A wide-ranging review of existing research, published today [Thursday 2 February] by researchers based at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), suggests that there is some evidence to show that the media can have harmful effects, particularly where young children and vulnerable adults are concerned.
But the report stresses that it is a complex picture with people likely to respond differently to content depending on whether it is on television or radio, in a cinema film, on the internet or in the press.
Harm and offence in media content: a review of the evidence by Andrea Millwood Hargrave and Professor Sonia Livingstone considered research on television, radio, music, press, film, games, internet, telephony, advertising as well as the regulation associated with each area.
As the Television without Frontiers Directive is debated again in Europe, and new broadcasting codes are developed in countries including the UK and Ireland, the concepts of 'harm' and 'offence' are gaining ground, and this was the focus of the review. It did not consider the benefits or positive effects of any of these media.
Research consultant Andrea Millwood Hargrave, co-author, said: 'The debate is mainly about the exposure of minors to potentially harmful or offensive material, although there are other sensibilities such as offence or harm caused to those from minority groups.
'What we have tried to do is assess each area and consider ways in which the available evidence could be used better to evaluate possible causes and effects for each medium. We are in a position to draw some conclusions, but there remain many unknowns . We do not know exactly what makes some people more vulnerable than others or what the long-term consequences of media use are, especially for the newer media or for particular types of content. Addressing these issues is the challenge facing media organisations and regulators.'
Professor Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology in the Department of Media and Communications, said: 'When we're looking at evidence for 'harm', it is important not to be simplistic, for the evidence points to different types of 'harm' in different circumstances. Where children are concerned, the research often relates to their viewing of material which is considered unsuitable for them. But the context of where and when you watch, hear or find this material can also play its part. More evidence is needed to enable us to disentangle the various factors involved.'
Key points from the evidence on harm and offence:
Research shows some harmful effects of the media under certain circumstances, with media content being part of a multi-factor explanation of social concerns (violence, sexuality, stereotyping, etc).
Harm and offence must be balanced against a consideration of the benefits of the various media, although this was beyond the scope of the present review.
Much of the available research comes from the US and is based in a different media regulatory environment from that of the UK. In the UK there are specific regulatory systems in place to restrict access to inappropriate content or, in the case of children, to enable parents to regulate their children's consumption of inappropriate material.
The majority of research has been carried out in the field of television but this does not necessarily mean that television has a greater effect. There is some evidence for harm from film and games, but there is little current research into the effects of radio, music or print. There is very little research examining the influence of new media.
The evidence for harm is stronger in relation to children, especially boys and psychologically vulnerable people. Women and older people are more likely to be offended by what they watch.
The types of harm include cognitive (eg stereotypes about others), emotional (eg fear), and behavioural (eg aggressive behaviour). There is more evidence for harm in terms of aggression/violence and it seems to apply across a range of media.
There is less academic research into areas of offence but it is clear that individuals and certain groups find some media content offensive.
A range of factors are found to affect how audiences react to the different media. These include the context of media use (such as viewer choice) as well as editorial issues such as the narrative context in which the content appears or the way in which the characters are drawn. It is unclear how content which does not have these types of framework (such as user-generated content) might affect the audience.
The evidence base remains problematic to some extent, partly because not all researchers agree on the interpretation of the findings, especially for experimental research. There are also ethical and practical problems which prevent certain concerns being researched, for instance the long term effects of viewing violent material or the impact of pornography on children.
The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from AOL, BBC, BBFC, BT, ICSTIS, Ofcom and Vodafone Group Marketing.
Click here to read the book's executive summary
Media Notebook (7 Feb 06)
Highlighting research by Professor Sonia Livingstone and Andrea Milward Hargrave on research about what harm media can cause
2 February 2006