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Does violent TV cause real-life violence? Don't believe the hype

March 13, 2003
By Franklin Harris

I don't know about you, but the only time television makes me violent is when I watch the evening news. Nevertheless, this week brings us yet another study purporting to link fictional violence on television with violence in the real world.

If I sound skeptical, it's because I am.

In Japan, children watch cartoons and other TV programs that are far more violent than those American children typically watch. Yet Japan's crime rate is among the lowest in the industrialized world. Clearly, there are other factors at play that make a direct correlation between watching violence and committing violence suspect.

The latest study, published in this month's Journal of Developmental Psychology, comes from a team of researchers led by University of Michigan psychologist L. Rowell Huesmann.

Huesmann has become the Frederic Wertham of the anti-TV-violence crusade. Wertham, as you'll recall, became infamous during the late 1940s and early 1950s for his book, "Seduction of the Innocent," in which he claimed that comic books turned ordinary, happy children into juvenile delinquents and perverts. Today, most people regard Wertham as an oddity or a joke. No one really takes him seriously.

According to Huesmann, children who watch a lot of violent television programming are more prone to aggressiveness and criminal activity as adults than are children who watch "Barney and Friends." This, he says, is true for women as well as men.

He is especially worried about children watching charismatic heroes, which means that Superman, Batman and Spider-Man are the bad guys as far as he is concerned. (Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman, similarly, are bad role models for young girls.)

Huesmann bases his findings on questionnaire responses he obtained from a group of 329 adults he has studied since the 1970s.

However, some oddities are readily apparent. For example, one of Huesmann's indicators of "aggressiveness" is traffic tickets. So, does he really mean to say that if you watch violent TV shows as a child you will grow up to be a bad driver? Apparently he does.

But there is a larger issue. Assuming there is a relationship between TV violence and real-world violence, maybe it is the opposite of what Huesmann thinks. Maybe, rather than TV violence encouraging real violence, it is instead the case that people who are naturally aggressive are more likely to seek out fictional violence for entertainment?

Huesmann is dismissive. He says, "It is more plausible that exposure to TV violence increases aggression than that aggression increases TV violence viewing." This, however, will not do. Huesmann is treating children as blank slates, easily molded by popular entertainment. But recent research in evolutionary psychology, especially the work of Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, suggests we are born hard-wired for certain types of behavior.

It gets worse for Huesmann. It seems that his previous findings are suspicious and cast doubt on his most recent work.

According to Richard Rhodes, author of the book "Why They Kill," Huesmann is a bit carefree with his numbers.

In an article for the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (available online at www.abffe.org/myth1.htm), Rhodes writes that Huesmann misled a U.S. Senate committee investigating the effects of TV violence.

Rhodes also points out that for 142 of 145 8-year-old boys in one of Huesmann's study groups, Huesmann found no relationship between viewing TV violence and exhibiting violent behavior. Huesmann's correlation was based on just three boys, hardly a large enough sample from which to draw meaningful conclusions.

There is a relationship between popular entertainment, violent or otherwise, and behavior. At its best and most artistic, entertainment makes us think. But there is little evidence that entertainment turns anyone into a mindless, murderous zombie.

That sounds like the plot of a horror movie.

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