The debate concerning the power of violent entertainment to influence viewers is familiar to many readers and, to keep from interrupting the flow of my argument, I have located it as an appendix to this chapter. Because it is a particularly contentious issue, I will address first the influence on children, which is less controversial than the effect on adults.

Of course, it is not new for children's stories to be frightening. The psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim even claimed that fairy tales should deal with fears that children all harbor, secretly. It is true that, to be interesting, a story must include a problem for the hero to master. However, it is possible to present a danger that is altogether too frightening. Both adults and children often remain nervous after seeing something horrific.

Almost all researchers acknowledge that millions of children are harmed by exposure to violence in the media. Major research on the effects of violence began in the 1950s.[1] Hundreds of studies have investigated the relationship of mass media violence to aggression. Both the U.S. and Canadian governments established commissions to study the issue -- with the same conclusions:[2] Television violence is related to aggressive behavior, regardless of the methods used to study the connection, the age of the subjects, the time period studied, or the country where the investigation was done.[3] By 1992, one scholar summed up the findings in these words to a U.S. Senate committee:

There can no longer be any doubt that heavy exposure to televised violence is one of the causes of aggressive behavior, crime, and violence in society. The evidence comes from both the laboratory and real-life studies. Television violence affects youngsters of all ages, of both genders, at all socio-economic levels and all levels of intelligence. The effect is not limited to children who are already disposed to being aggressive and is not restricted to any one country. The fact that we get this same finding of a relation between television violence and aggression in children in study after study, in one country after another, cannot be ignored. The causal effect of television violence on aggression, even though it is not very large, exists.... [T]elevision violence makes children more aggressive and these aggressive children turn to watching more and more violence to justify their own behavior.[4]

Adults agree; one 1995 poll showed that 21 percent of American adults blamed television more than any other factor for sex and violence among teenagers.[5] Nevertheless, some 75 percent of North American parents set no limits on the amount of their children's viewing.[6] Mothers benefit from having their children engrossed by the TV, in that they have more free time for themselves.[7] Young adults who are not parents tend to be unconcerned about the harmful effects of television violence on society.[8] Many of them have become inured to such shows themselves and no longer react strongly. (By the time they graduated from elementary school, most of them had seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 violent acts through the media.) Nevertheless, serious psychological problems apparently result from such exposure. Psychologist Martin Seligman has noted that among adolescents the levels of depression have increased tenfold since the 1950s.[9] And, when it comes to imitating violence, I need mention only a few illustrations.

Item: In Liverpool, England, two-year-old James Bulger was murdered by two 11-year-olds who had just been watching the horror video, Child's Play 3. In this film a baby doll comes to life and its face gets painted blue. James Bulger's face was painted blue. The film shows two young boys on a train, mutilating the doll's face. James was mutilated and bludgeoned, then left on a train track to be run over.

Item: On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two giggling students dressed in black trench coats, fatigues, and ski-masks, opened fire on their schoolmates in Littleton, Colorado, leaving 12 students and a teacher dead, and 23 others wounded. Eric's diary showed that they had been planning the massacre for over a year. They had made a video of themselves replaying a scene from The Basketball Diaries, in which they wore trench coats and pretended to be gunmen shooting their friends in the hallway.

That incident was the top news story for a week, and the coverage on television provoked several copy-cat murders and attempted murders. One was in Taber, Alberta, where a 14-year-old in a trench coat shot two older boys, killing one and critically wounding the other. In Brooklyn, five boys compiled a list of victims to be killed during school commencement; fortunately, another student overheard them and prevented the massacre. In Oak Lawn, Illinois a boy who was overheard threatening to blow up his school was arrested instead. The police found an axe, knives, a rifle, shotguns, and 150 rounds of ammunition in his home. In Philadelphia there were at least 52 bomb scares and other threats at schools. In Washington, about 12,600 high school students were evacuated after a caller said a bomb had been placed in one of 13 public high schools. And in Longwood, Florida and Coalinga, California, three students were arrested for threatening to bomb or burn down their schools. But enough. We need not go on, for the reality is already accepted by almost everyone: Children tend to imitate the behavior they see.[10] And in most countries where electronic technology is available, they see a great deal of violence.

