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  Sex and Violence on TelevisionFriday, September 19th, 2014  
by Kerby Anderson

How Bad Is the Problem?

Sex and violence on TV In this article we are going to be talking about sex and violence on television. But before we look at the issues in detail, I want to begin by establishing that the problem has gotten worse.

One would think that such a proposition would be self-evident. But I run into people all the time who contend that television programs are really not much different than they were just a few years ago. Fortunately, there is a simple way to demonstrate that television has gotten a whole lot worse in the last decade.

On March 30, 2000, the Parents Television Council issued a special report entitled What a Difference a Decade Makes.{1} It's a comparison of prime time sex, language, and violence in 1989 and 1999. Not surprisingly it demonstrates a steady decline in broadcast television. In most cases it represents a very sharp decline. Here are a few of the findings:

First, on a per-hour basis, sexual material was more than three times as frequent in 1999 as it was in 1989. Their report gives many examples of how the sexual language on television has changed dramatically within just one decade. Unfortunately, I can't even talk about most of that here because it is much too graphic. They also found that references to homosexuality increased dramatically. While references to homosexuality were rare in 1989, they were mainstream in 1999, becoming more than 24 times as common during the decade. Homosexual characters and homosexual dialogue, once taboo, were standard fare on many network television programs.

Second, the study found that the rate of foul language in 1999 was more than five and one half times higher than that of 1989. They again provide examples of the kinds of words and phrases that are routinely used, words and phrases that are not appropriate for me to list in this article.

Third, the study found violent incidents occurred at about the same rate in both years, but the intensity of those incidents greatly increased. Some of the programs they reviewed showed nothing but violent images. So in terms of sexual content, coarse language, and violent material combined, the per-hour figure almost tripled from 1989 to 1999.

In every area of measurement the council found that sex, language, and violence increased dramatically in the last decade. While this is not surprising, it does provide the best quantifiable measure of what has been taking place on television. No longer can defenders of television say that TV is "not that bad." The evidence is in, and television is more offensive than ever. Our perception that television has gotten worse is not just perception, it's reality.

Television's Impact on Behavior

In light of the fact that programming has become worse in the last ten years, some defenders of television will argue that the impact of such programs is minimal. Again, the work of the Parents Television Council is helpful. They cite various studies and surveys that document the effects of television, especially on young people.

Let's first look at the impact violent programs have on behavior. The Parents Television Council cites a review of nearly 1000 studies presented to the American College of Forensic Psychiatry in 1998. They found "that all but 18 demonstrated that screen violence leads to real violence, and 12 of those 18 were funded by the television industry. In 1992, the American Psychological Association concluded that 40 years of research on the link between TV violence and real-life violence has been ignored, stating that the 'scientific debate is over' and calling for federal policy to protect society."{2}

Less research has been conducted on the effect of other offensive television content on other behavior. Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence that sexuality and language are also significantly affected by television. Professional organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have drawn links between television's depictions of sexuality and real-life behaviors.{3}

A 1995 poll of children ten to sixteen years of age showed that children recognize that "what they see on television encourages them to take part in sexual activity too soon, to show disrespect for their parents, [and] to lie and to engage in aggressive behavior." More than two-thirds said they are influenced by television; 77 percent said TV shows too much sex before marriage and 62 percent said sex on television and in movies influences their peers to have sexual relations when they are too young. Two-thirds also cited certain programs featuring dysfunctional families as encouraging disrespect toward parents.

The report reminds us that television sets the baseline standard for the entire entertainment industry. Most homes (98 percent) have a television set, and the average household watches 7 hours, 15 minutes of television daily.{4} Other forms of entertainment (movies, videos, CDs, the Internet) must be sought out and purchased. Television is universally available and thus has the most profound effect on our culture.

As Christians we need to be aware of these cultural influences on ourselves and our families. But we should also be concerned about the impact television (and other forms of media) have on our neighbors and our society as a whole. So that is why in this article we are looking at the impact of sex and violence on television.

