You've probably had discussions about whether on-screen violence has any impact on people's behaviour. But I'm guessing the discussions were inconclusive, because you thought the scientific jury was still out. Yep, me too.
Well, New Scientist magazine has recently reported on the matter, and surprise, the scientific information has been around for 50 years, and getting clearer.
So what is the answer?
"Modern media such as TV and computer games are changing our minds, and the more we are exposed to them the greater the changes. They are making us smart and better at some tasks, but worse at others. And there is no getting away from the fact that on-screen violence fosters off-screen violence."
Looking a bit closer reveals the following:
1. Electronic media, and other technologies, change the way we think, and, ultimately, the way our brains are actually wired. This is natural, and can have both beneficial and detrimental effects.
2. Beneficial effects of TV, video games and computers can include:
- they can increase our abilities to solve problems and take in information;
- gaming experience is the best predictor of surgeons' skill at keyhole surgery (more even than the length of training or the amount of experience!);
- TV can be very educational and increase knowledge more than reading, especially in people of lower IQ.
3. The average US schoolchild will have watched 8,000 murders and 100,000 violent acts on TV before they leave elementary school (generally pre-teenage years). The figures will be way higher if they have access to cable TV, video games or films.
4. The harm caused by TV definitely outweighs the good, and video games are even worse (because they are interactive, and often reward aggressive behaviour). Problems caused can include:
- the amount of TV watched during childhood correlates with reduced attention spans and loss of sleep;
- high levels of TV viewing may contribute to verbal and physical aggression, sleep difficulties, obesity and associated long-term health problems, and attention and learning difficulties;
- double the amount of TV watched in childhood and on average you'll increase the likely occurrence of ADHD (attentional deficit hyperactivity disorder) by a 25%;
- a university psychologist who has written a book summarising 50 years of research on violence says it is clear that violence on TV has raised the level of violence and aggression in society;
- the relationship between TV and violence seems to go both ways - watching TV increases violent behaviour and violent people tend to watch more violent programs;
- it's not just children who are affected, for TV seems to increase aggressive behaviour over time - young adults who watched more TV as teenagers commit more aggressive acts in later life;
- children have long-term memories of violent acts, which can lead to later imitation, desensitisation or feelings of vulnerability.
Two obvious questions remain.
1. Why don't we do more about it? Some people say that the entertainment industry has fought the public understanding of these conclusions in the same way that the smoking lobby denied the links between smoking and lung cancer. But it may also be that we just don't want to be bothered changing and giving up some parts of our entertainment.
2. What can we do about it? Obviously limit children's, time in front of the TV, especially violent programs (which can include cartoons), but also discuss with children, and keep TVs and computers out of bedrooms. And just maybe we should change our own viewing habits too. For more on this see www.tvtroubles.com or www.mindscience.org.