Violence on children’s television

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At first glance one might assume that a civil libertarian should oppose regulation of television programming for children because there is no scientific evidence that violence on TV harms society.

In the absence of such evidence, it would seem wrong to invoke the Millian principle that limitations of some forms of speech and expression are justifiable if they are based on compelling evidence that they will occasion clear public benefits greater than the harm done by the limitation. Not only is there a lack of scientific proof that violent content on programming watched by children has undesirable effects on their behaviour or attitudes, various studies of the issue have reached contradictory or uncertain conclusions.

However, the lack of such proof in this matter is not decisive because it is in principle impossible for this question to be resolved scientifically. The only kind of study that could yield definitive results would be one in which a significant number of children who watched violent television, representing a cross-section of the class, ethnic and cultural subsections of the population, were studied over a period of close to twenty years, long enough to take them into their adulthood, and then compared to a control group, carefully selected along the same lines, who did not watch violent television. If it were found that the two groups so selected showed differences in their emotional dispositions and attitudes towards violence, then we would know that violent content did indeed make a difference.

Obviously, such an experiment cannot be performed, either practically or ethically, and so one has to rely on what reasonable arguments would lead us to believe. It is unreasonable to suppose that the content of the television programs watched by children has no effect on their emotional dispositions or the values that they carry with them into adulthood because to do so would imply that the various cultural environments have no effect on the individuals who grow up in them, and that each of us would be the same person as we now know ourselves were we raised half way round the globe or 500 years ago. Such a belief is contrary to common sense and observation, for we observe every day a multitude of ways in which the cultural practices of different societies are reflected in the general attitudes and values of their members.

One of the ways in which any culture goes about educating its young and inducting them into the cultural norms is by means of entertainment of one kind or another—stories, song, etc.

Warrior cultures inculcated martial values through stories of heroic behaviour, and traditional hierarchical societies inculcated the appropriate values of submission through stories illustrating the bad consequences of disobedience. Fairy tales inculcate traditional attitudes towards gender difference that many modern families dislike. That is why, as far back as Plato, people have wanted to censor the content of the books and stories to which children are exposed, and that is why people have wanted to censor the content of cultural products in general. The impulse to censor recognizes that the creative arts are not innocuous, but rather have at their disposal powerful means to lull critical faculties and to sway emotion towards or against a particular view of the world or idea of what behaviour is considered good or bad. Given all that we know of the depth to which cultural norms shape the individual intellectual and emotional disposition, it is absurd to assume that a steady diet of violent content on television programs has no effect on their young viewers.

Despite our presumption of the power of cultural influence, in a democratic polity we do not approve of censoring the production or consumption of creative artifacts by adults for the same reasons that we do not censor political speech. The citizens in a democracy constitute the sovereign power, and cannot, without abdicating their responsibilities, deny themselves the source of knowledge and, in the case of the arts, imaginative experience, upon which their decisions must be made.

Furthermore, for the culture at large it is an agreed upon principle that censorship violates civil rights, and that it is essential to a democratic society not to limit speech and expression except when speech in a context that precludes time for reflection incites violent action. The principle here is that the long term benefits of these democratic freedoms, with the exception of curtailments that are necessary in particular instances to protect other democratic freedoms and rights, outweigh the possible harm done. Thus civil libertarians consistently oppose regulation of pornography or representation of violence in cultural artifacts in general.

Children, however, are not full members of the polity, for they do not vote, and it is an important part of adult responsibility in a democracy, as in any polity, to educate children and induct them into the fundamental values of the society into which they will grow. Therefore it is not only permissible in a democratic society to exercise control over children’s experience and to be vigilant about what values they imbibe, but it is our responsibility to do so.

The representation of violence on children’s programming threatens the foundational democratic belief that we should regulate our behaviour by legislative means, and that disputes should be settled by free speech in reasoned argument.

We eschew violence as a means to settle disputes, and, knowing it to be a part of all human nature, we as far as possible channel impulses towards it into either harmless or beneficial cultural activities. We do not want our children exposed to experience that will teach them to rely on violent means to settle disputes, or to value violence in itself. Violence depicted on programs directed at children is therefore of legitimate concern to civil libertarians, and violence depicted through media to which children are exposed is of some, though lesser, concern. This discussion will concentrate on television programming for children, and make some comment on programming to which children are exposed.


Any attempt to control children’s TV fare without beginning the descent of the slippery slope to loss of our democratic freedoms is made complex by the difficulty of making any sweeping generalizations or sharp distinctions.