Moreover, adult behavior sometimes is actually the imitation of actions observed over a long period, extending back into childhood. An illustration of this is a study by the epidemiologist Brandon Centerwall. Some researchers had doubted the conclusions of most studies because statistics were lacking to demonstrate a correlation between viewing TV violence and violent crime within a whole society. No such data had been collected until Centerwall's analysis of homicide rates in the white populations of the United States and Canada between 1945 and 1974, and his later study of the white population of South Africa.

Homicide rates doubled during the first 10 to 15 years after television was introduced to the United States and Canada. Homicide increases began among teenagers (the age when crime is most common) who had been young children when television was introduced. Then as the first television generation grew into successively older age categories, those age groups showed increasing homicide rates.

Centerwall chose to study South Africa because television was not introduced there until 1974. The homicide rate had been stable or had even dropped in South Africa before the introduction of television in 1974. Then it doubled within ten years, just as it had done in the United States and Canada after television became widespread after 1950.

Centerwall's article was published in 1992 in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. He concluded that up to one-half of all violent crime in North America is affected by television. He calls it a factor in about 10,000 homicides per year in the United States alone: "The introduction of television into the United States in the 1950s caused a subsequent doubling of the homicide rate," and "if, hypothetically, television technology had never been developed, there would today be 10,000 fewer murders each year in the United States, 70,000 fewer rapes, and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults."[11]

Centerwall claim that television is "a factor" in 10,000 homicides can be true only if its contribution to the murders is quite limited. Almost certainly it is not a major factor in so many violent acts. There are many other causative factors also of great importance.[12] Most other scholars estimate that the media account for between five percent and 15 percent of the violence in society. We cannot easily reconcile the discrepancy. Nevertheless, even the lower estimates indicate that, in a large population, the absolute number of deaths and injuries resulting from suggestion is terrible.

Dave Grossman, formerly an army officer and professor at West Point, studies the psychology of killing. He points out that human beings normally avoid killing members of our own species. In many previous wars, for example, most soldiers shot over the heads of their enemies, even increasing the risk to their own lives. This worried military officers, who of course intended for their troops to engage in battle with vigor. However, technologically advanced programs were created to desensitize soldiers and train them to shoot first and think later. The army now uses computer programs and simulated battlefield conditions, such as replacing bulls-eye targets with pop-up humanoid figures that fall down, spurting red dye, when shot. These desensitize trainees and overcome their inhibitions. Since the Vietnam War, American soldiers have been reversing the previous tendencies and actually engaging in battle. "In Vietnam," writes Grossman, "a systematic process of desensitization, conditioning, and training increased the individual firing rate from a World War II baseline of 15 to 20 percent to an all-time high of up to 95 percent.... Men are shown a series of gruesome films, which get progressively more horrific. The trainee is forced to watch by having his head bolted in a clamp so he cannot turn away, and a special device keeps his eyelids open."[13] There have been grave long-term consequences, however; these soldiers had to repress their grief and guilt in battle, ultimately increasing the total impact of the trauma they suffered.[14]

Child-rearing practices have changed as a result of these military innovations. Pointing out the identical nature of the desensitization of soldiers and children, Grossman writes, "we allow increasingly more vivid depictions of suffering and violence to be shown as entertainment to our children. It begins innocently with cartoons and then goes on to the countless thousands of acts of violence depicted on TV as the child grows up and the scramble for ratings steadily raises the threshold of violence on TV."[15]

In fact, children unavoidably witness such scenes. On long airplane trips they may be strapped into their seats in front of gory action movies, whether their parents approve or not. I have written several letters of protest to airlines, objecting to films that I myself find unbearably repulsive, but the replies simply dismiss my concerns.

Despite promising to curtail the violence in their shows, producers actually continue to raise its level. However, until recently American shows have tended not to show the agony that goes with physical injury in real life. The characters who are shot generally succumb quietly without making a fuss over their pain, or they recover immediately without swelling, bleeding, or bruising. Children may watch without realizing the excruciating nature of the experiences they are shown. In Japan, by contrast, films also show violence, but without minimizing the agony it brings. However, some American films in the present century (e.g., Black Hawk Down) are showing more pain than was formerly the case. There are many fewer cases of violent crimes imitated in Japan than in North America, and some researchers expect that the new levels of suffering will make American audiences less suggestible than before. Other scholars predict that viewers will simply become habituated to the sight of unlimited amounts of pain.

