The all pervading influence of the cinematographic images - both news and fantasy - has an important bearing on mental health.

Seeing the world

Our eyes do not record the world slavishly as a camera might, capturing each image and sound faithfully and passive-ly. Our perceptions are continually interpreted in by many factors: our current mood, the current situation, and our memories of similar events and situations in the past. Our present relationships with others are affected by past experiences with important figures in the past, especially parents and parent-figures. Experiences which occurred before the age of two years - of love and rejection, securi-ty and insecurity, are of immense importance in setting the way in which we behave as adults. Our way of seeing the world about us is conditioned by our beliefs about the world. For persons with psychosis, whose sense of reality is overwhelmed with dream-like ways of perceiving originat-ing in the subconscious mind, these beliefs come to the forefront of behaviour. Paranoia - persecution complex - may cause a person to behave and speak in a way that attracts adverse attention culminating in the arrival of police, social workers and psychiatrists, which development confirms the sufferer's original belief system. For the majority of us, a sense of insecurity may exist deep within our mind, so that although we do not behave in an overtly paranoid way, never-theless we may be unnecessarily touchy in some situations. These beliefs are the "cognitive map" that we carry within our minds. It is the sum of all our experiences and beliefs, a kind of inner reconstruction of the world. Each day that we live, experience is added to this map from three sources:
· from our direct experience,
· from news media, and
· from fantasy media - books, television, films and videos.

Daily experience

We usually think of our daily experience as humdrum and empty of meaning: get up, eat, go to work (or not as the case may be), come home, eat, go to bed. Our daily lives are often seen as boring and lacking in significance; we may be envious of others who we see as more fortunate, that is, the rich and famous. Actors, pop stars, showbusiness per-sonalities and (until recently, the Royal Family) are set up as icons; we read about them in publications, (some of them, for example Hello! and fan magazines, being dedicated to this purpose) and young people often decorate their bedroom walls with images of their heroes. The world of the rich and famous tends to be seen as significant, and the world of everyday life and immediate personal experience tends to be seen as insignificant.

News media


The news media give us our second source of input to the modern world. Newspapers are bought daily in most houses, magazines weekly and monthly, the radio plays continuously in many houses, the TV dominates the evening for most, and for some, the daytime also. Newspapers and programmes compete against each other for attention, and the more sensational the news, the more likely it is to be attended to by the consumer. Professionals of all kinds are united in their despair and frustration at the near impossibility of getting neutral information to the public through the media, even through the quality papers or through serious documentary programmes. Each item of news must be "angled" to have some emotional impact on the receiver.

For example, Malcolm Harper, chairman of the United Association, called a news conference on the UN actions in Somalia. His report covered successes and failures. Most papers ignored his news. The quality paper that did cover it, reported only the failures. His complaint to the paper was met with the response that the successes were not news-worthy. The news in 1995 resounded with the failures and shortcomings of the UN, but this was never tempered with the simple - one might even say sensational - contextual fact that the secretariat of the UN has as many workers as the NHS in Wales, and that its annual budget is equal to 65% of the UK defence budget.

In short, the news that informs our cognitive map of the world is light on fact and heavy on sensationalism. Death, murder and mayhem are news: information about constructive events are not news. One side effect of this situation is that people in the UK have an exaggerated concept of the danger from crime. A BBC survey carried out throughout the UK by Audience Selection, published in late 1994 or early 1995 found that the public believed that 26% of the population had been victims of violent crime in the previous year, whereas the true figure was 2%. 91% of the over 65 age group were very concerned about violence, whereas the statistics show that they are one of the least likely groups to be affected by violence. This exaggeration of the danger affects people in their daily lives. Many older people are afraid to go out of their homes. They therefore get less contact with other people, and depend more on the TV for company, which com-pletes a vicious circle. Being isolated, they may get lonely and depressed, and more create more demand for the services of social workers and health visitors. They live more sedentary lives, and so tend to become unfit, obese, feel colder, use more heat, become poorer, and finally run an increased risk of developing osteoporosis (thin, fragile bones) and therefore are more likely to end up in hospital with a broken hip. Thanks to journalism that is addicted to sensation.

