It’s not that hard to draw the lines between early and easier access to more violent and explicit television and the way unfortunately and sadly many women are treated in relationships. – Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey, quoted by the ABC, November 26, 2015.
OPINION: We know that boys who observe their mother’s romantic partner assault their mothers are at increased risk of committing domestic violence in adulthood. But does viewing violent television as a child increase aggression toward women later in life?
The short answer is probably, but it is a hard question to definitively answer (see this article for a sense of the difficulty in conducting research on TV violence).
Checking the research
We do learn a lot about social behaviour from watching TV. And laboratory experiments do find increased aggression immediately following exposure to TV violence.
The most stringent test of Rowan Ramsey’s hypothesis would be to randomly assign a representative sample of children to watch violent TV and another group to watch non-violent TV for several years. Researchers could then assess domestic violence committed as an adult. However, for ethical reasons, such an experiment would probably never be conducted.
Thus, we are left with a quasi-experimental design in which researchers record how much violent media is consumed as a child and then assess domestic violence as adults.
This correlational design leaves the question open as to whether aggressive children prefer to watch violent media (which they do and this claim is relatively uncontentious among experts) or whether watching violent TV actually increases risk for domestic violence perpetration. The best studies control for childhood aggression, social class, intelligence, parenting practices and other confounding factors.
I could locate only one study that assessed TV viewing as a child and subsequent domestic violence as adults.
The study began with children in 1977 living in the Chicago area. The researchers followed up with nearly all of them (450 participants out of 557) in 1991 when they were between 20 and 22 years old.
The researchers concluded that:
childhood exposure to media violence predicts young adult aggressive behaviour for both males and females. Identification with aggressive TV characters and perceived realism of TV violence also predict later aggression. These relations persist even when the effects of socioeconomic status, intellectual ability, and a variety of parenting factors are controlled.
However, when the researchers examined the effect of childhood TV viewing on domestic violence specifically, they did not control for these extraneous factors.
But they did report a strong relationship between their general measure of aggressiveness and domestic violence, so one might infer that childhood TV viewing does predict domestic violence in adulthood to some extent, at least in this study.
Specifically, these researchers found that 42% of males who viewed a lot of TV violence had shoved, pushed, or grabbed their spouse during the past year compared to 22% for less frequent viewers of TV violence.
Similarly, 11% of high TV violence viewers had been convicted of a crime compared to 3% of less frequent viewers.
Other long term studies of the same people that controlled for confounding influences like parenting control, childhood aggressiveness and socioeconomic status reported similar findings on amalgamated measures of aggressiveness: that watching a lot of TV as a child predicts aggression and antisocial behaviour in adulthood, including this study in New Zealand.
However, these studies did not examine domestic violence specifically.
Key risk factors for violence
One thing to keep in mind is that there are multiple risk factors for committing domestic violence and we need to be cognisant of their relative contributions.
The World Health Organisation states that:
risk factors for being a perpetrator [of violence against women] include low education, exposure to child maltreatment or witnessing violence in the family, harmful use of alcohol, attitudes accepting of violence and gender inequality.
It’s not clear whether by “the way unfortunately and sadly many women are treated in relationships” Ramsey is talking about physical violence or other forms of mistreatment in relationships.
This FactCheck mostly tests his statement against the research on media violence and real life physical violence. That said, there is some research evidence linking TV depictions of women being treated poorly and disrespectful attitudes toward women.
Heavy TV viewers are more accepting of violence and more likely to endorse the “rape myth” (that when women say no, they really mean yes).
Thus, heavy TV viewing may indirectly influence domestic violence perpetration through hostile attitudes to women, but similar problems with study designs remain here too. It is difficult to untangle one influencing factor from another.
By contrast, heavy alcohol use and witnessing family violence are robustly associated with domestic violence. Thus, these factors may have a larger impact on domestic violence than watching TV, although they are perhaps more difficult to target for intervention.
US psychologist Terrie Moffitt has suggested that aggressiveness is approximately 50% heritable (meaning a characteristic that parents pass on biologically to their offspring).
This recent study from the US suggests that the longitudinal relationship between childhood TV viewing and adult violence may be best accounted for by genetic variation that predisposes some children to both watch more violent TV and be more aggressive.
In case you’re wondering how childhood TV viewing affects women’s domestic violence, in the Chicago area study I described earlier, girls who watched a lot of violent TV were no more likely to push, grab or shove their partner, but they were more likely to throw something at their partner. Laboratory experiments also show similar effects of violent TV on increasing aggression in boys and girls.
Ramsey is probably right to say there’s a link between early and easier access to more violent and explicit television and poor treatment of women in relationships. However, the exact nature of that link – or how strong it is – is not known.
Given that childhood TV viewing predicts many other forms of aggression in adulthood, it would be surprising to find no effect of TV viewing on domestic violence.
That said, TV is clearly not the only factor, or even the strongest risk factor. We can’t definitively say if it is causal – only correlational.
More research is needed to definitively answer this question, specifically long-term studies of the same people that incorporates genetic and environmental risk factors. – Tom Denson
This article gives a comprehensive account of the complexities of investigating media effects.
US academic Chris Ferguson is a noted sceptic. One of his arguments is that a lot of the research on media influence is politically expedient in societies with entrenched generational poverty issues; basically it’s easier and cheaper to fund effects research than build more schools, hire more teachers, bolster family support and the like.
It’s important to note that famous researchers who did think that screen violence is harmful – such as Albert Bandura and George Gerbner, both based in the US – agreed that this harm exploited social inequalities that already existed.
Gerbner argued that the main effect of screen violence perpetrated by men against women was to resign audiences to the idea that it’s a man’s world.
Gerbner also argued that the main effect of screen violence was that it made people afraid; the world seemed a “scary” place, and little could be done to change that.
This raises the question of whether media violence encourages audiences to turn away from social problems. – Andy Ruddock
Tom Denson is Associate Professor of Psychology and ARC Future Fellow at UNSW Australia. Andy Ruddock is Senior Lecturer, School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University.
This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.