The Ethics of America ’s Youth Viewing
Violence on TV
By: Allison Lurie, Benjamin Fisher, Morgan Ship
"Shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised
by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very
opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up?" –
Unless the government prohibits all violence from television, it is inevitable that children will be exposed to violence. Violence can be defined as “aggressive behavior that may be physically, sexually or emotionally abusive. The aggressive behavior is conducted by an individual or group against another, or others.” 1 Since children are unable to make the necessary distinctions between violence in entertainment world and violence in real life, there exists an ethical responsibility to monitor children from being exposed to inappropriate violence. The television industry has neglected to recognize this as their ethical responsibility by not limiting the amount of violence directed at children. In addition, it is important to explain to children at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner, the violence that they are exposed to. The government has designed general ratings systems to try to mitigate the problem of children being exposed to too much violence. Regardless of this rating system, children are being exposed to excessive amounts of violence from the media and need someone to explain this violence to them; they cannot understand the differences on their own. Since each child is different in their developmental growth and needs, it is imperative that parents are there to regulate the intake of violence in their children’s lives on an as-needed and case-specific basis; it is their ethical duty.
Parents have this ethical duty because as a parent you are obligated to do what it is best for your child, and in this case it is making sure that they are not exposed to unnecessary violence in the media. The results and reactions of viewing violence is so different for each child, making it is essential that parents are the ones who subjectively decide what is acceptable and what is not acceptable for their children to see. When dealing with the exposure of violence on TV towards children, parents follow a combination of the Rights Approach and a Deontological approach. Both of these approaches focus on respect for human nature. The Rights Approach aims to best protect and respect the moral rights of those involved; the children. 2 This is crucial because all children are different and need to be treated on an individual basis. The Rights Approach allows for this to happen. Because the Rights Approach is how parents approach most decisions in regards to their children, they are the appropriate ones to be regulating the violence that their children view; they are looking out for their child’s best interest. According to the Deontological, or Duty-based Approach all parents have a moral obligation to do what is truly best for their children. Parents have the ability to take the time to explain the differences in violence associated with the historical events such as the World Wars and the type of violence that is depicted in a movie like Saw 3 or a television show like the Power Rangers.
The television industry as whole has refused to acknowledge that it has an ethical responsibility to limit, reduce, or eliminate the excessive violence being broadcasted to children. Violence in television media continues to be portrayed in unrealistic ways that teach children that violence is okay. Actions are taken to produce the highest grossing revenues and pay little or no attention to the harmful consequences of children viewing too much violence on television.
The television industry should follow a Character-Based Approach that stresses character development of individuals by helping them obtain the traits of moral human beings. Virtue ethics recognizes that people learn and develop character-based on behaviors that are habitually exposed to. Television sets examples for millions of people and should be used to promote virtuous characteristics in our society. Currently television is instilling children with the idea that violence is an acceptable, normal solution to problems within our society. If television producers followed a Character-Based Approach, they would create television shows that educated children on the ideas of teamwork and character building, not violence as a means to an end. With the amount of power that the television possesses in our society, it should be used to educate and instill positive morals in its audience.
As a result of this lack of ethical duty by television producers and corporations, it is even more imperative that parents take this ethical responsibility into their own hands. It is up to parents to perform this ethical duty or else suffer the consequences of having their children raised by the unfit parents known as television.
The Effects of Television
The media is a key source when it comes to spreading information. Through the use of television, many different audiences can be reached, and news and other information can be transmitted to them. “Media offers entertainment, culture, news, sports, and education. They are an important part of our lives and have much to teach. But some of what they teach may not be what we want children to learn.” 3 Television impacts the way we view our society and culture, it is able to teach us about what is going on in the world around us, or can be merely a form of entertainment.
With television and the media playing such a large role in our society, the average American watches four hours of television per day, it is important to note how much violence is present in the television programs we watch. 4 The following is a table summarizing studies conducted by The National Cable Television Association and the Kaiser Foundation:
Statistics from the National Television Violence Study and the Kaiser Foundation:
60% of TV programs contain violence
81% of parents have observed their child imitating behaviors they have seen on television
83% of children (ages 0-6) are users of screen media
73% of these children (ages 0-6) are watching television
The findings of both of the above studies clearly show that violence is prevalent in shows on television, children are being exposed to these high levels of violence, and as a result, they are learning to incorporate violence they see on TV in their lives.