Fantasy Media


Fantasy media - primarily films and videos - give us the third source of data input into our cognitive map. Film makers are competing for attention, and success in the mass market will tend to go to the most sensational product. Horror leads to identifiable sensations in the body as adrenaline is released, followed perhaps by a sense of relaxation after the threat passes. In this, modern producers are like the Fat Boy in Pickwick who promised to make his audience's "flesh creep", and Victorian melodrama which set out to evoke feelings of outrage in the breasts of the audience. It should be remembered however that melodrama is not now seen as having any serious artistic merit.

Videos and violence

The degree of violence, and the detail in which it is portrayed, is undoubtedly on the increase. It is true that accounts of violence are present in the Greek myths, the Bible, Shakespeare, Hans Christian Andersen and the rest; but there is a real difference is the graphic representation and the narrative context in which the violence is set. It is true also that some of the most violent modern films are understood by the critics as being satires on modern life. What is not clear is whether the mass of viewers appreciate the film as satire, or rather as a direct sensual experience.

Does this fantasy violence contribute to violence in society? The majority believe that it does. The BBC survey quoted above showed that 73% of the 1002 adults questioned believed that violent films and videos were partly responsible for violence in society. Over 60% thought that such films made people behave more violently, desensitised them to violence, and made them more likely to accept violence.

Powerful anecdotal evidence to support this view is given by Brian Keenan, one of the hostages taken and imprisoned for four years by the Islamic Jihad group. Their captors, in spite of their fundamentalist and antiAmerican beliefs, used to spend much of their time watching American films. Keenan and Macarthy would dread the times when they heard violent films being played, as they knew that they could expect to be roughly handled or beaten up by their guards after this kind of entertainment.

Commonsense beliefs can be flawed, as the BBC survey showed. Objective data is needed to establish whether exposure to violent media can lead to violent behaviour.

A classical psychological experiment by Bandura in 1965 suggests that the public is right in suspecting that violent films help to cause violent behaviour. Matched groups of children were shown two films of a person dealing with a Bo-Bo wobbly doll - the sort with a weight in the base that rights itself when pushed over. In one of the films, the doll is knocked about, and in the other, the doll is cuddled. The children were then put one by one in a room with a wobbly doll. Mirablile dictu, those that saw the doll being knocked, tended to knock it, and those that saw the doll cuddled, tended to cuddle it. Later experiments showed that if the role model was scolded after showing aggression, the subsequent display of aggression was lessened. Since this simple experiment, the subject has been extensively studied by psychologists, and the general view among the psychological community appears to be that "More research is needed". This is an example of the interminable search for the chimera of "conclusive proof" which besets scientists, but there is evidence that some researchers and clinicians are prepared to take the position that it is time to inhibit the free access of young people to violent imagery.

Public interest in the topic was raised by the tragic case of James Bulger, a toddler who was brutally murdered by two young children. It was suspected, but not proved, that the murderers' behaviour was triggered by watching Child's Play 3, a violent video. Elisabeth Newson, Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Nottingham, wrote a report on the subject of violence and videos for David Alton MP, in which she concluded that `society must take on a necessary responsibility in protecting children from violent videos as from other forms of child abuse. Her report was supported by some 33 child psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists and one writer of children's literature. David Alton used it to support a clause in legislation imposing restriction on the availability of this sort of video. The report was widely publicised in the media, who created the impression that it represented a volte face by the psychological community. A short debate followed in the pages of the journal of the British Psychological Society. Surprisingly, the debate did not centre on the evidence for causality, but on criticisism of the action of a professor of psychology in giving support to an MP who was into censorship. Dr George Sik, a senior consultant Occupational Psychologist, questioned causality, drawing on a humorist's analogy of a man who had been incited to golf by watching a golf video. Tellingly, he admitted that "Child Play 3 is a horrible video which I wouldn't want children to see". Ian Vine, a psychologist at the University of Bradford, wrote that he had studied the experimental evidence over the years. "Numerous studies of [violent] types of stimuli do indeed show statistical associations with various audience characteristics which could be judged to be `harmful' to themselves or to those they interact with. Many others fail to confirm such links, at least when factors like age, gender, intelligence, or social class are partialled out". He remained agnostic on the question. The remainder of his critique concerned the conduct of the media debate and the dangers of censorship. Professor Newson's report did not claim to produce new evidence, neither did she claim to be an expert in exactly this area. She reviewed the impact of violent images on the child's psyche in the following terms:

· Images that recur during the waking day on the mind's
· `Imaginal working' of the image, as the child forms fantasies around the image.
· Nightmares where the child identifies with the victim.
· Desensitisation to violence.
· Identification with the perpetrator of violence.
· Finally, the belief that violence is fun, and that love = sex = violence.

