Frequent exposure to media violence can trigger destructive acts.
The highlight of a recent conference on "The Roots of Violence," sponsored by the Mental Health Centre in Penetanguishene, was "the great debate: be it resolved that violence on television contributes to violence in society.""
A packed audience of mostly mental health professionals heard psychiatrist Thomas Radecki, head of the National Coalition on Television violence in the United States, quote study after study describing the harmful effects of massive viewing of gratuitous violence on both children and adults.
Taking the opposite position, Mimi Fullerton, National Chair of the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, argued that the research was not conclusive.
As far back as 1984, Surgeon General Everett Koop declared that violence in America had reached epidemic proportions and that the media were one of the causes.
According to Brandon Centerwall of the Department of Psychiatry, at the University of Washington, as many as half of all violent crimes, including rape, assault, and vandalism, are related to the impact of television violence on American and Canadian society.
Noted psychiatrist Michael Stone, a specialist in forensic issues at the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, has no doubt that the media play an important role as inciters to violence in people from unstable families. Usually they are themselves victims of family violence. "It acts as a spur;" he says, "an endorsement of their own violent impulses, and even teaches them how to go about it-copy-cat crimes modeled after what they see." We live in a culture that glorifies violence. There are even serial killer cards being issued now, like baseball cards, Stone says.
Says Dan Olweus, a psychologist at the University of Bergen in Norway, "Kids, especially if they're immature, tend to admire and emulate these tough heroes that settle conflicts violently and come out, for the most part, unscathed." Watching aggressive behavior that has no negative consequences, "is likely to reduce inhibitions or controls against aggressive behavior. And if you see this regularly, it becomes a normal way of solving conflicts." Also, he added, "blunting occurs
- reduced sensitivity, particularly to the suffering of the victims, because often that's not shown."
Why are broadcasters violence pushers? It makes money. George Gerbner, Professor of Communications at Annenberg University calls it a "cheap industrial ingredient."
What is the impact on society of so much television violence? Gerbner sums up the findings of hundreds of research studies. "Frequent and massive exposure to media violence can desensitize and trigger destructive acts in some people. As for the rest of us, the majority we don't see ourselves is muggers or murderers -but we do see ourselves as potential victims. We are becoming more apprehensive, more suspicious; we are developing a siege mentality."
The trouble with presenting research to the general public is that people don't identify with it, says school psychologist Dianne O'Connor. She also feels that we rely too much on research and on experts, to tell us what's bad or good, and not enough on our own feelings and thoughts "what we value and think is important."
O'Connor claims that the research is far too narrow in its focus. "It's not just violent acts -people pounding each other out-it's the whole ideology of violence that the media perpetuates. Children are taught to admire images of masculinity, where some one has power over others, glorification of war; of control."
It's a much broader issue than physically harmful acts, and it's everywhere, she says. "Even educational games-there's a math computer game called 'Multiplication Shootout."'
What are our children learning?
Herbert Schiller, Department of Communications, University of California, says: "When one watches children's television in the United States, with a few laudable exceptions, one is watching the debasement of the young generation, young minds being directed toward consumerism, acquisition, life comprised basically of material possessions.... At the same time, there is a growing emphasis that 'might is right' and that violence is the key to conflict resolution."
The CRTC has decided at last to take a pro-active stand and address television violence. Citing research and common sense, Chairman Keith Spicer tells us there is a link between television violence and violence in society. He wants the broadcasters to regulate themselves.
But Rose Dyson, doctoral candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, is skeptical. "If Mr; Spicer thinks he can rely on the broadcasters to regulate themselves, then he himself is lacking common sense. As far back as the mid '80s, we (Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment) helped them develop a code for violence. So fat; there's no evidence that they've done anything with it.
"We've got to put some restrictions on the nature of films produced in Canada," she says. "In our zeal to create a Hollywood of the North, we have created a climate where the worst violent productions have been filmed here-for example, the Friday the 13th series. It was actually forced off the air, except for reruns, by concerned Americans."
What should be done?
Rose Dyson: "At the very least the CRTC ought to make the implementation of a code of violence, a condition for licence renewal on the part of broadcasters."
Dr. Thomas Radecki: "Educate and warn the viewers. The overwhelming evidence of the research tells us that violent entertainment has a harmful effect on both children and adults. They have a right to that information, just as people who buy cigarettes or booze are notified of the harmfulness of those drugs."
Dr. Michael Stone: "The media are keeping alive and fostering an atmosphere of violence in America.... This is profit, this is what sells. So it's futile to think broadcasters would regulate themselves. Parents must apply pressure, create lobby groups. Best of all, turn off the IV. sets, so it's not profitable."
In 1976, this conclusion from the La Marsh Commission gave us the direction: "If the amount of depicted violence that exists in the North American intellectual environment could be expressed in terms of a potentially dangerous food or drug additive, an air or water pollutant, such as lead or asbestos or mercury, or other hazards to humans, there is little doubt that society long since would have demanded a stop to It.
The Great Debate was filmed by TVO, on "Between the Lines," and will be shown in the Fall.
Doris Strub Epstein is the Media Director at Canadians Concerned About violence in Entertainment.