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Watching Television Through Human Cognition

Veena Raghav, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.This Article won 7th position in 4th RostrumLegal Essay Competition, 2016

As the criminologists do extensive studies upon the characteristics of a juvenile, it boils down to a point where the psychology of the child is moulded much often by the surroundings. The advent of television has contributed with immense information with no distinction made amongst the audience. The fact elucidated by Hon’ble judges in landmark cases confirms to this profound theory that the susceptive nature of a viewer is vulnerable to visual media rather than the print media. The paper under the Social Control Theory as postulated by Travis Hirschi, describe how activities around a person develops a personality and also addresses the issue by observing the overlooked aspects in such development. The paper focuses on how the rudimentary features of the theory help to explain the juvenile delinquency and offers solution against the negative implications of media. The research looks into causal effect of crime portrayed in media on children and the neglected interference and necessary checks by family, government bodies and media required to regulate the content and the values being broadcasted.


Society has under-went a rapid change in political, economic and cultural aspects in decadal period. The break of history, India faced after Independence, has led to tremendous change in lifestyle of people and the societal setup as it became more individual centric and liberal; values one use to acquire from community were fading out by labelling them as conservative and impeding for growth of human intellect.

The other significant change is brought by the role of media in contemporary society. The negative implications of media have across nations led to deviant behaviour. The main issue discussed is related to the crime shows shown on television and their effects.[i] It has been contended that violence shown in television is so amplified that it leads to aggressive and criminal like behaviour in the viewers. Mass media has been using crime for both entertainment and information. Muzzatti called it ‘infotainment’ as it served two-fold purpose. Most of the stories showcased graphic moving images involving violence on children, women, and bare crimes related to sex and money.[ii] The most important idea it perpetuated was individualism degrading to delinquency.

Coevally, the flourishing society saw numerous laws emanating from crimes and the study relating to such behaviour. Many criminologists believed that every crime was mould of different elements. Place, time and intent being three significant ones. To understand the concept of crime one cannot disregard sociological construct as on deconstruction of crime one find that it not an autonomous entity but depends on societal demands and situations.[iii] Classical theorists (Cesare Beccaria) first propounded the rational actor model which projects ‘pleasure- pain’ principle.[iv] The concept was further elaborated by Bentham by showing how rational people to achieve pleasure by avoiding pain at times commit crime and for which there should be punishment given in legal code and not at discretion of judges.[v] Later, Neo- classical thinkers (Rossi and Garraud) had, by end of 19th century, modified the rational actor theory and laid foundation for what was known as ‘pre-destined actor model’.[vi] This model, affirmed by positivists, replaced the concept of free will by determinism. They emphasised on the external and internal factors which led individual to have a control on their activities.[vii]

The paper discusses the social control theory, one of the sociological hypotheses to understand the behaviour of the criminals who are subject of social construct. The theory relates the traits as found by Travis Hirschi which deal with how individual bonds with his environment. The next question the researcher puts is how the crimes shown by media has psychologically and socially increased the tendency of individuals to choose illegal means to achieve their desires esp. juvenile delinquents. Combining both the theories researcher wants to point on how social control theory is capable to control the upsurge criminal mind television disseminates in the society.

Social Control Theory

Origin and Earlier Theories

The theory can be associated to the works of Hobbes, Freud and Durkheim who studied on the sociological and psychological variants of criminal behaviour as adopted by Neo-classical thinkers. Hobbes on the question – why a man abides to law? – states that the detrimental outcome of getting incriminated is the main rationale. Fear of getting convicted and subjected to severe punishments becomes an important element for an individual to restrain from committing a crime. Freud’s analysis is more psychologically oriented who defends that absence of restraining laws will encourage the individual to commit crime. Whereas Durkheim presupposes that man has unlimited expectations and desires; achieving them is restrained by norms established by society (socialised moral norms).[viii]

One of the earlier theories was developed by A. Reiss based on conformity with law and deviance. It included distinction between personal and social control. The personal control was when individual internalized the norms created by society but become personal traits and the social control is when institutions make norms enforced on people to which the public has to confirm.[ix] Later Ivan Nye found family as a means for functioning of social control. Walter Reckless introduced containment theory which directs that inner containment happens by – strong self-concept precluding the push and pull of criminal tendencies; individual having legitimate goals in life; when has greater tolerance towards the eccentricities of society; and that one should internalise conventional laws and values & norms of the society.[x]

Hirschi’s Social Control Theory

Travis Hirschi found his theory in the bonds individual has with values, people and institution of the society. These factors control the behaviour when individual is tempted to commit crime. He has broadly defined them in four categories:

