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media and violence study

Jo Groebel  

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the media plays a major role in the development of cultural orientations, world views and beliefs

Decoding the image

In the first ever conducted international survey on children and media violence, a UNESCO study underlines television’s dominant role in the lives of young people around the world and its impact on the development of aggressive behaviour, paving the way for a stronger debate between politicians, producers, teachers and parents.

How do the world’s children spend most of their leisure time? The answer watching television may come as no great surprise, but the UNESCO Global Media Violence Study (see box), the largest ever intercultural project on this topic, sheds light on the striking similarities of television’s impact in vastly different cultural, economic and social contexts.

In the areas surveyed, from relatively peaceful environments like Canada or certain high-crime neighbourhoods in Brazil to war-zones in Angola or Tajikistan, the study confirmed the dominant role of television in the everyday lives of children around the globe: 93% of the students who attend school and live in electrified urban or rural areas have regular access to television and watch it for an average of three hours a day. This represents at least 50% more than the time spent on any other out of school activity, including homework, being with friends, or reading. The result justifies the assumption that television is the most powerful source of information and entertainment besides face-to-face interaction.

With the advent of mass media, including television and more recently, video and computer games, children and teenagers are exposed to increasingly higher doses of aggressive images. In many countries, there is an average of five to ten aggressive acts per hour of television. Violence among youth is also on the rise, making it plausible to correlate the two, even though we believe that the primary causes for aggressive behaviour in children are to be found in their family environment, and the social and economic conditions in which they are raised.

Nonetheless, media plays a major role in the development of cultural orientations, world views and beliefs. Most studies show that the relation between media violence and ‘real’ violence is interactive: media can contribute to an aggressive culture; people who are already aggressive use the media as further confirmation of their beliefs and attitudes, which, in turn, are reinforced through media content. As the basis for this study, we formulated the compass theory. Depending on a child’s already existing experiences, values and the cultural environment, media content offers an orientation, a frame of reference which determines the direction of one’s own behaviour. Viewers do not necessarily adapt what they have observed, but they measure their own behaviour in terms of distance to the perceived media models. For instance, if cruelty is ‘common’, ‘just’ kicking the other seems to be innocent by comparison if the cultural environment has not established an alternative frame of reference.

media heroes
Answers to a standardised set of 60 questions inquiring upon media behaviour, habits, preferences and social environments showed a fascination with aggressive media heroes, especially among boys: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘Terminator’ is a global icon, known by 88% of the children surveyed, be they from India, Brazil or Japan. Asked to name their favourite role models, boys most frequently named an action hero (30%), while girls opted for pop stars. There are regional differences: Asia showed the highest ranking for the former (34%), Africa the lowest (18%), with Europe and the Americas in between (25%). More interesting is how children in difficult situations identify with such heroes, whether as compensation or as an escape: 51% of the children from war or high-crime environments wish to be like him, as compared to 37% in the low-aggression neighbourhoods.

overlapping worlds
A remarkable number of children from both groups (44%) report a strong overlap in what they perceive as reality and what they see on the screen. Many children are surrounded by an environment where “real” and media experiences both support the view that violence is natural. Close to one third of the group living in high-aggression environments think that most people in the world are evil, a perception reinforced by media content. The impact of media violence can primarily be explained by the fact that aggressive behaviour is more systematically rewarded than more conciliatory ways of coping with one’s life. It is often presented as gratuitous, thrilling, and interpreted as a good problem-solver in a variety of situations. Contrary to the case of many novels or more sophisticated movies, media violence is often not set in a context. For children living in more stable environments, it offers a ‘thrill’: nearly half the children who prefer aggressive media content (as compared to 19% with another media preference) express the desire to be involved in a risky situation. This holds particularly true for boys and tends to increase the more advanced the technological environment.

Violence has always been an ingredient of children’s adventure and suspense movies, what is critical is the dominance and extreme it has reached. Furthermore, as the media becomes even more perfect with the introduction of three dimensions (virtual reality) and interactivity (computer games and multimedia), the representation of violence ‘merges’ increasingly with reality. Censorship is not the adequate answer. Instead, codes of conduct and self control must be developed among media professionals. Debate must be fostered between politicians, producers and teachers to find a common ground. Most importantly, media education must be furthered to create competent and critical media users, themes explored in this dossier.

the study
From 1996 to 1997, more than 5,000 12-year-old students from 23 countries (Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, Egypt, Fiji, Germany, India, Japan, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, South Africa, Spain, Tajikistan, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine) answered a standardised 60-item questionnaire. Regional pre-tests assured that the children understood the questionnaire, which they filled in during classes. Out of school children or groups living in extremely remote areas could not be covered.

The study aimed to understand the role of the media in the lives of children; children’s fascination for media violence; the relationship between media violence and aggressive behaviour among children; the cultural and gender differences in the media impact on aggression; and how violent environments (war/crime) and the level of technological development influence the coping with aggressive media content.

The study was conducted under Dr Jo Groebel of Utrecht University, with the World Organisation of the Scout Movement accepting overall responsibility for the field work through their international network.

child soldiers
children in war
effects of war

Decoding the image -
Media and violence survey
Children and advertising
Advertising to children - the european view
Kid's TV - preventing violence

The politics of war play -
Machel Report

Rights of the Child
About the Convention
Part One (articles 1- 41)
Part Two (Articles 42 - 45)
Part Three (Articles 46-54)
Draft Optional Protocoll


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