The average American child sees 32,000 murders, 40,000 attempted murders, and 25,000 acts of violence on television before the age of 18 (Ahmed, 1998). Gerbner’s studies of violence on American television (Gerbner, 1972; Gerbner & Gross, 1976; Gerbner et al. , 1980, 1986) Defining violence as: ‘… the overt expression of physical force against others or self, or the compelling of an action against one’s will on pain of being hurt or killed’, Gerbner’s team have found that since 1967 the percentage of television shows containing violent episodes has remained about the same, but the number of violent episodes per show has gradually increased.
In 1986, there was an average of around five violent acts per hour on prime-time television. On children’s weekend shows, mostly consisting of cartoons, about 20 violent acts per hour occurred. British research by Halloran & Croll (1972) and the BBC’s Audience Research Department were both based around Gerbner’s analysis. Both studies found that violence was a common feature of programming, although it was not as prevalent on British as on American television. Cumberbatch (1987), commissioned by the BBC, analysed all programmes broadcast on the (then) four terrestrial channels in four separate weeks between May and September 1986.
The main findings from Cumberbatch’s (1987) study: Cumberbatch found that 30% of programmes contained some violence, the overall frequency being 1. 14 violent acts per programme and 1. 68 violent acts per hour. Each act lasted around 25 seconds, so violence occupied just over 1% of total television time. These figures were lower if boxing and wrestling were excluded, but higher (at 1. 96 violent acts per hour) if verbal threats were included. Death resulted from violent acts in 26% of cases, but in 61% of acts no injuries were shown, and the victim was portrayed as being in pain or stunned.
In 83% of cases, no blood was shown as a result of a violent act, and considerable blood and gore occurred in only 0. 2% of cases. Perpetrators of violent acts were much more likely to be portrayed as ‘baddies’ than ‘goodies’, and violence occurred twice as frequently in law-breaking than in law-upholding contexts. Cumberbatch argued that whilst violence, and concerns about it, had increased in society in the decade up to 1987, this was not reflected by a proportional increase on television, even in news broadcasts. He concluded that:
‘While broadcasters may take some comfort from our data on trends in television violence, they must expect to be continually reminded of their responsibilities in this area and be obliged to acknowledge that a significant minority of people will remain concerned about what’s on the box’. More recently, the BBC and ITV commissioned Gunter & Harrison (1998) to look at the frequency of violence on terrestrial and satellite channels. Some findings from Gunter & Harrison’s (1998) analysis of violence on British television:
The researchers monitored 2084 programmes on eight channels over four weeks in October 1994 and January/February 1995. The findings include: On BBC 1 and 2, ITV and Channel 4, 28% of programmes contained violent acts, compared with 52% on Sky One, UK Gold, SKY Movies and the Movie Channel. Violence occupied 0. 61% of time on the terrestrial channels and 1. 53% on the satellite stations. The greatest proportions of violent acts (70%) occurred in dramas and films; 19% occurred in children’s programmes.
Most violent acts occurred in contemporary settings in inner-city locations. The majority of perpetrators were young, white males. One per cent of programmes contained 19% of all violent acts. Double Impact, shown on the Movie Channel, for example, contained 105 violent acts, as against on average 9. 7. The United States was the most common location for violence (47%), followed by the United Kingdom (12%). The third most likely location was a cartoon setting (7%), and then science fiction locations (4%).
On the basis of the finding that violent acts account for 1% of programme content on terrestrial channels and less than 2% on some satellite stations, and the fact that 1% of programmes contained 19% of all violent acts, Gunter and Harrison concluded that: ‘The picture that emerges is not one of a television system permeated by violence, but rather one in which violence represents only a tiny part of the output and where it tends to be concentrated principally in a relatively small number of programmes’ (cited in Frean, 1995).
An almost identical conclusion was reached by the American Academy of Paediatrics (Murray & Whitworth, 1999). As well as television, violent behaviour can also be seen at the cinema or on video (and what is shown may or may not be subsequently screened on television). Evidence indicates that a large percentage of 9-11 year olds have watched 18-rated videos, including particularly violent Nightmare on Elm Street, The silence of the lambs, and Pulp Fiction (Ball & Nuki, 1996; Wark & Ball, 1996).
The effects of television on Children’s behaviour: Research into the effects of television on Children’s behaviour began in America in the 1960’s, following the publication of the results of Bandura et al’s ‘Bobo doll experiments’. These ‘first generation’ (or ‘Phase one’: Baron, 1977) studies involved filmed or symbolic) models. Essentially, Bandura et al. showed that children can acquire new aggressive responses not previously in their behavioural repertoire merely through exposure to a filmed or televised model.
If children could learn new ways of harming others through such experiences, then the implication was that media portrayals of violence might be contributing to increased levels of violence in society (Baron, 1977). However, Bandura (1965) warned against such an interpretation in the light of his new findings that the learning of aggressive responses does not necessarily mean that they will be displayed in a child’s behaviour. Nevertheless, the possibility that such effects could occur was sufficient to focus considerable public attention on Bandura et al. ‘s research.