In 1961, at the height of what is referred to as television’s “golden age,” Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), declared the medium “a vast wasteland.” With the explosion of cable companies and satellite services, television has become a vaster wasteland. Hundreds of channels compete for a narrow share of an increasingly fragmented audience and the advertisers’ dollars that follow. To lure viewers, many feature heavy helpings of sex, violence and language far raunchier than the shows you might remember from your youth. For instance, the programs that fill today’s “family hour” (8 P.M. to 9 P.M.) contain four times as many sexual incidents than were seen during the same time slot in 1976.
When it comes to teen violence, smoking and drug use, however, there is sufficient research to establish that TV influences youthful behavior. Since 1955, more than one thousand studies have substantiated that for some adolescents, frequent exposure to television violence contributes to overly aggressive behavior.
Many other factors, such as violence in the home, are accountable too, but experts estimate that TV’s impact, on average, ranges from 5 to 15 percent, which is significant. One study, conducted by psychologists Leonard Eron and L. Rowell Huesmann, followed males from age eight to age thirty. The third graders who immersed themselves in programs depicting violence were more likely to grow up to be aggressive teenagers than were the participants who did not watch excessive amounts of TV violence. As adults, they were more likely to have criminal records.
Another study by Dr. Huesmann disproved the assumption that TV violence had a less-pronounced effect on girls. In the late 1970s, he and his team of researchers interviewed nearly four hundred girls in grades one through five about their viewing habits. About fifteen years later, they checked in on their subjects, who by then were in their twenties. Three in five of those who had professed to be avid fans of such combative TV heroines as Charlie’s Angels and Wonder Woman (at the time, relatively novel role models for women) were involved in a higher-than-average incidence of violent confrontations, including shoving matches, chokings and knifings compared to the women who’d watched few or none of these shows during grade school.
Besides glamorizing and normalizing aggression, TV violence numbs youngsters to the horror of violence. The 1990s saw the proliferation of so-called reality-based “shockumentaries,” which treat viewers to full half-hours of nothing but horrific car wrecks, police shoot-outs and rampaging animals. Imagine: Now you can rubberneck from the comfort of your living-room sofa. These programs, shot on videotape, may have a greater impact than most because of the audience’s belief that the on-screen action is real and unpredictable.