  • “Attachment to the other in the society and institution. It is when individual finds that some relations with family, society , workplace or schools have greater importance in his life
  • Commitment with social relationships i.e. when the person is deeply integrated with his life or productive activities rather than committing crime or misbehaving.
  • Involvement with the community surrounding you i.e. when you’re engaged in prosocial activities then the opportunity cost of engaging in delinquent acts is higher.
  • Belief is how a person’s behaviour conform the law. The values (moral) society provides are imparted or adopted more likely than going for otherwise.”[xi]

Hirschi through this conception of theory elucidated in Causes of Delinquency the relation between behaviour and attitude. It is shown how prosocial attitude contribute to the behaviour one reflects.[xii] The whole theory has been constructed in a very optimistic way as it emphasise on how a person is inherently constrained by beneficent factors enlisted above. It assumes that the whole process of advancing to attempt crime was from criminal perspective. One drawback, evident enough is that gives a lot of leeway to criminal in proving his innocence. The probability of the entire four components is again dependent upon the opportunity one gets and his position in the society as discussed by Merton[xiii].

However, if one goes into detail, social disorganisation, a study by Shaw and Mckay, shows the isolation of individual and bonding becomes weak with the society and others. Social bonds differ for communities and so the inclination towards becoming delinquent.[xiv] In Urban setup it is dependent on the economic, political and social aspects interlinked with each other. As per the Marx ideology the classes reorganise and create new social institutions which preclude certain people from making such bonds with their environment. The social control theory also contributes in developing public policies and law on the basis of bondage people maintain in changing urban life.[xv]

Self- Control Theory

Gottfredson and Hirschi came up with a more simplified version of social control theory which they termed as ‘self-control theory’. It included all the elements of the previous discussed theories which was applied in entirety and studied how individuals would restrain themselves when they got opportunity to commit crime on the basis of future implications.[xvi]

In this paper the researcher is focusing only on Hirschi’s concept of social control theory in understanding the crimes perpetuating from media esp. television.

The Crime propagated by Media

Criminalizing Media

Media has been overtime encouraged for spreading awareness and simultaneously discouraged as it hyperbolise the truth and has produced anti- social actors. ‘Mass society theory’ and ‘behaviourism’ are two phenomena discussed to show the root cause of negative implication of media. Generally, this relation has been reviewed to be pessimistic as the actors are considered to have weak stability and the susceptible to external influence.[xvii]

Mass society theory explains how the individual lacks the perception to think as they lack education, ignorant or are prone to violence. They easily get victimised to criminal behaviour and the way media manipulates the attitude of such people. On the other hand, behaviourism by J. B. Watson, stresses on the individual perception towards his surroundings. They contended that external complex systems and structures that affect the behaviour of individual could be helpful to predict future acts.[xviii]

Apart from these two theories, ‘hypodermic syringe model’ also became famous, action and drama through media was considered to be a serum of values, information and ideas that were injected and influenced an individual in different aspects. It lowered the perception of individual who tend to become deviant, uncivilised and culturally deprived.[xix] But it lost its relevancy as it led to what social control theory argues for i.e. humans have free will and they choice depend on the interaction with others.[xx]

Contribution of Television

The paper highlights the consequences of television shows and movies which exhibits crime. Television as compared to the movies still faces the debate of whether it is effective in disturbing the conscience of people by showing crime. Television can be one of the powerful means that can mould one’s imagination and affect his behaviour. The effect is long lasting than movies as former is watched more than the latter. For crime news, it is the language that changes the outlook of society and distorts the image of criminal.[xxi] It also depends upon how the direction of crimes and popularity.[xxii] The main object of television industry is to attract mass audience and therefore it is common to use consistent features like suspense and drama. However, the portrayal of crime as compared to reality, television presents it in a very unusual way, skewed from reality. It tends to drive the viewer far from capability of distinguishing what is real and unreal.[xxiii] On an experiment, when a group of people were instructed that television was a source of recognising characteristics of crime and violence and the other group with no such instructions, the latter group believed that what was portrayed were real characteristics whereas the prior group did not exhibit any such effect. In conclusion it depicted that how people thought very less while they judged about crime on television.[xxiv]

In India, advent of technology and easy access to media, the juvenile got exposed to media portraying crime and violence. For such increment in deviant nature, lack of parental care, familial values and a gap between child and parents are the main reasons.[xxv] It is studied by the psychologists that many juvenile delinquents are a product of the extreme violence they get habituated to through television soaps and vehement video games.[xxvi]