Clearly the younger the children, the more supervision and control are justified; as children grow we must allow them, with whatever anxiety, ever greater access to controversial experience to prepare them to take their places as full members of the polity. There being no definitive time at which a child becomes an adult, the argument for regulation becomes less cogent as children gradually grow older. Even for very young children the effect of violent television varies according to individual disposition, and according to the attitudes of their parents or elders in general towards what they watch, as well as towards any aspects of the child’s behaviour that suggests an effect of watching television. It would be reasonable to suppose that violent television would have least effect on children from homes in which parents and adults allow them to watch it, but comment critically upon it, and that it would have most effect on those children from homes in which parents and adults are indifferent to what their children watch, or are themselves approving of similar values. These, of course, are generalizations; if they are valid they would be valid statistically, and not as cause and effect claims that could be demonstrated in every individual case.

The argument still holds that children are more vulnerable to influence than adults because they lack critical faculties, and that in all ways it is the responsibility of adults to oversee their education and to ensure that they are taught the basic values that are normative for our society. It might be objected that we normally rely on parents to oversee their children’s induction into society, and that it is not the right of a governmental agency to replace parental discretion. But it should be kept in mind that there are many ways in which our society as a whole deems itself responsible for children and empowered to protect them from inadequate or faulty parents.

Thus we legally limit the kinds of punishments parents are allowed to inflict upon children, and we also impose on parents the obligation either to send their children to school or to provide home education that is equivalent to what they would learn at school. It follows from this that censorship of material directed at children does not contravene the civil libertarian opposition to censorship in general, and that federal control of the content of programming directed at children does not, prima facie, violate the accepted practices of our society. However, the application of principles derived from this argument must be balanced against the generally recognized benefits that derive from leaving the care and education of children as much as possible in the hands of parents.

It is in the context of these considerations that one should consider the question of whether the CRTC should regulate children’s programming. It is not a question of whether it has a right to do so; the precedents mentioned above indicate that it has this right if it appears that parental discretion does not sufficiently protect children from the harmful consequences of TV violence. However, it still may not be the most desirable way in which to curb violent programming, for such regulation may intrude more deeply than necessary into family autonomy, and there may be other ways in which the goal of limiting children’s exposure to violence can be accomplished.

Until now the CRTC achieved this aim by enlisting the voluntary collaboration of television stations. This practice has come into question because the programs that have been banned from Canadian airways can come in the back door through American channels, and because Rogers Cable objects to being required to black out programs that come from American networks.

A solution to this problem, supported by Rogers, is to install the V chip in all television sets. This chip would provide a rating of the violent content of each show, making it possible for parents to prevent programs that they deemed were too high on the violence rating from appearing on their television screens while their children were watching.

Rogers also proposes to install this new technology on existing television equipment for a very low fee. In our view, this technology is promising, but leaves some undesirable loopholes. Those parents who are not alert to the dangers of such programming would likely not buy the V chip, thus leaving their children unprotected. Even for parents who would buy the technology, it is not certain that they would always use it.

Furthermore, those poorer parents who are concerned with the children’s television fare would be more hesitant to spend the money. This factor could be eliminated if the technology were provided free of charge, as we think it should be. But even if the V chip were provided at no cost, it would still remain the case that many parents would not be interested in regulating their children’s viewing habits.

Those children exposed to a steady barrage of violent programs, the violence of which might intensify if the networks used the existence of the V chip as an excuse to abandon all discretion. On these grounds, the BCCLA believes that the CRTC should be em- powered to censor grossly violent programs in order to afford some protection to the children of parents who do not supervise them, while leaving to interested parents the task of making finer discrimination through the V chip.

A counter-argument to allowing the CRTC this option is that there would be a feed back effect from the V chip technology: television programmers would be less inclined to broadcast extremely violent programs if large numbers of parents were preventing their children from watching them. In our view that would be a desirable effect, but it should be noted that when our choices are limited by the operation of the market place we are no more in fact free than when they are limited by government control. The rights of minorities are probably better protected by government than by the market. However, in general we assume that we are impotent in the face of the seemingly impersonal and relentless operation of market forces and therefore are not responsible for taking action against them (getting us off the hook, as it were), while we are responsible for our reactions to governments and their representatives.

Any control by the CRTC, either by fiat or by collaboration with the television networks, does involve some infringement on the rights to free speech and expression.

