In Brief

The link between television violence and increased aggression in children is stronger than the relationships between asbestos and throat cancer, condom use and HIV, and workplace second-hand smoke and lung cancer, APA member Dale Kunkel, PhD, told members at a June hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Kunkel, a University of Arizona communications professor and member of APA Div. 46 (Media), testified that research suggests children who are persistently exposed to violent images learn aggressive behaviors, become desensitized to violence and develop an exaggerated fear of becoming victims. Taken together, Kunkel says, these conclusions could justify increased regulations in the interest of public welfare.

"The courts have ruled that there must be evidence of a compelling governmental interest in order for Congress to regulate television content," Kunkel said at the hearing. "In my view, the empirical evidence documenting the risk of harmful effects from childrens exposure to televised violence clearly meets this threshold."

The danger lies in the fact that televised violence is often "sanitized and glamorized," Kunkel said. Programs rarely show the immediate pain and suffering of a victim, opting instead to show victims either brushing off a would-be serious injury or dying in a relatively neat and clean way, he noted. In addition, he said, violence is often perpetrated by attractive, remorseless and ultimately unpunished characters. The formula misinforms children about the reality of violence, which often translates into aggressI've behavior later in life.

Kunkel quickly pointed out that legislating media expression should always be a last resort. But, he said, after 20 years of studying television violence and dealing with policymakers, he's unconvinced that the industry will change unless legislation is put in place.

Kunkel would like to see both parents and lawmakers adopt a stance in line with solid science. Parents, for example, tend to be more concerned with sex on television than with violence, he said, but violent portrayals may pose more of a risk. This is especially a problem for young children who are unlikely to understand sexual themes but surely connect with violence. On the legislative side, Kunkel would like to see lawmakers incorporate scientific evidence into regulations. For instance, the ratings system should be grounded in programs potential harm to children, he said.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who opened the hearing, announced that he is drafting legislation that will attempt to define and regulate "gratuitous violence" on television, similar to existing legislation covering indecency. The trick, Kunkel said, is meeting both scientific and constitutional standards.

-M. Price