Does television violence breed violence?

Emphatically yes, answers William Belson, who has just announced here the central findings of a six-year study financed by the American television network, CBS. After prolonged interviews with 1,565 London boys, Belson concludes that those who watch screen violence for long periods commit 50 per cent more rape and other mayhem than those whose viewing is limited.

Unproven, replies Stephen Brody of the British Home Office, who has coincidentally published a survey of all previous research on the question. These studies suggest at most, he argues that the violent-prone may enjoy and gain reinforcement from watching violence on the screen, but it is unlikely to affect the behavior of the ordinary viewer.

The $290,000 study was done here rather than in the United States because Belson and his London School of Economics survey team, who CBS wanted, preferred to do the work here.

It has captured a great deal of attention here, largely because of its blunt conclusions.

One of the most startling for a British society that likes to regard itself as peaceful is the high level of violence among youths aged 13 to 16.

Nearly one in eight of those questioned, 12 per cent, told Belson's interviewers that they had committed 10 or more serious acts of violence in the previous six months. Some examples: knocking a boy off his bike, breaking a telephone in a booth, throwing bricks at a girl, kicking a boy hard in the crotch, burning a boy's chest with a cigarette, attempting rape and bashing a boy's head against a wall.

Of Belson's group of 1.565, only 725 claimed not to have committed a single serious violent act.

To determine television's effect, Belson, a professor at North East London Polytechnic, split his group in two. Those who spent the most time watching more-violent programs were "qualifiers"; those who watched less-violent fare and less often were his "controls."

His most dramatic finding is that the prolonged violence-watchers had engaged on average in 7.48 acts of serious violence in the past six months. THe "controls," however, had committed an average of 5.02 such acts.

Skeptics might contend that this simply reflects an extraordinary amount of violence among London's youths. But Belson argues that it shows a serious difference in behavior traceable to violence on television.

Among the more violent shows Belson singled out were several American series that have drawn big audiences here: "Starsky and Hutch," "The Untouchables," "Hawaii Five-O" and "The Man From UNCLE."

The professor makes no distinction between the crime-generating consequences of a violent Western or classical drama.

What about "Hamlet," he was asked, with its four killings and one suicide on stage, two executions and another suicide off stage?

"'Hamlet' would rate very high" on his violence scale, Belson said in an interview. "The fact that it's art makes no difference. It's pretty violent."

What of the argument that the violence-prone watch violence more than others? Belson conceded that "we do not have a method for unambiguously resolving" this question. But he said that his full report, still unpublished attempts to deal with it.

His findings give a clean bill of health to violence in cartoons, science fiction, slapstick comedy and sports - except for boxing and wrestling. In fact, much youthful violence here concurs every Saturday when rival soccer crowds assault each other and passersby. But this lics outside Belson's study.

He readily acknowledges that many other factors besides television can induce violence, including size of family, poverty and environment. But he says he has succeeded in isolating television as a contributing factor and urges a "major cutback in the total amount of violence being presented."