There is some point in reflecting on what kind of speech or expression is being curtailed. One can think about literary or artistic artifacts on a scale that extends from the purest form of literary or creative expression, high art of any genre, on one end, and on the other the most commercial form of expression, such as tobacco ads. In our society, the highest of high art has some commercial component, in so far as the artist needs to sustain life. But even artists of independent means depend on publishers; even publishers who see themselves as serving non-commercial values will not disseminate their work except in the expectation of some commercial advantage. Similarly, the creators of the most blatantly commercial material may well have creative pleasure in the products of their skill. It isn’t, after all, everyone who can produce an ad that the tobacco companies would buy.

In the first case of high art we assume that the work’s intrinsic value far exceeds its commercial value, certainly for its creator and probably for its disseminator. In the second case we assume that the work’s commercial value far exceeds its intrinsic value. We can also safely assume that while the tobacco ad may have some expressive value for its creator, it has none for the company that buys it. Therefore we have grave concerns with any efforts to censor or control any works that can make a serious claim to intrinsic merit, but we assented to legislation that banned ads for tobacco because of gravity of the harm they can do (or that tobacco does) and the slightness of the infringement of free speech and expression.

Violent television programming is closer to the commercial end of the scale than it is to the intrinsic value end. The television networks, like the tobacco companies, presumably have only commercial interests in the contents of their shows, but the creators of them may well see their products as intrinsically valuable. They may also be expressing something of their own nature and representing a universal trait in so far as a potential for violence is a pervasive human attribute. By banning shows of a certain level of violence from television, one is depriving the creators of these shows of a commercial market for them. However, it is likely that, more like the creators of ads than the writers of serious fiction, they could without doing grievous harm to their creative integrity produce less violent children’s shows. Infringement of their freedom of expression counts for less than the possible harm done to children.


Having accepted on the basis of the foregoing discussion that in principle we do not oppose censorship of violence in programs directed at children, we should now turn our attention to the ways in which decisions should be made on what material and shows should be censored. We suggest the following principles:

  1. That the CRTC be permitted to limit the violence on only those programs specifically directed to children, particularly younger children under 12. We would exclude news programs and commentaries, and such things as war movies made for adults that are, however lamentably, a standard part of our culture.

    The rationale for excluding the news is that it is not offered in a context of entertainment. The goal of censoring violence is not so that children will be kept in ignorance of what goes on in the world. News programs are offered as information, not as entertainment, however entertaining they may end up being. The implicit message for a child (or anyone else) who watches a news program is that the contents are not for their delectation and delight, but for their information. The implicit message of any fiction is that it is for delight and entertainment, and if the content is largely and grossly violent, then the message is that violence is in itself entertaining and pleasurable. To censor the news, or limit the hours it can be shown, intrudes too greatly into the freedoms of all citizens, and would accomplish little of benefit to children.

  2. The censorship should not include ordinary war movies, detective movies, and the like.

    Movies of these kinds are ordinary parts of our culture, and would not be a danger to young children. For the most part their plots are too complicated to be of interest to the very young, and these movies do not constitute a steady part of the daily TV diet of little children. Once again, limiting the showing of garden variety movies of this type, most of them older because only older movies show up on our TV screens, intrudes too deeply into the ordinary habits of adults and censoring them would be of little if any benefit to children.

  3. Programming which is directed explicitly at young children affects them more powerfully than the either news or adult movies they might happen upon for two reasons:
    1. The makers of the programs know how to grip the attention of young children and thereby to reach deeply into their imaginations. That is what they get paid for.
    2. The very fact that these programs are defined as suitable for children gives a message to their young viewers that the adult world sanctions what they see. They know that this material has been made specifically for them, and conclude, being reasonable, if young, creatures, that what they see must meet the approval of the adult community at large that produces it for them and of their parents who are happy to plunk them down in front of the TV screen to see it. These programs should be the target of CRTC concern.
  4. We suggest keeping 9:00 p.m. as the watershed time between the milder TV offerings, old movies, sitcoms, Star Trek and the like, and the more violent TV serials.

    Police serials, such as NYPD, often depict the generally defined “good guys”—the cops—as giving way to violent rage against suspects, even suspects eventually found innocent. While adult viewers take these depictions as representing reality, children are unlikely to do so. The watershed regulation does not intrude deeply into the fare available to adults, and it provides as well for a gradual induction of children into representations of some of the harsher aspects of life as they grow older and become more capable of realising that the moral world comes in shades of grey, rather than being neatly divided between good and bad guys, and become more sophisticated in the ways they respond to fictional representations.