Not only are children being exposed to too much violence on television, but the amount of violence is continuing to increase as well. According to a major media watchdog study released this year, “Violence on broadcast TV is approaching "epidemic proportions," surging 75% over the last six years while posing a threat to children that parents and government officials need to address.” 6 Another study that was conducted by the Parents Television Council, entitled "Dying to Entertain," found that the 2005-2006 season was the most violent season since the group began tracking the issue in 1998. “There were an average of 4.41 violent incidents each prime-time hour last season.” Furthermore, “Overall violent incidents increased in every time slot and across all broadcast networks, according to the study. Violence jumped by 45% from 8 to 9 p.m., by 92% from 9 to 10 p.m. and by 167% from 10 to 11 p.m.” 7
On average, children in America spend nearly four hours a day watching television, and 68% of children ages 8 to 18 have a television in their bedroom. 8 Children are being exposed to violence through programs that were designed for them as an audience, as well as in other programs in which they were not the target audience. “Even in G-rated, animated movies and DVDs, violence is common—often as a way for the good characters to solve their problems. Every single U.S. animated feature film produced between 1937 and 1999 contained violence, and the amount of violence with intent to injure has increased over the years.” 9
On a different note, eliminating all violence would get rid of some very moving and important moments in human history. Violence from the news, various wars, and many other important events throughout history can help to teach millions of people that violence is wrong and that there must be better ways to deal with our feelings and problems. This also accepts that violence is a part of our lives and the more thought we put into the ideas and concepts surrounding violence and the more we are exposed to it in a realistic and educated way, the better chances we have of being able to come up with better alternatives. This way, we do not continue to repeat the same mistakes that we have made in our past. Parents are able to control the impacts the media has on their children by controlling what they watch: “If you limit, supervise, and share media experiences with children, they have much to gain. When you help your children understand how their media choices affect them, they actively control their media use rather than giving in to the influence of media without thinking about it.” 10
As adults, we are able to differentiate between what is reality and what is not. We have more concrete beliefs, feelings, and thoughts that are less likely to be influenced than children do. We can watch a television program that has violence in it and know that it is not appropriate to go out and demonstrate those violent behaviors in the real world. Children on the other hand, are not as able to make these distinctions as easily or in many cases at all. For example, many children are scared by life-size versions of their favorite characters when they meet them in real life. They are unable to comprehend that when they see a person dressed in a costume, this is not a real walking and talking character from the world of make believe. Many children cry and runaway because they do not have the ability to understand and make this severance. All too often, they do not separate what goes on in the imaginary world of TV and real life. They feel that it is okay to mimic behaviors and actions they have seen their favorite television characters do, and sometimes, this means that violent acts are copied and carried-out in their lives. “Children learn their attitudes about violence at a very young age and these attitudes tend to last.” 11 This is why it is imperative that children develop healthy opinions about violence, and learn healthy ways to deal with violence that they may be exposed to.
“Sometimes you can see the impact of media right away, such as when your child watches superheroes fighting and then copies their moves during play. But most of the time the impact is not so immediate or obvious.” 12
Studies have been conducted that prove that when children are exposed to violence on TV they are more prone to exhibit violent behavior in their own lives. A fifteen-year study conducted by the Developmental Psychology department at the University of Michigan found that, “Children's viewing of violent TV shows, their identification with aggressive same-sex TV characters, and their perceptions that TV violence is realistic are all linked to later aggression as young adults, for both males and females.” 13 “Although the effects of media on children might not be apparent right away, children are being negatively affected. Sometimes children may not act out violently until their teen or young-adult years.” 14 By age 18 an American child will have seen 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence; this is an astounding number, and a particularly daunting thought. 15
Monkey See, Monkey Do…
Children learn by following examples and imitating behaviors of those around them, in particular, those in which they look up to. “In a matter of seconds, most children can mimic a movie or TV character, sing an advertising jingle, or give other examples of what they have learned from media.” 16 Famous characters, whether being actual people, animations, or cartoons, are many children’s idols and therefore children are very likely to follow the examples that these characters set forth and it may not be possible for a child to understand the difference between acting and actuality. In addition, “44 percent of the violent interactions on television involve perpetrators who have some attractive qualities worthy of emulation.” 17 For example, cartoons such as The Might Morphin Power Rangers, or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are geared to a youth audience and have a steady stream of fighting throughout the entirety of the show; even the “good guys” are demonstrating violent behavior. This is behavior that children that are watching will pick up.
The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is rated TV-Y7, which means that it is considered suitable for all children over the age of seven. “The problem is that this show, which appeals to so many young children, is completely driven by combat.” 18 The following is a quote describing a typical episode of the Power Rangers.
"Each episode has a very similar look and feel…violence is not really horrible and no one is really hurt by it…always victorious, the Rangers appear "cool" and successful. The show leaves the impression that the Rangers' actions are socially acceptable and even redeeming.” 19
These types of television shows teach children that violence can be the answer to solving problems and that if someone is “bad” that it is okay to punish them through the use of violence; often this even means killing or demolishing the “bad guys”.
Moreover, the violence that children are exposed to is often portrayed in an unrealistic manner and in a vast number of cases is even glamorized. For instance, “Nearly 75 percent of violent scenes on television feature no immediate punishment for or condemnation of violence.” 20 What is even more disturbing is that when a “good guy” commits a violent act, he/she is very rarely punished for this or forced to face the consequences of his/her actions. Even the “bad guys” escape punishment 40% of the time. 21 This is not a realistic approach to how violence is reprimanded in our society and this misrepresentation of violence can easily be misguiding and confusing to the children who watch these shows on a regular basis. Also, “43 percent of violent scenes involve humor either directed at the violence or used by characters involved with violence.” 22 This does not send a clear image about what is appropriate to feel about violence.
