly. No single process is likely to offer an adequate explanation. Short-Term InfluencesModelling/Imitation: Social learning theorists (such as Bandura) emphasize the ‘observational learning’ of particular kinds of aggression from a ‘model’.
Those who employ this argument see film and TV characters as models from whom children learn behavior which may be imitated in everyday life. Unless they had seen the film The Deer Hunter the American teenagers who killed themselves with randomly loaded revolvers (as in the film’s grissly game of Russian roulette) might not have done so. In such cases, simple imitation of media violence is widely cited as the reason for the violent behavior. Symbolic Modelling is a variation on this process, whereby watching violent programmes may be a factor in encouraging violent behavior which is not directly imitated but which has been generalized from the specific behavior demonstrated in the media. Identification In another modified version of the imitation theory, it is argued that viewers tend to adopt the aggressive behavior of characters only if they identify with them and if the character’s behavior is seen to be justified. Obviously, people are more likely to imitate the behavior of an attractive model than a less attractive one, and empathy is likely to heighten this tendency.
Vicarious Reinforcement: If violence is ‘reinforced’ by being seen to ‘pay off’ for the aggressor this may promote its acceptability to the viewer compared with violence which is punished or unproductive. We have already referred to one such example in one of the Bandura studies. Both vicarious reinforcement and identification may mean that aggression by ‘goodies’ can be more of a problem with children than that of ‘baddies’.
Criticism of aggressive acts either within the programme itself or by co-viewers tends to reduce imitation by children. Perceived Reality: Another variation of modelling which lacks an agreed label is imitation subject to the degree of perceived reality. Some studies (eg Feshbach 1976) have shown cartoon violence to have a less negative influence on children’s behavior than more realistic violence. Instigation/Arousal According to this variation on modelling, those who are already in a state of high emotional or physiological arousal (which may itself have been influenced by TV) are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior in response to watching a violent incident on TV than are others. Leonard Berkowitz found that if viewers of a violent film were made angry or frustrated before they watched it, they expressed more aggression than those who were not already angry or frustrated. We may also note that heavy viewers tend to be less emotionally aroused by violent TV itself than do light viewers (Gunter & McAleer, 1990). ?Related to the influence of arousal, some commentators refer to ‘reinforcement’ in a general sense, meaning that TV violence has relatively little independent influence on behavior, but tends to reinforce any aggressive attitudes and behavior which may already exist.
Some also refer to this as ‘preobservation reinforcement’. The more general argument of reinforcement is that the more aggressive tendencies are reinforced in this way, the more likely it will be that they will produce aggressive behavior. Sensitization Sensitization is a sort of reverse modelling, whereby viewers react so strongly to some extreme example of realistic violence that they are less likely to imitate it. Ethical considerations mean that it’s not much studied. Where viewing of violence is ‘light’ sensitization may be more likely than desensitization. Catharsis (or ‘symbolic catharsis’): As we have seen, Seymour Feshbach (1955; Feshbach & Singer, 1971) has argued (rather differently from all the varieties of modelling theory) that fantasy violence can have a cathartic effect on viewers, defusing latent aggression, and reducing the possibility of aggressive behaviour. People often report feeling better after watching a really scary film.
Note that this theory, which suggests that aggressive behavior television may not have harmful effects, is often singled out for an attack, as in the case of the study already referred to by Feshbach and Singer. A serious objection, though, is that the content of TV programmes may be partly responsible for any pent-up aggression or anxieties in the first place! Certainly, there’s no doubt that TV characters enter into children’s dreams, and TV-inspired fantasies may not only inspire nightmares but may also perform a valuable role in developing defenses against the real or imagined vulnerability. Another version of catharsis theory is that watching violent programmes decreases levels of arousal, leaving viewers less prone to aggressive behavior.
Longer Term InfluenceDisinhibition This related theory formerly advanced by Leonard Berkowitz suggests that people are naturally aggressive, but that they normally repress this aggression. Heavy viewing of violent TV weakens their inhibitions and leads them to feel that aggression is acceptable. Desensitization The notion of desensitization involves the argument that heavy viewing of violent TV over time conditions viewers gradually to accept violence as normal, dulling their sensitivity to aggressive behavior in everyday life. The conditions of ordinary TV viewing may encourage us to relax and enjoy violent images. Arousal declines as the viewing of violence becomes routinized. Drabman & Thomas (1984) found that children of 8 to 10 shown a video of aggressive behavior took longer to intervene in apparently real-life violence between two younger children they were left in charge of than children who had not seen the video.
However, such studies are still artificially lab-based and do not explore children’s own thoughts and feelings. The origin of such theories is again in the behaviouristic tradition of ‘behavior modification’. Observations suggesting densitization may, in fact, have been observing the development of children’s defenses against anxiety. TV viewing may influence not only behavior but also attitudes and beliefs…
Value Reinforcement: Whilst this doesn’t have a technical label, this refers to the theory that TV programmes may reinforce certain values about the use of violence (rather than directly influencing behavior). Programmes where violence is used frequently to settle disputes reinforce the value that aggressive behavior is acceptable. Cultivation Theory: George Gerbner and his colleagues in the USA argue that the most significant effects of TV violence are ideological rather than behavioral. Gerbner sees TV as a modern ‘opiate of the people’, serving as a tranquilizer which legitimates the current social order. He has shown that there is a correlation between TV viewing and viewers’ estimations of the frequency of violence in the everyday world.
‘Heavy viewers’ are more likely to mistrust other people and to experience fear and insecurity, and therefore to support stronger forms of policing and social control. However, Gerbner makes no allowance for the variety of individual interpretations or for the kind of programmes involved. It may be that more fearful people are drawn to watching more TV. And other social and personality factors may counter such cultivation.