Sexual Content on Television

Most Americans believe there is too much sex on television. A survey conducted in 1994 found that 75 percent of Americans felt that television had "too much sexually explicit material." Moreover, 86 percent believed that television had contributed to "a decline in values."{5} And no wonder. Scanning the ads for movies or channel surfing through the television reveals plots celebrating premarital sex, adultery, and even homosexuality. As we documented earlier, sexual promiscuity on television is at an all-time high.

In previous articles dealing with pornography we have talked about the dangerous effects of sex, especially when linked with violence.{6} Neil Malamuth and Edward Donnerstein document the volatile impact of sex and violence in the media. They say, "There can be relatively long-term, anti-social effects of movies that portray sexual violence as having positive consequences."{7}

In a message given by Donnerstein, he concluded with this warning and observation: "If you take normal males and expose them to graphic violence against women in R-rated films, the research doesn't show that they'll commit acts of violence against women. It doesn't say they will go out and commit rape. But it does demonstrate that they become less sensitized to violence against women, they have less sympathy for rape victims, and their perceptions and attitudes and values about violence change."{8}

It is important to remember that these studies are applicable not just to hard-core pornography. Many of the studies used films that are readily shown on television (especially cable television) any night of the week. And many of the movies shown today in theaters are much more explicit than those shown just a few years ago.

Social commentator Irving Kristol asked this question in a Wall Street Journal column: "Can anyone really believe that soft porn in our Hollywood movies, hard porn in our cable movies and violent porn in our 'rap' music is without effect? Here the average, overall impact is quite discernible to the naked eye. And at the margin, the effects, in terms most notably of illegitimacy and rape, are shockingly visible."{9}

Christians must be careful that sexual images on television don't conform us to the world (Rom. 12:2). Instead we should use discernment. Philippians 4:8 says, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things."

Sex on television is at an all-time high, so we should be even more careful to screen what we and our families see. Christians should be concerned about the images we see (and our neighbors see) on television.

Violence on Television

Children's greatest exposure to violence comes from television. TV shows, movies edited for television, and video games expose young children to a level of violence unimaginable just a few years ago. The American Psychological Association says the average child watches 8,000 televised murders and 100,000 acts of violence before finishing elementary school.{10} That number more than doubles by the time he or she reaches age eighteen.

At a very young age, children are seeing a level of violence and mayhem that in the past may have been seen only by a few police officers and military personnel. TV brings hitting, kicking, stabbings, shootings, and dismemberment right into homes on a daily basis.

The impact on behavior is predictable. Two prominent Surgeon General reports in the last two decades link violence on television and aggressive behavior in children and teenagers. In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health issued a 94-page report, Television and Behavior: Ten Years of Scientific Progress and Implications for the Eighties. They found "overwhelming" scientific evidence that "excessive" violence on television spills over into the playground and the streets.{11} In one five-year study of 732 children, "several kinds of aggression, conflicts with parents, fighting and delinquency, were all positively correlated with the total amount of television viewing."{12}

Long-term studies are even more disturbing. University of Illinois psychologist Leonard Eron studied children at age eight and then again at eighteen. He found that television habits established at the age of eight influenced aggressive behavior throughout childhood and adolescent years. The more violent the programs preferred by boys in the third grade, the more aggressive their behavior, both at that time and ten years later. He therefore concluded that "the effect of television violence on aggression is cumulative."{13}

Twenty years later Eron and Rowell Huesmann found the pattern continued. He and his researchers found that children who watched significant amounts of TV violence at the age of eight were consistently more likely to commit violent crimes or engage in child or spouse abuse at thirty.{14} They concluded that "heavy exposure to televised violence is one of the causes of aggressive behavior, crime and violence in society. Television violence affects youngsters of all ages, of both genders, at all socioeconomic levels and all levels of intelligence."{15}

As we discussed previously, there are nearly 1000 studies that were presented to the American College of Forensic Psychiatry in 1998 which document some of the effects described here. Violent images on television affect children in adverse ways and Christians should be concerned about the impact. Tomorrow we will look at other psychological influences of television.

Psychological and Spiritual Implications

Television is such a part of our lives that we often are unaware of its subtle and insidious influence. Nearly every home (98 percent) has a television set, so we tend to take it for granted and are often oblivious to its influence.