TV Ratings: A Good Attempt
With television violence reaching all times highs, continuing to increase in amount and scope, and with children imitating this violence, it would seem logical that the government step in and take charge against this nationwide issue. The government has attempted to do this using a Utilitarian approach, by trying to provide the most good, or the least harm, for the greatest number of people. 23 “That's why the television industry designed a TV ratings system to give parents more information about the content and age-appropriateness of TV programs. These ratings, called the TV Parental Guidelines, are modeled after the familiar movie ratings which parents have known and valued for nearly 30 years. They are designed to be simple to use, easy to understand and handy to find. The Guidelines apply to all television programs, including those directed specifically to young children.” 24 Other organizations like the Parental Television Council rate shows “based on an objective quantitative and qualitative analysis of the frequency and explicitness of foul language, sexual content, and violence present in each series. The PTC also takes into consideration time slot, target audience, themes and plotlines of each program it rates.” 25 This is not an effective solution however because each child develops at different speeds, so where at age 13, one child may be able to watch a show that has violence in it and not be affected by it in negative ways, a different 13 year old may be very affected, and may demonstrate violent behaviors from TV in their own life. There is no standard code for violence because all kids react to violence differently and thus, the issue needs to be handled on an individual basis. This is the main flaw in the ratings system: it tries to assign a universal definition of acceptance to violence when there just isn’t one to assign.
On the whole, the violence that children witness on television is increasing in abundance and scope. Children’s views on violence are being influenced by what they are watching on television. All too often they are not getting an accurate portrayal of violence because television producers refuse to follow ethical frameworks. Our society has a negative perception of violence, and generally speaking, it is thought that violence should be punished and that other courses of action should be taken to solve problems whenever possible. These are not the same messages that children are getting from watching television; violence is depicted as an admirable way to solve problems, is justified, and is rarely punished. Seeing as how the television industry has neglected its ethical duty to its youth viewers, it is up to parents to teach their children about violence in an appropriate way, and to monitor the intake of violence seen on television.
1 Mona O’Moore, Defining Violence: Towards a Pupil Based Definition, 2004 http://www.comune.torino.it/novasres/newviolencedefinition.htm.
2 A Framework for Thinking Ethically, Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 1988 http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/framework.html.
3 Understanding the Impact of Media on Children and Teens, American Academy of Pediatrics, 10 February, 2007 http://www.aap.org/family/mediaimpact.htm.
4 Norman Herr, The Sourcebook for Teaching Science (Norman Herr, 2001).
5 Ron Kaufman, Filling Their Minds With Death: TV Violence and Children, 2004 http://www.turnoffyourtv.com/healtheducation/violencechildren/violencechildren.html.
6 Jim Puzzanghera, “TV Violence is Surging, Group Says,” Los Angeles Times 11 Jan. 2007.
7 Jim Puzzanghera, “TV Violence is Surging, Group Says,” Los Angeles Times 11 Jan. 2007.
8 Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year-olds, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 9 March, 2005 http://www.kff.org/entmedia/entmedia030905pkg.cfm.
9 Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “Children, Violence, and the Media,” 14 Sep. 1999.
13 L Rowell Huesmann, Childhood Exposure to Media Violence Predicts Young Adult Aggressive Behavior,Accordingto a New 15-Year Study, 9 March, 2003 http://www.apa.org/releases/media_violence.html.
14 Understanding the Impact of Media on Children and Teens, American Academy of Pediatrics, 10 February, 2007 http://www.aap.org/family/mediaimpact.htm.
15 Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “Children, Violence, and the Media,” 14 Sep. 1999.
17 Media Violence Facts and Statistics, National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center,12 December, 2005 http:// www.safeyouth.org/scripts/faq/mediaviolstats.asp.
18 Television Violence Monitoring Project, UCLA Center for Communication Policy,19 October, 1995 http://www.digitalcenter.org/webreport94/iiie2.htm.
19 Television Violence Monitoring Project, UCLA Center for Communication Policy,19 October, 1995 http://www.digitalcenter.org/webreport94/iiie2.htm.
20 Media Violence Facts and Statistics, National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center,12 December, 2005 http://www.safeyouth.org/scripts/faq/mediaviolstats.asp.
21 Media Violence Facts and Statistics, National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center,12 December, 2005 http://www.safeyouth.org/scripts/faq/mediaviolstats.asp.
22 Media Violence Facts and Statistics, National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center,12 December, 2005 http://www.safeyouth.org/scripts/faq/mediaviolstats.asp.
23 A Framework for Thinking Ethically, Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, 1988 http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/framework.html.
24Understanding the TV Ratings, TV Parental Guidelines, 2007 http://www.tvguidelines.org/ratings.asp.
25 What Are Your Children Watching, Parents TV Council, 2006 http://www.parentstv.org/PTC/publications/reports/top10bestandworst/main.asp.