Prof. Newson quoted the established principle that what is experienced vicariously will have some effect on some peo-ple. She quoted the advertising industry; a campaign is seen to have been successful if it has had a definite effect on the behaviour of a small percentage of the audience. She pointed out that direct experimental work involving study of the effect of watching extreme horror movies on young children was impossible since it would not be passed by ethical committees. She quoted two major reviews of the literature, one which pointed to 1000 papers which linked heavy exposure to media violence with subsequent aggressive behaviour . This paper commented on the tendency of some newer videos to make the viewer identify with the perpetra-tor rather than the victim, and commented that `watching specific acts of violence on the media has resulted in mimicry by children and adolescents of behaviour that they would otherwise, literally, have found unimaginable'. A second review of 190 research papers over 30 years found `a very solid relationship between viewing anti-social portrayals of violent episodes and behaving anti-socially' in both boys and girls . Huesman and Eron at Illinois in a follow-up study of 200 people found that heavy exposure to TV violence at the age of 8 (twenty years ago, when TV was far more mild) was associated with violent crime and spouse or child abuse at the age of 30 .. The effect was independent of intelligence or socio-economic factors. 200 young sex offenders were studied and showed `repeated viewing of violent and pornographic videos as a significant causal factor'. The correlation was high in the situation of adolescent baby sitting abuse incidents, where videos provided `a potent source of immediate arousal for the subsequent act, including mimicry of the violent images witnessed' Against this evidence the only research quoted in the `Psychologist' debate was a Policy Studies Institute (unref-erenced) study of 78 young offenders which found that their `viewing tastes' were no different from 500 schoolchildren, and in fact that the media played less of a part in the lives of the offenders. On balance therefore, in terms of the scientific evidence put forward, it would seem that the weight does lie behind the hypothesis that violent imagery may generate violent behaviour in some vulnerable people.

More research is needed, as ever, especially into the question of whether violent offences by young children are increasing over time.

Statistics from the Regional Trends data pub-lished by the Government Statistical Office suggest that this is the case.


Table 4.1 shows rates per 100,000 population of young offenders aged 10-13 found guilty or cau-tioned between 1981 and 1992.

YEAR -------RATE
1981--------- 61
1989 ---------75
1991 ---------91
1992 ---------98 (source: Regional Trends, Government Statistical Service)

It shows a clear upward trend after 1990, which is consist-ent with the hypothesis that recent availability of violent videos is affecting the behaviour of young people. A simi-lar, but weaker, upward trend is seen in offences of vio-lence against the person in 14-16 year olds (table 4.2). No trend is apparent for violence against the person in 17-20 year olds.

YEAR -----------RATE
1981 ------------374
1989------------ 486
1990 ------------481
1991 ------------494
1992 ------------570 (source: Regional Trends, Government Statistical Service)

By comparison, table 4.3 shows data for rates for young offenders 10-13 found guilty or cautioned for sexual offences.

1981 -------14
1989 -------17
1990 -------16
1991 -------14
1992 -------13

(source: Regional Trends, Government Statistical Service)

This shows no trend whatsoever. The same lack of trend for sexual offences is shown in the figures for 14-16 year olds and 17-20 year olds - in fact the latter group shows a slight downward trend. This suggests that sex and violence should be treated as separate problems.

It appears therefore that the weight of evidence is piling up to support the hypothesis that violent videos tend to en-courage violent behaviour in some vulnerable young viewers. The onus is now on those who take the opposite view to put forward their evidence and arguments as to why society should not take action to stem the flow of violent imagery as a form of social experiment. If action that reduces the availability of violent imagery results in reduction of violence in society, this will be further support for the causal theory. The next question is, what form should the action take? Is censorship acceptable as a form of control, and is there any alternative?