People do not imitate every form of behavior that they see, but instead are selective about copying actions. The most intense tendencies to imitate violence result when the actions are performed by heroic, exciting characters who seem invulnerable and who are either rewarded or at least not punished for their actions. "The same is true," writes philosopher Sissela Bok, "when the violence is shown as justifiable, when viewers identify with the aggressors rather than with their victims, when violence is routinely resorted to, and when the programs have links to how viewers perceive their own environment."[16]

We tend to imitate others who are similar to ourselves, or whom we like. Hollywood-type action films (including shows produced for television) often make violence look exciting and fun, without causing disfigurement or prolonged suffering. For that reason, even adults sometimes copy the heroic figures they have observed on the screen.

No one can say when the phenomenon of imitative murders began, but it started generating widespread public concern after the release of three films featuring a violent American named John Rambo. The character hardly ever spoke, but slaughtered hundreds or thousands of enemies, earning a billion dollars and making actor Sylvester Stallone the second highest earner in America one year. Thereafter, in the late 1980s, a number of men around the world dressed in Rambo costumes and copied his performance.[17]

Was Marc Lepine a Rambo copy-cat? That is not clear, but he was known to be a war movie addict, watching several such videos every day, collecting guns, and dressing in fatigues. In December 1989 he walked into the University of Montreal looking for "feminists" to kill. He had been rejected for admission to the engineering program there and blamed the female students for his exclusion. He killed 14 women and injured 13 others before shooting himself; in the pocket of his army fatigues was found a list of 19 whom he had planned to kill.[18]

Some famous murders have been suggested by novels films. For example, former Beatle John Lennon was killed in 1980 by Mark Chapman, a deranged young man obsessed with the novel Catcher in the Rye. His reaction to it differed from that of Robert Coles's patient Phil, but he had read the book many times and was convinced that it offered mysterious insights into his own personality. The book is a modern classic about a young man named Holden Caulfield, who is expelled from school and becomes deranged as the story unfolds. No one could hold the author, J. D. Salinger, responsible for Chapman's mental illness, nor would anyone want to suppress the distribution of the book, but in the mind of the killer, it was a major source of motivation for his actions.

But a better example of such imitative effect is that of President Ronald Reagan's attempted assassination in 1981. A copycat killer, John Hinckley, who had seen the film Taxi Driver at least 15 times, evidently identified strongly with Robert DeNiro's character, Travis Bickle. In the film, Bickle is infatuated with Cybil Shepherd's character, Betsy, who rejects him after he takes her to see a porn film. Bickle tries, but fails, to assassinate the political candidate for whom Betsy is campaigning. Then he tries to protect a 12-year-old prostitute, Iris, played by Jodie Foster, by shooting her pimp, to make himself a hero.

The script by Paul Schrader based the character Bickle on Arthur Bremer, who had tried to assassinate George Wallace. Bremer's diaries show that, to him, assassination was a way of gaining fame and revenge for his feelings of inadequacy. Hinckley began to imitate Bickle, collecting weapons and obsessively thinking about Jodie Foster, whom he would "rescue." He began stalking Jimmy Carter during the 1979 presidential campaign, and then shot President Reagan two years later. Reagan's aides were gravely wounded, along with Reagan himself, who recovered. Hinckley is still in a mental hospital.