While television in itself does not instruct juvenile to indulge into criminal activities but gradually develop the intellect or make them aware of the potential techniques giving impetus to commit violent acts in similar situations. The values imparted by society are generally replaced by the values crime shows disseminate.[xxvii] Moreover, the media never differentiate between the kinds of audience it addresses to. Television gets around the requirement of censorship which is applicable to movies and limits the viewers’ group on the basis of their age. In such instances the government cannot be efficient with laws, except with general editing and techniques, and therefore broadcasting industry rely on the parental guidance. But it becomes problematic for parents if they try to restrict their habits as it can result to children devoid of control element in self as they are habituated to certain genre and become unaware to greater aspect of television.[xxviii]

The relation between television violence exposure and crime rate reveals the reasons behind the aggression by individual. First, is the modelling, where individual observe the behaviour and try to adapt oneself to such aggressive manner. By watching crime on television the aggression and violent scenes gradually loses the gruesomeness and their attitude transforms. The other trait is desensitization which is prevalent in children. Continuous viewing of crime, change the values associated to violence and crime and anxiety reduces which leads to use of aggression not mild but also of serious forms.[xxix]

The other reason which worsens the growth of aggressiveness in one is viewing television in confined spaces viz. homes. The children or adults who spend a lot of time with their peers showed lesser inclination towards watching television. Howitt and Cumberbatch in their study concluded that watching television in confined spaces would cut the individual’s ties with outside world which creates isolation and mind percolates and preponderates on the stories of crime and its plot which they try to find in real life.[xxx] For example, children might try to do small pilferage at home when in dire situation which might later develop into stealing and other serious forms of offences. On the other hand people who socialise and spend more time in other productive works have fewer tendencies to get them involved in such criminal action on television and consider it to be mere entertainment.[xxxi]

Also it has been established that exposure to such content on media happens when individual has such attitude, then he sees what he wants to see.[xxxii] This assertion comes to the point where social control theory pre- supposes that public generally has the trait of committing crime but is supressed due control on self.

Indian Television

In India there has been increase in the number of the crime shows in last 5 years. Channels like Sony, Channel V, Zee TV has increased the number of shows which depict crime among young and adolescent offenders.[xxxiii] However, the media argues that the increase in television shows depicting crime and violence is a step towards propagating the awareness about the crime prevalent in society. However, the studies show how juvenile exposed to the violence on television if not curbed. The media which is market oriented, victimises the suffered and treat them as an object which delivers a very insensitive picture where they glamorise the wrongdoer and show him as an insinuous person also affects the psychology of the viewer. The law of the land nevertheless try to curb the depiction of violence under S. 5-B (1) of Cinematography Act, 1952, where provision directs the film makers to keep violence as minimum possible and eliminate unwanted violent, horrific scene that might be disturbing and against the morality.[xxxiv] In K.A. Abbas v. Union of India[xxxv] and Ramesh v. Union of India[xxxvi], the court held that visual images are very powerful to capture the attention of viewer and incite sense of violence. The laws prohibiting unwanted crime and violent scenes which might cause disturbance in society or influence individual, viz. guidelines by Censor Board, Cable Television Network (Regulation) Act, 1995 and Rules, 1994 are considered to reasonable restriction against the freedom of media.[xxxvii]

Social Control Theory & Delinquency

The relation of social control theory and delinquency is thus becomes necessary to study as it gives a solution to curb the developing deviants in the society. In order to bring peace and order at individual level the social bond should be nurtured in a conventional manner where values play an important role. However, Hirschi explains that it is not applicable to juveniles as they are not competent to control their actions and realise which values are best for them.  As explained by Hirschi about the four elements which constitute control on the psychological doldrums on committing crimes. First, delinquent requires interaction with parents and peers as a distraction from indulging in criminal activities i.e. attachment.[xxxviii] The parents in such situation should also belong to conventional society, who are governed by values and the upbringing of the child is also done in a way that he internalises the values. In our case the parents should emphasise on community life and besides watching television should encourage their children to imbibe social life like spending time in school, playground etc. which would avoid coagulation of deviance and ideas they get crime shows.[xxxix]

Second, a commitment to conventional order also decreases the tendency to deviate. It is shown that students who were committed to their education have different goals and didn’t think about crime being an option to choose to attain their goals.[xl] The values should be implanted in children by parents from the beginning so that their commitment to gain prosperity never coincides with criminality.[xli] However, it is questionable in urban spaces where the person is inclined to crime due to no proper economic and educational background, media becomes the domineering master.

Third, conventional belief should be strong as it lowers the probability to think about committing crime.[xlii] The Fourth is the involvement which is entirety related to above three aspects. Higher involvement in these aspects is inversely related to delinquency.[xliii]

The study shows that social control in case of juvenile there has to be a check on the involvement of child in watching crime on television. They should be guided properly to make them understand the distinction between real life and reel life.


