Can media violence be defined satisfactorily?  Critically analyse any one attempt to do so and discuss any implications for legislation.

Lyn Winter

“No heads turn at Exorcist encore.” (Freer, Plymouth Evening Herald. 1998:13)

This is the headline to an article which looked at reaction to the film “The Exorcist” in Plymouth this month.  The article quoted six people, some of whom had just seen the film for the first time and some who had also seen it twenty five years ago, when it was first released.  Then the film caused incredible scenes.  People walked out of the film, were sick, counsellors were made available for audiences and the church used the media to denounce it in the strongest terms.  As a result the film was banned from distribution on video or showing on television.  Today, as far as is known, no one has walked out, been ill, counsellors are not in cinema foyers, there has been only slight media interest and the church does have such a high profile when condemning the film.  Those quoted enjoyed the film and seemed entertained by both the film and the thought that it once caused such controversy. 

Above is an example of how people’s perceptions of violence change over time and illustrates the problems facing those who have to define media violence.  This essay looks at the book by David Buckingham called Moving Images.  Understanding Children’s Emotional Responses to Television (1994).  The publication is one example of research into the area of responses to television and film violence from the  viewpoint of children, in order to try to gain knowledge of how they make sense of violent images on screen.

Firstly, a brief outline of the background to the research and the content of the publication will be given.   Critical analysis of the methodology and findings follow, and finally implications for legislation are discussed in order to show that a re-appraisal of regulation based on critical informed research may be necessary.

Different cultures, eras and individuals have different concepts of violence which complicates the issue of public concern about the effects of violence on vulnerable individuals, particularly children.  This has lead to much research into trying to establish links between exposure to violence and violent behaviour.  The accessibility of television and film make them particularly susceptible to such general criticisms.  Every time new technology makes access to media productions easier, or a particularly violent crime is publicised, for example the murder of James Bulger, public concerns often manifest themselves as concerns over the effects of violent productions and often result in hastily prepared legislation in response. It is against this background of  concern, that Buckingham (1994) aims to examine children’s understandings of what they watch in order to gain insights and into the perceived need for control.

The content of the publication can be seem as three separate areas.   The introduction gives details of the methodologies used and the reasons for the research.  This is followed by detail and analysis of the study and finally the author states his own recommendations for more research and implications for legislation.

Buckingham (1996) uses an interdisciplinary approach to his qualitative research.  He is a media educationalist who uses theories from sociology, psychology, cultural and media studies to analyse the conversations of 72 children: aged 6 and 7, 9 and 10, 12 and 13, and 15 and 16, who were interviewed using open-ended, and later, more focused questions.  Self selected family groups were also interviewed and given questionnaires in order to look at regulation within the home.  The introduction includes a detailed account of the reaction to the killing of James Bulger, and the unsubstantiated assumptions made at the time about connections between the children who killed him and the possibility that they may have been influenced by watching the video ‘Child’s Play 3’.  The research suggests no clear evidence to that the boys who killed James actually watched the video.  The author is highly critical of, what he calls, cause and effect studies, which he maintains are too simplistic and based on untested assumptions. 

The main body of the book details the conversations between children in small peer groups with an interviewer. It looks at children’s emotional responses to both fictional and factual horror or violence and then the study of family groups to address issues of regulation. 

While it is difficult to generalise with this type of research, some of the main findings were that:

  • Centralised and parental regulation are often ineffective.
  • Parents and children’s concerns over links between broadcast violence and the possibility of people imitating such behaviour are displaced onto others, i.e. younger or less mature individuals.
  • The main concern of children and parents is not about imitation but about the ability of those considered more vulnerable not to be upset or frightened.
  • Negative emotions to both factual and fictional violence are common but often unpredictable and unexpected.  For example, it is common for individuals to be frightened by something in seemingly harmless productions like Pinocchio or Little Red Riding Hood.
  • Children are often able to make complicated assessments of what is fictional or factual according to genre, content, etc.
  • Negative emotions can also be positive, i.e. the excitement of being scared.
  • Children are more likely to identify with the victim than the perpetrator of violence.
  • Children develop a range of coping strategies themselves, e.g. group viewing, ridicule, hiding, etc. These strategies are different for factual and fictional programmes.
  • There is no evidence to support the theories that watching violence makes children act more violently or that continued exposure desensitises them to violent actions. 
  • Violent behaviour may be seen as the result of various influences, the main variable identified as family. 
  • Sex, class and ethnicity seem to have little bearing on who chooses to watch horror or violence.

In critically analysing the content of this book it is necessary to look at the methods used.  The author does acknowledge some of the problems with qualitative research based on conversations, such as the relationships within the peer groups and between the interviewers and interviewees.  As with all such research, this can cause problems of accuracy as both adults and children can often say what they expect the interviewer wants to hear, or what gives them most credibility within the group.  This problem is further compounded by the setting of the research within a school setting.  Parents can be influenced by what may be seen as examples of good parenting and children by their role within the school.  It may be that the use of a combination of research methods may have helped with this problem. 

The research is valuable in looking at the issue of violence from the children’s viewpoint, rather than from that of adults with pre-conceptions.  By looking at the emotional responses to violence in fictional, news and realistic drama or documentaries, a detailed picture emerges of how children react and develop coping strategies towards images that adults often seek to protect them from.

Despite the fact that Buckingham has done much previous research into this subject, it is still a record of the responses of individuals at one moment in time.  Philo (1990) sees this as ‘selective perception’, which can be overcome with a more long term approach to the research.   This problem is identified in the book as an area for further research, along with the need to look at other effects on behaviour.  Family is the main variable identified, but again there is no conclusive evidence as to the extent of this influence.  Sex, ethnicity, class and gender appear from this study to be of limited significance to responses. Therefore there is a need to study children’s responses to violence in the wider context of their everyday lives.

