Ever since Yale University professor Leonard D. Eron's pioneering studies of aggression among children in the 1960s, researchers have pondered the relationship between societal violence and the depiction of violence on television. That there is some relationship hardly anyone doubts. But whether TV violence actually causes children to behave violently or whether it merely reflects an increasingly violent world remains a topic of lively debate.
Dr. Eron's initial studies seemed to suggest that children who watched television not only were more aggressive as teen-agers but also were more likely to commit crimes as adults.
The results seemed to confirm early fears that violent images on television were contributing to rising rates of violent crime among young people. Eventually the work of Dr. Eron and others helped persuade Hollywood to limit, or at least label, excessive violence, though the industry's ability to police itself still leaves much to be desired.
Even as notions of parental warning and a rating system for movies and TV began to take hold, however, there remained skeptics who questioned the whole concept of a causal relationship between violent behavior and violent images. The link has always been extremely difficult to quantify; some studies have shown no link at all. Critics contend that simply because aggressive kids tend to watch more aggressive television and movies does not mean television causes violent behavior.
Some of the most vocal critics have been police, prosecutors, parole officers and others who work directly with troubled young people. Many believe that such children are far more affected by the real-life violence they are exposed to from an early age than by anything they see on television. And many youngsters scoff at the notion that they are influenced by TV violence, though those who watch them closely say the effects of such fare often are recognizable even if the young people themselves do not realize it.
For example, a recent New York Times article about the violent legacy of the crack epidemic focused on a teen-age drug dealer whose biography unconsciously mimicked the shady characters portrayed on the 1980s-era TV show "Miami Vice." The show may not have caused him to take up a life of crime, but it certainly helped glamorize the real-life negative role models in his poor, inner-city neighborhood. Unfortunately, such cases are more a commentary on the failures of family and community than on the propensity of life to imitate art.