This study seeks to analyze four television shows geared toward an audience of diverse age groups. Each television show is compared, in order to record the differences in how physical violence is being portrayed to different ages. Physical violence was defined by Byrne and Sinehi. Three questions were asked during each television show: how many physically violent events occur, what representative parties are involved, and what is the context in which the physical violence occurs. The four shows that were observed were Masha and the Bear, Super Why, Phineas and Ferb, and Bones. Each of these shows is geared toward a different age group to see how film makers portray physical violence to their audience and if their portrayal complies with human moral development according to Kohlberg’s theory. Each show is analyzed and compared to the stages in Kohlberg’s theory which is then formulated into a conclusion on how parents should monitor violent television for their children.
Keywords: physical violence, Kohlberg, human moral development, television, age.
Violence in our Media Environment at Different Ages
Violence has always been a part of our human environment. But taking into consideration that our environment has evolved, psychologists ask the questions of how these new facets of our environment impact violence in society. When studying violence in the context of a subcategory of violence such as media violence, a definition that can encompass the whole idea of violence is needed. According to Byrne and Senehi, violence is “a product of social divisions based on the intersection of race, power, ethnicity, class, culture, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other identities or competing ideologies” (2012). Byrne and Senehi describe violence as a conflict of interest between two different identity groups or two or more representatives of an identity or ideal (2012). As Gerbner put it, “violence is a demonstration of power” (1996). To be even more clear on their definition of violence, Byrne and Senehi described violent acts as “destructive” (2012). Violence is the act of overpowering someone or something that has destructive results.
Violence, like other actions of right and wrong, stem from our moral development in our social context. The theory of moral development that will be focused on is Kohlberg’s theory which is divided into three levels and six steps. The three levels as outlined by Sigelman and Rider, are preconventional morality, conventional morality, and postconventional morality. These three levels are further divided into six steps. These steps will be further analyzed to describe the age groups at which violent television is geared toward (Sigelman & Rider, 2012).
Another element of violence as mentioned before is environment. Byrne and Senehi suggests that violence occurs in every facet of our social environment explaining that “Children’s cognitive growth occurs in a sociocultural context that influences the form that this growth takes since their cognitive and emotional skills also evolve from interactions with parents, peers, and teachers in their environment” (2012). Gerbner argues that “people no longer learned their cultural identity from their family, schools, churches and communities but instead from ”a handful of conglomerates who have something to sell” (2006). This research study focuses on this issue of physical violence in the marketed environment of television. How does physically violent television impact the other facets of our social environment and does physical violence flow from the observed television environment into our other components of identity and community? In the process of answering these questions, using theories such as Kohlberg’s, psychologists can analyze how physical violence occurs in our media environment.
During the research, four shows were observed that were geared toward various age categories with varying motivations and messages. The first two television shows were Masha and the Bear and Super Why. Both were geared toward approximately one-year-old to five-year-old children with the purpose of education and entertainment. The third television show was a Saturday morning cartoon called Phineas and Ferb. This show was geared to an audience of approximately six-year-old to eleven-year-old children. The last show that was observed was a crime show called Bones which is geared toward adolescents and adults. Bones is a show that represents the progression of violence in the media environment as humans develop into adulthood.
Each show was analyzed for how violence is observed at different ages in our media environment. A set of three questions was asked and recorded while observing each television show. The first question that was answered was how many times a physically violent act occurred during an episode. The second question that was considered was what two or more representative parties was involved in the violent event. The third question was what the thematic context was. The answers to these questions were recorded. After each show was observed and analyzed, the television shows were compared to one another to conclude how physical violence impacts our social cognition.
The results of the observed television shows were as follows. Masha and the Bear had five instances of physical violence. The violent events included two parties: Masha and another of her animal friends, most often Bear. Bear represents the adult authority in the show. He watches over Masha and sets up rules and discipline in Masha’s life. Conflicts most often arose when there was a theme of disobedience. Masha is a mischievous child who doesn’t follow the rules. Her disobedience often causes destruction. An example of this is when Masha runs over Bear with a snow mobile because she is not following the rules of safety.