The issue of imitative behaviour is researched in the book.  Buckingham found that when children and parents talked about copying characters in programmes or films when playing, that they were very aware that this was just pretend play as opposed to anything that might be considered more threatening.  Also that any irresponsible imitative behaviour was likely to be carried out by someone else.  It could be argued here that what some children, and adults, say and what they do can be different.  Anyone who has experienced children playing will know that, with intent or not, children do get hurt as the result of such play and that different ways of seeing and dealing with such an incident can either reinforce or condemn such behaviour.  It may be that research into behaviours in natural (non experimental) settings may have helped to balance the reliance on conversations for evidence. 

The question of researcher motivation must be taken into account.  David Buckingham works in the fields of education and media studies.  One of his main conclusions shifts the emphasis of influence and responsibility for control, firmly onto parents, while calling for more media education in schools.  This could be seen as a reaction to the criticism, not only of violent films, but also of schools.  They too had to take general criticism about a perceived lack of discipline, which was seen as a contributory factor to children who were violent.  While acknowledging that the causes of violent behaviour in children are many and varied, this book successfully deflects attention from such criticism of the schools and appeals for more emphasis on education in  media for children. 

The results of this research are still inconclusive and no clear definition of violence emerges.  The direct link between viewing violence and violent behaviour has not been proved or disproved.  The best that can be offered is that watching violence does not cause violent behaviour, but it may be one of a number of contributory factors, along with family and culture.  This would indicate the need for families and societies to make decisions on the issue of violence.  Defining violence is always going to be problematic. 

 ‘We all have some idea of what we mean by violence.  But what one person sees as violent may not be seen in the same way by someone else.’ (Gunter and McAleer 1997:94)
Different people with different life experiences will have a greater or lesser tolerance to different forms of violence.  For example, some people have a very low tolerance of, what they see as, emotional violence.  Others, who may have developed better coping strategies, may see that as less important than physical violence.  This affects their judgement when assessing the importance of different forms of violence and needs to be acknowledged.

This research has implications for legislation and regulation.  Buckingham (1996) concludes the following points which need to be considered:

  • More objective information on film and programme contents needs to be available to parents.
  • Central censorship needs to be more accountable.
  • Age classifications need to be reconsidered.
  • Debates on violence need to include factual programmes, such as, the news.
  • Responsibilities of control and provision of programmes for children needs to be re-defined.
  • Media education needs a higher priority in schools.
The issues of information, accountability and review of classifications and control and provision are important.     Acknowledging that the word violent is subjective causes difficulties.  Open debate as to the different forms of acceptable and unacceptable violence may be uncomfortable, not least for the State.  State sanctioned and condemned violence occurs in times of unrest, for example, in Northern Ireland, where political activists are called terrorists and soldiers and policemen working against them are portrayed as heroic.  In order for it to work, criteria for the censorship of television and film ought to be more clear and consistent. 

At present ambiguities in the legislation and control of violent images makes the application of regulation difficult to reconcile.  When pushed for an answer most people would seem to agree that some form of regulation of violent images is necessary to protect the vulnerable (Thompson 1998).  Few would agree that pre-school children should be exposed to scenes of extreme violence on television, but it would appear that children as young as six are able to develop strategies for coping with some forms of violence. The current system of licensing means that producers need to satisfy the tastes of the regulators in order to legally distribute or show their production to an audience.  There are strategies producers and distributors can use to try to ensure classification, such as stressing the artistic nature of a film or by insisting that a film about violence has to contain violent scenes in order to be credible.   This sometimes works, as in the case of the film Reservoir Dogs, but it does show up the inconsistencies of the current system which relies on government selected individuals to make judgements on what they consider to be violent and what can be shown.  This would confirm marxist arguments that such regulation is more about the imposition of bourgeois taste on the rest of society.

Feminist perspectives are often linked with calls for control of imagery which shows women as the more likely victims of violence.  Evidence from a study (Schesinger et al 1992) which interviewed women to determine their responses to violence in the media, suggests that again reactions are varied.  The variable identified in this study appears to be the women’s previous personal experiences of violence.  As might be expected, those who had first hand experience of violence were much more likely to be more sensitive to viewing such scenes.  Yet when questioned they were not in favour of a total ban on violent images.  They were more concerned that such scenes should be portrayed with a degree of sensitivity to victims, be well made and the consequences of violence acknowledged in order to show a degree of accuracy and be informative.

In conclusion then, evidence from the book Moving Images. Understanding Children’s Responses to Television by David Buckingham (1996) does offer some well informed insights into how children say that they respond to television.  It does not offer a definitive description of violence, if there ever could be such a definition.  What the study does show is that there is a need for more research and a re-assessment of control and regulation in light of this study.  The difficulties in arriving at a generally accepted definition of violence, make the issues of who should regulate, and how, problematic.  Those who work most closely with those considered vulnerable and those considered to be violent will always have concerns about the issues of violence.  The present system of regulation and control is dated, inconsistent and ineffective.  An informed reassessment of criteria for control, based on research from different types of studies, could deal with some of these problems.  What is clear, is that those with responsibility for the control and regulation of film and television, at national, community or family levels, need as much reliable information as possible in order to make informed judgements for their own benefit and that of others.


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Thompson, D (1998) ‘Life with an Exorcise Fiend’ in Independent on Sunday, Culture Supplement. (25 October 1998)


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