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Harm and offence in media content: a review of the evidence

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With contributions from David Brake, Jesse Elvin, Rebecca Gooch, Judith Livingstone and Russell Luyt. 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.

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