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Education Reporter

TV Violence Affects Teenage Brains

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In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons that, among other factors, the growing body of research on teenage brains and their development was enough to bar the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Children's and adults' brains do not react the same way to violent images on television or in movies, decades of such research have found. Findings on developing brains and screen violence are now more significant than ever. According to a recent report from the Parents Television Council (PTC), violence on the major TV networks has increased 75% since 1998.

Last season, the networks showed an average of 4.4 incidents of violence an hour. ABC had the biggest increase, showing three times the instances of violence in 2005-2006 that it showed in 1998. ABC also hosted the most violent program of the 2005-2006 season, Night Stalker. This show, one episode of which showed 26 instances of violence, is now off the air.

NBC, home of E.R., Law and Order, and Medium, was the most violent network with 6.8 violent instances an hour. NBC's programming in the 10:00 p.m. slot (Eastern time) showed an almost unbelievable 14.7 acts of violence in a single hour every week night. The least violent networks were UPN (0.86 instances per hour) and WB (3.52), which recently combined to form the CW Television Network. Fox has had the smallest increase in violence since 1998, and now shows 3.84 instances per hour.

Since networks depict more graphic and disturbing violence than they did in 1998, the overall increase in violence is even greater than the numbers show. The PTC report includes examples demonstrating that TV violence has become much more disturbing and even horrific. Confronted with shows about serial rapists and murderers, ritual violence, fetishism, torture and psychotic killings, viewers who aren't desensitized yet might long for a simple gunfight or a drive-by shooting.

The effects of TV violence

Almost everyone knows intuitively that TV violence harms children. But decades of research have also demonstrated and proven the harmful effects. In the early 1970s, Aletha Huston studied how shows such as Batman and Superman affected preschoolers. Children who watched those relatively innocuous programs for just 30 minutes a day, five days a week, began getting into fights, breaking toys and showing other violent behaviors more often than other children (and more often than the same children had before). Children who watched neutral travelogues became neither more nor less aggressive, and children who watched Mr. Rogers became more likely to help each other, cooperate and share.

Dr. John Murray, noted scholar and researcher, described his own research on TV violence and its effect on children's brains in a recent lecture in St. Louis. In one landmark experiment, Dr. Murray imaged and recorded the brain activity of children watching violent and nonviolent programs. The nonviolent programs were Ghostwriter and a National Geographic special on baby animals. The violent program was Rocky IV, rated PG.

Activity in the children's amygdalae did not surprise Murray; the amygdala activates the "fight or flight" response that helps humans and animals to react when their survival is threatened. Two other areas of brain activity, however, surprised him very much. While watching Rocky, the children's brains would actually imitate Rocky's punches and kicks, sending signals to their appendages even though they were sitting motionless in a chair. Learning aggressive behaviors from TV appears to happen partly through "rehearsing" the behaviors while watching. This imitative behavior makes aggressive responses seem more acceptable and natural later on, in a process Murray describes as "encoding aggressive scripts."

Secondly, Murray recorded activity in the posterior cingulate, a "deep memory part of the brain that holds onto traumatic events." Neural imaging has shown activity in this part of the brain when soldiers remember combat, and when women who have been assaulted remember the attack. "These were healthy, happy, well-provided-for children, who were storing memories in a deep, traumatic memory part of their brain that would come back in a flash and make them retrieve aggressive scripts," said Murray.

Rob Hubbard, general manager of the Twin Cities ABC affiliate KSTP, should have talked to Dr. Murray before he talked to the Star Tribune (1-17-07). Shortly after PTC released its report, Hubbard told the paper, "I don't believe there's any compelling research to suggest that violence on television is a bad thing. People can distinguish between fantasy and reality, and that holds true for kids too."

PTC wants to get the information in its report especially to parents because the Council does not believe ratings or the V-Chip are doing very much to protect children from TV violence. A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that networks only give a "V" or an "S" rating to two out of every ten shows with violent or sexual content.

The PTC's full report is available online, at http://www.parentstv.org/. Other interesting publications include reports on the top ten best and worst advertisers, the content of the ten most popular shows, TV ratings, children's programming, and "Faith in a Box," a study of religion on TV.

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