Violence on television can lead to aggressive behavior by children and teen-agers who watch the programs, according to a government review of the last decade of research on this long-debated topic.
"Television and Behavior," a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services, concludes that the "consensus" among scientists is that there is a "causal relationship" between televised violence and aggression.
It says that the "great majority" of studies in the laboratory and the field during the 1970s support this conclusion, although a minority of researchers still disagree.
The report, which was prepared by the National Institute of Mental Health, supports the preliminary findings of a controversial 1972 Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee study on televised violence. The earlier suggestions of a link between violence and aggression have been "significantly strengthened" since then, the report contends.
"After 10 more years of research, the consensus among most of the research community is that violence on television does lead to aggressive behavior by children and teen-agers who watch the programs," says the carefully worded update report.
Calling television a "violent form of entertainment," the new report found that the percentage of programs containing violence has remained essentially the same during the past decade and that during this period "there also has been more violence on children's weekend programs than on prime time television."
The report cautions that "not all children become aggressive, of course," emphasizing that the various studies compare large groups rather than individual cases. But the latest research has expanded to suggest that preschoolers as well as older adolescents and girls as well as boys might be influenced by the televised violence.
The studies cited include a London sample of teen-age boys that found they were more likely to engage in "serious violence" after exposure to television violence. Two other studies of preschool children found heavy television viewing of violent programs led to "unwarranted aggressive behavior in free play."
Studies in communities comparing aggressiveness in children before and after television became widely available found a "significant increase" in both verbal and physical aggression after the introduction of television.
But one major study running contrary to the trend, financed by the National Broadcasting Co., found no evidence that television violence was causally related to the development of aggressive behavior patterns.
The report suggests that the link between television violence and aggression comes from children learning to behave aggressively from what they see, as well as general attitudinal changes in the acceptance of violence.
It adds an optimistic note, however, suggesting that other studies show that television has the potential to help children learn "constructive social behavior" such as cooperation and friendliness.
While the 1972 surgeon general's committee study focused exclusively on violence and television, the new review goes well beyond that to examine the overall behavioral effects of television on an American society in which more people now have televisions than refrigerators or indoor plumbing.
"Television can no longer be considered as a casual part of daily life, as an electronic toy. Research findings have long since destroyed the illusion that television is merely innocuous entertainment," says the government document, which was prepared under the direction of NIMH official Dr. David Pearl, with assistance from outside consultants.
The general findings of their two-year review include:
Almost all Americans say they watch television, with many viewing it from one to several hours daily. It is most popular among the very young and the very old. Women watch more than men and minority groups tend to watch more than others. Heavy viewers tend to be less educated.
"On the whole, it seems that television leads its viewers to have television-influenced attitudes." Those who are frequent viewers, for example, are more likely to think the world is a "mean and scary" place than those who are not.
Television "seems to be doing a rather poor job of helping its audience to attain better health or better understanding of health practices." The content seems to foster poor nutrition among children, acceptance of alcohol, and a lack of use of seat belts, for example. One study found television ranked second to physicians and dentists as a source of health information.
Evidence is mixed as to the effects of television on children's grades and intelligence. Some studies found higher educational achievement with more television viewing, while others found lower, and some found no relation.