    While very young children are probably not as adversely affected by police shows as by the programs created for them, and while one would hope that parents would control what they are allowed to see in the early evening hours, there is a fair amount of evidence that many parents do not concern themselves with the violence that their children consume. For example, the most violent depictions available are in Nintendo and other computer games that parents buy for their children.1

  5. The proscriptions that now obtain in the voluntary code are:

    Canadian broadcasters shall not air programming which:

    Contains gratuitous violence (i.e., material which does not play an integral role in developing the plot, character or theme of the material as a whole)

    Sanctions, promotes or glamorises violence.

    These criteria seem appropriate for children’s programming, but we suggest the following elaborations:

    1. In the judgment of what is gratuitous, reviewers should concentrate on how something is shown, more than what is shown. That is, whether or not an event in realistic representation is integral to plot, character or thematic development might well be debatable. If it is, then one should lean towards leniency, unless the camera work is such as to impress the violence in a visceral way on the imaginations of the viewers.
    2. The “sanction, promote, or glamorise” criteria should be elaborated. Some relevant questions are: Is the violence done by a figure who is defined as the hero of the show in such a way that what happens to this person is of central concern and interest to the viewers? Is the violence done by a figure, who, though in some ways sympathetically presented, is nonetheless depicted as wrong in so acting? Is the violence done to a sympathetic character, so that the audience is led to deplore it? If it is so depicted, is the camera work such as to engage the viewer in dwelling on it as such, despite the plot definition of it as undesirable? When a “good” guy is depicted as necessarily retaliating against a “bad” guy, is he depicted as overcoming his reluctance and as using the least violence necessary?

      When there is doubt about whether or not a program violates the guide lines, the benefit of the doubt should be on the side of leniency, so that as much discretion as possible is exercised by parents.

    3. The code specifically prohibits programming which depicts violence “against women or animals, or violence based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or mental or physical disability.”

      We recommend that this specification be removed. If violence is to be moderated it should be so in general. There is no rational warrant for thinking depiction of violence toward animals, blacks, or women is worse or more harmful than depictions of violence toward white males who are in one way or the other shown as the enemy.

  6. The board empowered to judge children’s programming should include literary critics. They have been trained in making discriminations of the relevant kinds, and their expertise should be called upon by the community.

  7. The complaint procedure:

    At present the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council will act on any complaint made by a citizen. This procedure cannot but involve an enormous amount of time and money, and it can empower individuals, some of them cranky and eccentric, to control what the population at large can or cannot see. We recommend that the CRTC act on a complaint only if they receive complaints about a particular program or kind of program from a significant number of individuals (“significant” to be defined by qualified statisticians who know how to make such judgments), or if a complaint is in the form of a petition, supported by a significant (as defined above) number of signatures.

  8. For the time being, we believe that the V chip technology is irrelevant to the issue because its effects are unknown.

    One possible scenario is that many parents would use it in order to prevent their children from watching violent programs, so that in the course of time programmers would have little reason to make it available. In this case, though children of unconcerned parents would temporarily be exposed to more rather than less violent programming, in the long run the degree of violence available would diminish.

    However, it may be the case, as Craig Jones cynically suggested, that the cable providers support the V chip because they believe that it will seldom be used. If that were so, the net result could well be an increase in violent content, since then the programmers could use the existence of the V chip technology as justification for airing Nintendo-like violence. After this technology is in wide use, one should reassess the situation.

  9. The same principles should apply to all programming, regardless of where it originates, and with no exceptions for pay TV.


1. It is ironic that Canadian customs confiscates books for an adult homosexual market, while allowing truly horrendous video games to cross the borders without challenge. The interactive games made for Sega and Nintendo are both realistic and bloody.

The following is a description of a scene from one called Mortal Kombat in which,

Johnny Cage kills his victims with a bloody, decapitating uppercut. Rayden favours electrocution. Kano will punch through his opponent’s chest and rip out a still-beating heart. Sub Zero likes to tear his foe’s head off and hold it up in victory, spinal cord twitching as it dangles from the neck… in [Sega’s) Night Trap … five scantily clad women are stalked down by bloodthirsty vampires who like to drill holes in their victims’ necks and hang them on meat hooks.

We should, perhaps, in the future give some attention to the issues raised by violent computer games for children. They are of at least as much concern as are TV shows, and perhaps more, but we hesitate to open this can of worms.