Missing Link

The bum rap against TV violence.


If there were a causal connection between watching symbolic televised scrapes and the menacing aggression lurking in the real world, then this relationship would surely be reflected in national crime trends.

One could expect that, as television violence proliferated, rates of violent crime would also increase. It does appear that television violence has been slowly growing in volume and intensity since 1950. Even if the networks have been televising fewer bloodbaths in recent years, as some observers claim, there is still more violence available overall because of the expanding number of channels. Moreover, each annual contribution to the mountain of violent offerings may well have had a cumulative effect. We should logically expect a steady increase in national violent crime data during the television era. Conversely, a drop in violent crime rates would cast doubt on any linkage between television violence and antisocial behavior.

Striking testimony to the TV violence-crime wave connection has been offered by psychiatrist Brandon Centerwall. In a 1989 paper, Centerwall examined the increasing incidence of homicide in the United States during the 1960s and early '70s, noting that the trend paralleled the diffusion of television sets approximately 15 years earlier. He then argued that the earlier development caused the latter, with the time lag allowing for the indoctrination of the young into the ways of video slaughter and then the years for them to mature into killers. As he wrote in a 1992 paper published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, "The introduction of television in the 1950s caused a subsequent doubling of the homicide rate, i.e., is a causal factor behind approximately one half of the homicides committed in the United States." Centerwall cited similar trends for television-ridden Canada and the lack of such high crime rates in South Africa, which had no television until 1975.

But Centerwall's intriguing data are more readily explained in terms of a factor he chooses to slight: the unanticipated surge in births between 1947 and 1964 (peaking in 1957) known as the baby boom. Murders are disproportionately the handiwork of young males, and throngs of them were maturing in the 1970s, producing unusually high homicide rates. It was shrewd of Centerwall to select Canada as his other test case because Canada and the United States were among the very few countries to experience a postwar bulge in birth rates. South Africa, with its low pre-1975 murder rates, did lack television, but more significantly it lacked a baby boom.

When America's violent crime statistics are extended beyond Centerwall's cutoff date of 1975 and beyond the dates of his publications, the weakness of his causal argument becomes clear. Violent crime in the 1980s remained high, but as the baby boom cohort members aged past their 30th birthdays in the l990s crime began to decline. FBI statistics show that from 1991 onward the violent crime rates have decreased each year. Moreover, rates for property crimes have been decreasing since 1980. Thus, as more entertainment violence has become available on television, crime rates in the United States have been decreasing.

In any case, television is not a schoolhouse for criminal behavior because, as a rule, televised amusement is not a very good teacher. Viewers turn to entertainment for relief, not instruction. They usually want to get material out of their minds rather than put things into them.

It's not difficult to demonstrate the medium's uninstructive nature. Studies have looked for-but failed to find-evidence that TV watching influences viewers' attitudes or behavior in a range of areas. In terms of violence, for example, there is no demonstrable statistical relationship between a viewer's favorite aggressive television hero-the one with whom the viewer is most likely to identify-and any imitated attitudes or behaviors, according to research by British researchers Dennis Howitt and Guy Cumberbatch. And as University of Toronto psychologist Jonathan Freedman recently told REASON, both the number of published studies purporting to link TV viewing to aggressive behavior and their highly arguable conclusions are routinely exaggerated. (See "Phantom Studies," Citings, December 2000.)

As liberal media critic Todd Gitlin has written, "Violence on the screens, however loathsome, does not make a significant contribution to violence on the streets. Images don't spill blood."