The paper first elucidates how the concept of Social Control Theory has gone through changes. Hirschi is believed to provide the most apt theory which has been followed mostly across the field of criminology. It identifies- attachment, commitment, involvement and belief of an individual to be the determinants that control a person from committing a crime.[xliv] Whereas on other hand the paper also saw how television has contributed in propagating crime. The crime shows broadcasted on television are far from reality and are portrayed in exaggerated or heroic form that debilitates the mind of the viewer who wants imbibe the same. The social control theory, here, comes into play an important role as it shows how delinquency can be brought down by an active participation in societal setup or conventional society.

Government plays a significant role that set laws and an individual as rational person would look into the outcome of choice he makes.[xlv] This contribution of other actors lacks in Hirschi’s hypothesis which is taken in Self- Control Theory.[xlvi] This paper shows how media should draw a line between what is reality and dramatization as it affects the youth of the country who get easily exposed to such crime eminent shows on television. The role parents also become utmost important as law cannot control individuals in their private sphere, where family relations and surveillance can completely take control and decrease the probability of delinquency especially in juvenile.[xlvii]

Finally, media has a greater responsibility in the society to regulate the reality they show and increase awareness. However, it proves that individualism becomes dangerous at times and conventional values and commitments become necessary to curb the crime.


[i] Yvonnes Jewkes, “Theorising Media and Crime”, Media & Crime, 5 (1st pub. (rep.), 2006).

[ii] Dowler, K., Fleming, T. & Muzzatti, Constructing Crime: Media, Crime and Popular Culture, 48(6) Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 837, 837- 850 (2006).

[iii] Eamonn Carrabine et al., “The Criminological Imagination”, Criminology: A sociological introduction, 5-6 (2nd ed., 2009).

[iv] R. H. Burke, “Classical Criminology”, An Introduction to Criminology Theory, 27-28 (1st pub. (rep.), 2003).

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] R. H. Burke, “Social Control Theories”, An Introduction to Criminology Theory, 201-02 (1st pub. (rep.), 2003).

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Travis Hirschi, Hirschi’s Social Bond/ Social Control Theory, 57- 60 (1969), available at:  last seen on 9/10/ 2016.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] John P. Hoffmann, Contextual Analysis of Differential Association, Social Control, and Strain Theories of Delinquency, 81(3) Social Forces, 753, 753- 785 (2003).

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Harvey Boulay, Social Control Theories of Urban Politics, 59(4) Social Science Quarterly 605, 605- 621(1979).

[xvi] Eamonn Carrabine et al., “Early Sociologies of Crime”, Criminology: A sociological introduction 84 (2nd ed., 2009).

[xvii] Supra n 1.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Neuman, W.R. & Guggenheim, The Evolution of Effects Theory, 21 Communication Theory 169 (2011).

[xxi] Neeti Tandon, Secondary Victimization of Children by the Media: An Analysis of Perceptions of Victims and Journalists, 2 International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences (2007), available at:, last seen on 6/10/2014.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] L. J. Shrum, Effects of Television Portrayals of Crime and Violence on Viewers’ Perceptions of Reality, 22 Legal Studies Forum 257, 257- 268 (1998).

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Rise in Juvenile Crime: Time to Recheck Social, Moral Fibre?, DNAIndia, available at:, last seen on 1/10/2014.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] D.M. Holland, Television and Crime- a Casual Link?, 53Auckland University Law Review 53, 53- 61 (1972).

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Steven F. Messner,Television Violence and Violent Crime: An Aggregate Analysis, 33 Social Problems 218, 218- 235 (1986).

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Cultivation theory causes systematic distortion of real life shown by television programs resulting to predictable effect. More the people will watch the television, more they will “cultivate” the message and replace the reality with television depiction; Supra n 23.

[xxxiii] Priyanka Shrivastava, Melodramatic crime based soaps take over the small screens, INDIATODAY, available at:, last seen on 6/10/2014.

[xxxiv] R. Basu v. National Capital Territory of Delhi & Anr. 2007CriLJ4254.

[xxxv] 1971 AIR 481, 1971 SCR (2) 446.

[xxxvi] 1988 AIR 775, 1988 SCR (2)1011.

[xxxvii] Supra n. 34.

[xxxviii] LeGrande Gardner and Donald J. Shoemaker, Social Bonding and Delinquency: A Comparative Analysis, 30(3) The Sociological Quarterly 481, 481- 499 (1989).

[xxxix] Supra n 11.

[xl] Supra n 38.

[xli] Supra n 15.

[xlii] Supra, n 38.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Supra, n 11.

[xlv] Supra, n 34.

[xlvi] Supra, n 16.

[xlvii] Supra, n 38.

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