[1] Rose A. Dyson, Mind Abuse: Media Violence in an Information Age. (Montreal, Black Rose, 2000), p. 31.
[2] One three-volume summary of the findings was produced in 1975: George Comstock, Television and Human Behavior; George Comstock and M. Fisher, Television and Human Behavior: A Guide to the Pertinent Scientific Literature, and George Comstock and G. Lindsey, Television and Human Behavior: The Research Horizon, Future and Past (Santa Monica, California: Rand, 1975).
[3] Robert M. Liebert, Joyce N. Sprafkin, and Emily S. Davidson, The Early Window: Effects of Television on Children and Youth, 2nd ed. (New York: Pergamon, 1982).
[4] Leonard Eron, "The Impact of Television Violence," testimony on behalf of the American Psychological Association before the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, June 1992. Congressional Record, Vol. 88, 1992, pp. 58539.
[5] Elizabeth Kolbert, "Despair of Popular Culture," New York Times, August 20, 1995, section 2, pp. 1 and 23.
[6] Madeline Levine, Viewing Violence (New York: Doubleday, 1996), p. 49.
[7] Stephen Kline, "Action Heroes and Canadian Mothers' Concerns about Violent Television for Boys 3-6." Media Analysis Lab, Simon Fraser University. Available at <>.
[8] Sissela Bok, Mayhem (Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley, 1998), p. 72.
[9] Bok cites Martin E. P. Seligman, The Optimistic Child (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 6, 37-44.
[10] One of the few writers still criticizing the theory that violence in entertainment generates additional copy-cat violence is Jonathan L. Freedman. His book Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002) does not deny that there is a correlation of about .1 or .2 between watching TV violence and perpetrating violence. He simply argues that correlation does not prove causation, which of course is true. If he had proposed an alternative factor that would explain the correlation, this argument might have merit, but the most likely other explanatory factors have already been addressed and the relationship holds up. Freedman is correct, however, in arguing that some researchers have overstated the magnitude of the association. The size of the effect is not great, but in view of the importance of the effect, even a small relationship should not be treated as negligible, as he tends to do.
[11] Brandon Centerwall, "Television and violence: The scale of the problem and where to go from here." Journal of the American Medical Association 267(22), 1992, pp 3059-3063. There are, I should note, reasons for exercising caution about inferences drawn from the case of South Africa -- which of course was a racist country during the times that were studied. The government had deferred the introduction of television partly because it could be predicted to have significant influences on public opinion about race. One might attribute much of the crime rate to apartheid. However, some South African researchers have concluded that it is not a major determinant. For one reason, the crime rates have increased markedly since the ending of apartheid. South Africa has recently tied Colombia for the highest crime rates in the world. Its homicide rate is about seven times as high as that of the United States. See Bill Dixon and Lashias Ncube, "A Cloud Hangs over Rainbow Nation," Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, University of Cape Town, South Africa. <>
[12] For example, the crime rate declined in the 1990s in many places. This decrease has been attributed to the increased access to abortion. Presumably, boys who were not wanted as infants are likely to commit crimes as they grow up; with abortion, fewer unwanted children are born, reducing this causative factor. See John Donahut III and Steven Levitt, "The Impact of Legalized Abortion on Crime," Quarterly Journal of Economics, May, 2001.
[13] Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (Boston and New York: Little, Brown, 1995), p. 304.
[14] Grossman, p. 271.
[15] Grossman, p. 308.
[16] Bok, p. 85.
[17] For example, James Huberty, 41, walked into a California Macdonald's, shot 20 people dead and wounded 20 more; Julian Knight, 19, of Melbourne, Australia, killed six people and injured 18 more before he ran out of ammunition and was arrested; James Purdy, 26, attacked an elementary school, killing five pupils and wounding 30 more before shooting himself in the head; Michael Ryan, 26, of Hungerford, England, killed 15 people and injured a further 15. He had often talked to local children about videos and had claimed to be inspired by Rambo movies.
[18] Rambo is far from alone in stimulating murders. A film called Menace II Society was imitated by a man named Gerald Rushin, who held up a convenience store and shot an employee there. In Liverpool a team of three attempted to mimic a scene in Reservoir Dogs, killing a boy of 15 and acting out a torture scene with a broken bottle.
One of the most influential films along these lines was perhaps Oliver Stone's film, Natural Born Killers, which is said to have suggested 14 copycat murders. One of the victims was a friend of the novelist John Grisham, who wrote a protest against the movie when 19-year-old Sarah Edmondson and her boyfriend Benjamin Darras launched their copy-cat crime after witnessing it numerous times. In another similar case, Ronnie Jack Beasley, Jr. and three co-defendants lured 68-year-old Olin Miller to a trailer, robbed, beat, and asphyxiated him. Beasley and his girlfriend even used the names of the characters from Natural Born Killers, which they had seen about 20 times.