Censorship is a highly emotive topic, and the view taken will depend very much on the background of the opinion holder. A psychologist from Slovakia, emerging from 40 years of repressive censorship, held that there were no grounds whatsoever for censorship of any kind, not even of `snuff' movies, (recordings of real-life murders , the existence of which, incidentally, has been challenged). This view is unlikely to have much support in the public debate in the West, where the main defences against censorship are that filmatic violence is not the only cause of violence, that it would be a dangerous precedent to introduce censor-ship, and that it is the inalienable right and duty of the artist to reflect societal reality. "Filmatic violence is not the only cause of vio-lence". Quite so. The argument is not that it is the only cause of violence - a loveless upbringing, deprivation and boredom, and intolerance of food additives are other candi-dates as co-factors. Nevertheless, the fact remains that film violence is one material factor unless cogent and powerful evidence can be brought to support the opposite case. "It would be a dangerous precedent to introduce censorship". This statement does not reflect reality.

The fact is that censorship is already well established in British news media management. Two examples: coverage of the Gulf War, with restriction of coverage of the fact that April Glaspie, the US ambassador to Iraq signalled to Saddam Hussein that the US would regard intervention in Kuwait as none of its business. Second, the BBC has admitted to the UK Green Party that its policy on whether to give coverage to its views in a General Election depends solely on the subjective estimate of BBC managers of the party's chances of electoral success, rather than any objective formula. Since the coverage that it receives is a determinant of success, this system amounts to nothing more than censorship of one political party by the BBC. Many other examples of media censorship in political matters can be found.

The fact that censorship already exists in the political sphere is of course no positive argument for extending it to the sphere of imaginal media, but on the other hand it is important for all parties to a debate to have a full grounding in reality. Censorship would not set a precedent - the precedent is already there. A further precedent is that `snuff' movies are censored, and nobody is objecting to this censorship.

The question is not shall we draw a line, but where will the line be drawn? It is the inalienable right and duty of the artist to reflect societal reality. This presupposes that violent videos are an art form rather than an industrial product. But even if it were accepted for the sake of argument that some art is present, or that some truly artistic films con-tain violent passages, is it the right of the artist to reflect partial reality? For instance, an integral part of the reality of being hit over the head with a bottle is a lengthy period of time spent in the local Accident and Emergency Department getting stitched up. If all films reflected that reality in proportional measure, sensational sequences of action would be damped by subsequent long footages of the victim waiting in the queue for his turn to be treated. The cinematic artist censors that reality out of his (most directors are men) film on the grounds that it would not be good box office. If they claim to reflect reality, they should be obliged to show the after effects of the violence they revel in.

Having laid aside some factitious common objections to censorship, we must confront two substantial objections:
· that censorship is politically impossible since it would challenge a huge vested interest, and
· that it is impossible to administer censorship without endangering the legitimate freedom of the artist.

Political action, however desirable, must be achievable. In the UK, while political parties are privately funded and can conceal the source of their funding, it is open to any wealthy concern to obstruct political change by paying in to the party of Government, as has happened in the matter of banning tobacco advertising . Such wealthy interests can also make sure that there is a steady supply of influential speakers on the public debate programmes. It is clear therefore that censorship of film and videos would stand very little chance of becoming law, since the political process would be overridden by intensive lobbying from the industry.

Censorship is also very difficult to administer in practice. It involves making qualitative judgements on the degree of violence, its relevance to the plot and the artistic merit of the whole, among other finely balanced considerations. There is a real danger that real art could be damaged by the censor's scissors, to the detriment of society. And it is true that it could set a precedent for censoring more worthy art, such as works of social comment and satire.

Producer Responsibility Instead of Censorship

It is desirable therefore to seek a halfway house between the uncontrolled availability of violent videos and the introduction of outright, absolute censorship.

One possibility is the introduction of the Polluter Pays Principle. Under this principle, a film which indulges in violence would have a tariff set on it which would in the first place go to support research into the societal and medical costs of violent films. If and when as a result of the research, these costs can be reliably estimated, the tariff would be reset to reflect the costs which the film imposes on socie-ty. In this way, the freedom of the artist and of the viewer is preserved, but the principle that freedom is constrained by harm caused to others is upheld. Even the most powerful industry would be unable to withstand the balanced logic of their paying for research into, and restitution for, the harm they do. The tariff would cause them to seriously consider the effect on their profits when planning their scripts, and this is their most powerful motive. This proposal therefore appears to be a just and flexible solution to the problem of violent behaviour caused by violent films.

© 2001 R. Lawson This page was last updated on January 19, 2002