I've had many people tell me that they watch television, and that it has no impact at all on their world view or behavior. However the Bible teaches that "as a man thinks in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23:7). What we view and what we think about affects our actions. And there is abundant psychological evidence that television viewing affects our world view.

George Gerbner and Larry Gross, working at the Annenberg School of Communications in the 1970s, found that heavy television viewers live in a scary world. "We have found that people who watch a lot of TV see the real world as more dangerous and frightening than those who watch very little. Heavy viewers are less trustful of their fellow citizens, and more fearful of the real world."{16} They defined heavy viewers as those adults who watch an average of four or more hours of television a day. Approximately one-third of all American adults fit that category.

Gerbner and Gross found that violence on prime-time TV exaggerated heavy viewers' fears about the threat of danger in the real world. Heavy viewers, for example, were less likely to trust others than light viewers. Heavy viewers also tended to overestimate their likelihood of being involved in a violent crime.

And if this is true of adults, imagine how television violence affects children's perceptions of the world. Gerbner and Gross say, "Imagine spending six hours a day at the local movie house when you were twelve years old. No parent would have permitted it. Yet, in our sample of children, nearly half the twelve-year-olds watch an average of six or more hours of television per day." This would mean that a large portion of young people fit into the category of heavy viewers. Their view of the world must be profoundly shaped by TV. Gerbner and Gross therefore conclude, "If adults can be so accepting of the reality of television, imagine its effect on children. By the time the average American child reaches public school, he has already spent several years in an electronic nursery school."{17}

Television viewing affects both adults and children in subtle ways. We must not ignore the growing body of data that suggests that televised imagery does affect our perceptions and behaviors. Our world view and our subsequent actions are affected by what we see on television. Christians, therefore, must be careful not to let television conform us to the world (Rom. 12:2), but instead should develop a Christian world view.

Notes

1. Parents Television Council, Special Report: What a Difference a Decade Makes, 30 March 2000. For full report see the Web site (www.parentstv.org).
2. David Grossman, "What the Surgeon General Found; As Early as 1972, the Link Was Clear Between Violent TV and Movies and Violent Youths," Los Angeles Times, 21 October 1999, B-11.
3. See Parents Television Council, Special Report: The Family Hour: Worse Than Ever and Headed for New Lows, 30 August 1999.
4. Veronis, Suhler & Associates, Wilkofsky Gruen Associates, from Television Bureau of Advertising, Consumer Media Usage, TV Basics (www.tvb.org/tvfacts/tvbasics27.htm).
5. National Family Values: A Survey of Adults conducted by Voter/Consumer Research (Bethesda, MD, 1994).
6. See the article, The Pornography Plague, available at the Probe Web site (www.probe.org).
7. Neil Malamuth and Edward Donnerstein, Pornography and Sexual Aggression (New York: Academic, 1984).
8. Edward Donnerstein, "What the Experts Say," a forum at the Industry-wide Leadership Conference on Violence in Television Programming, 2 August 1993, in National Council for Families and Television Report, 9.
9. Irving Kristol, "Sex, Violence and Videotape," Wall Street Journal, 31 May 1994.
10. John Johnston, "Kids: Growing Up Scared," Cincinnati Enquirer, March 20, 1994, p. E01.
11. Cited in "Warning from Washington," Time, 17 May 1982, 77.
12. James Mann, "What Is TV Doing to America?" U.S. News and World Report, 2 August 1982, 27.
13. Leo Bogart, "Warning: The Surgeon General Has Determined that TV Violence Is Moderately Dangerous to Your Child's Mental Health," Public Opinion (Winter, 1972-73): 504.
14. Peter Plagen, "Violence in Our Culture," Newsweek, 1 April 1991, 51.
15. Ibid.
16. George Gerbner and Larry Gross, "The Scary World of TV's Heavy Viewer," Psychology Today, April 1976.
17. Ibid.

Copyright © 2002 Probe Ministries. This data file/document is the sole property of Probe Ministries. It may not be altered or edited in any way. It may be reproduced only in its entirety for circulation as "freeware," without charge. All reproductions of this data file and/or document must contain the copyright notice and this Copyright/Reproduction Limitations notice.




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