Fall 1992, Volume 1, Number 2

JAMA Study: Link found between TV and homicide rates

Had TV never been invented, the United States today would experience 10,000 fewer murders, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults each year.Thats the startling conclusion of an epidemiological study published in the June 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.Dr. Brandon S. Centerwall, the studys author, based his conclusion on an analysis of homicide rates in the United States and Canada, where TV was introduced in 1945, and homicide rates in South Africa, where TV was banned until 1975 for reasons of internal security.From 1945 to 1974, the homicide rate in the U.S. and Canada rose 93 percent and 92 percent respectively. By contrast, among TV-deprived white South Africans, the homicide rate dropped 7 percent durin g the same 30-year period.However, by 1983 eight years after TV came to South Africa the homicide rate among the white popu-lation had jumped 56 percent. Although television broadcasting was prohibited prior to 1975, white South Africa had well develop ed book, newspaper, radio and cinema industries, writes Centerwall. Therefore, the effect of television could be isolated from that of other media influences.

The Seattle-based physician also examined other possible variables such as civil unrest, economic conditions, alcohol consumption and the availability of firearms. None provided a viable alternative explanation for the observed homicide trends, he wri tes.Centerwall also discounts the influence of civil rights tensions and the Vietnam War on U.S. homicide rates because Canada experienced similar homicide increases without the variables of war and civil unrest. Centerwall sees the link between TV viewin g and violent behavior as a major public health crisis, in which the critical period of exposure is preadolescent childhood. In the minds of such young children [3-4 years old], television is a source of entirely factual information regarding how the worl d works. Naturally, as they get older, they come to know better, but the earliest and deepest impressions were laid down when the child saw television as a factual source of information about a world outside their homes where violence is a daily commonpl ace and the commission of violence is generally powerful, exciting, charismatic, and efficacious, he warns.

Centerwall found a 10-15 year lag time between TVs initial influence on children and subsequent increases in violent behavior. Based on this phenomenon, he predicted a doubling in South Africas homicide rate 10-15 years after the advent of TV in 1975. South African crime statistics for 1987, which were published in 1989, confirmed Centerwalls prediction: from 1975 to 1987, the homicide rate among white South Africans skyrocketed 130 percent. Is the current jump in U.S. juvenile crime rates (see page one story) due to 1980s Reagan-era deregulation of the communications industry, which permitted a rising tide of TV violence, especially in childrens programming? Given the 10-15 year lag time, should we expect an even more violent decade as the child ren of the 80s enter their teens and twenties?Contacted at his office in Seattle, Centerwall said the increasing media violence of the last decade could portend even higher rates of homicide and violent behavior in coming years. But I think the rates of violence are so bad now it cant get much worse, he said.Centerwalls comparative study was critically well-received among the scientific and medical community, while popular media coverage in radio and print outlets was extensive, he added.

But if you depend on television for your news, you would think my publication didnt happen.Similarly, the TV industry is likely to ignore calls for reform and self-regulation. Media violence is cheap to produce and generates high profits, said Centerw all. The TV industry is in the business of selling audiences to advertisers, and there is no formula more tried and true than violence for reliably generating large audiences that can be sold to advertisers.Yet some reformers naively persist in thinking the industry has a social conscience, he writes. If someone were to call on the tobacco industry to cut back tobacco production as a matter of social conscience and out of concern for public health, we would regard that person as being at least simple-mi nded, if not frankly deranged.Instead, Centerwall is calling for physicians to take a leading role in advising parents to reduce their childrens exposure to TV, especially violent programming. The many thousands of physicians who gave up smoking were imp ortant role models for the general public. Just as many waiting rooms now have a sign saying, This is a Smoke-Free Area, so likewise a sign can be posted saying, This is a Television-Free Area.

By sparking inquiries from parents and children, such a simple device provides a low-key way to bring up the subject in a clinical setting, he writes. He also recommends federal legislation to require TV manufacturers to install time-channel locking me chanisms in all new TV sets. This device, now readily available, permits parents to preset which programs, channels, and times they wish the set to be available for; if a particular program or time of day is locked, the set wont turn on for that time or channel. Centerwall also recommends media literacy education as well as a ratings system for TV programming so that parents can determine how violent a program is without having to watch it. None of these options raise free speech questions, he argues.Ce nterwall said age-restrictions should apply to the realm of video rentals, where children have extensive access to violent programming such as slasher movies. The idea that an 8-year old kid can rent the most hideous, violent and degrading material like checking out a library book is simply bizarre, yet it happens routinely, he said.

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