Super Why had no events of physical violence. This show focuses on education for young children. There were conflicts that arose but they did not have destructive results. For example, there was a conflict of how to make Super Why’s little sister stop crying. The characters resolved this conflict through reading stories. The morals they learned from the stories helped the super readers solve problems in their everyday lives. Masha and the Bear and Super Why both seek to educate children, yet the method in which to do so had different varying degrees of physical violence.
Phineas and Ferb had eight instances of physical violence. Most often throughout the episode, the instances of violence occurred between Perry and the villain. Perry is an undercover superhero who often overpowers the villain using violent acts such as punching the villain. The two parties involved represent the fight between good and evil. This is a common theme throughout the show.
The final show that was observed was Bones. This show was two instances of violence. These two instances had varying parties and involved much more complex plot lines. The instances of violence centered around themes of murder, assault, manslaughter, and gore. The instance of violence was not as simple as those of previously observed shows. The chart below outlines the varying instances of violence in all four shows.
In conclusion with the results from the four observed television shows, the number of physically violent instances is not the issue. The context of these violent acts needs to be taken into consideration. The following table outlines the four most common themes observed with each violent act.
|Television Show Title||Theme|
|Masha and the Bear||Disobedience leading to destruction.|
|Phineas and Ferb||Good vs. Evil|
|Bones||Murder. Manslaughter, Assault, and Gore.|
Each of these themes can be analyzed using Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. Masha and the Bear deals directly with Kohlberg’s first two steps of preconventional morality which explains a child’s obedience based on punishment and reward rather than a sense of moral judgement. Parents may want to consider where children are at this stage (2012). Children need to be at a place mentally where they won’t just imitate Masha’s mischievous behavior but understand that that behavior has consequences. This show can be a good tool in teaching children that disobedience has negative results. This show does make this more complicated because the negative consequences of disobedience are presented in a lighthearted mood. Children may not be able to fully grasp at young ages, the seriousness of some of Masha’s actions, such as breaking Bear’s window with a giant snowball.
Super Why on the other hand is a show that can be shown to children of very young ages because there is no acts of violence and the show is purely educational. Like Gerbner said before, the media environment often takes over a portion of the influence previously held by family and other parts of a child’s community (2006). Parents should ensure that their influence has led the child to a healthy moral development so that they can appropriately take in the information from their media environment.
Phineas and Ferb begins to delve into conventional morality. The ongoing battle between the super hero and the villain involves stage 4 of moral development: authority and social-order maintaining morality (2012). The superhero’s role is to maintain the social-order so that good reigns over evil. For example, Perry stops the villain from shifting the rotation of the earth, shifting the natural order of the world. Parents need to ensure that their child understands the themes of good and evil and the importance of social-order so that the child can understand the violence that occurs when good powers over evil. As mentioned before, Perry punches the villain in one scene. Some children who are not as morally developed would see punching as bad no matter the circumstance because they still see actions according to reward and punishment. Children at stages 1 and 2 would see the villain’s and the superhero’s violent acts as equal.
This leads into the idea of justifiable violence. Are there instances where violence is justified? When a good guy overpowers a bad guy leading in destruction, is that justifiable or should his actions be punished? Bones often uses this theme of justifiable actions in terms of a democratically accepted law. This deals with Kohlberg’s stage five. The main male character of the show is both a sniper and a soldier for the United States government. His actions of killing are justified while he also takes part in condemning murderers. Bones centers around killing on both sides of the law. Parents, before allowing their adolescent children to watch the show, should evaluate if children have an understanding of morality of law (2012). The complexity of the cases in this show often require an advanced developed morality to take in the information appropriately.
To conclude, physical violence in television should be analyzed based on context rather than the number of violent instances. For example, Masha and the Bear has more instances of physical violence than Bones but Bones is not a show appropriate for one to five-year-old children. The context in which these violent events occur is important for parents to consider.
The parties involved is also important. If it was good vs. evil where the villain’s violent acts were condoned rather than the hero, the parent should consider the motivation of the program in consideration of its characters. Parents should also consider what the parties represent. For example, if the violent instances occur between two representative groups of race, parents may want to make sure their child understands the serious issues of racism. Parents need to take into consideration all the elements of what they are exposing their child to rather than just take into consideration the simple numbers of violent instances that doesn’t tell the whole story.
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