Hypodermic Model – Media

Lesson objectiveTo explore the Hypodermic Syringe Model
Lesson outcomes• This model to others and assess its significance
• The impact
• What the Hypodermic Syringe model is

Explaining the theory

  • This model is also called the magic bullet theory. This is an old fashioned model, but, is still influential in understanding how the media can operate. In short, the media ‘injects’ (like the name suggests) messages and agendas to its audiences. This basis is due to the fact that it regards the audience as being passive. Normally, this model states that the media injects audiences with dominant ideologies, sexism and racism. The audience then immediately responds, agrees and conforms to these expectations. Dworkin stipulates that this creates social issues as young children who watch porn will respond and treat women as depicted in the movies. The same is said for violence, whereby, after watching a violent film, the audience will become aggressive. This model is behind moral panics and is presented by the media (ironically) as being the cause. 
  • Picture

Criticisms of the theory

  • The audience is passive and homogeneous (is all the same, with the same characteristics). There is no evidence to suggest that audiences operate in the same way. Different ages, classes, ethnicities etc all have different experiences. It also negates the fact that external factors other than the media assist in creating copycat actions e.g. schizophrenia. 
  • Audiences are active and interact with media. Media has evolved since this theory was made and is now more digital. It can be argued, therefore, that the audience has also evolved from being passive to active. 
  • It overestimates the power of the media. Other agencies of socialisation are equally, if not more, effective. 
  • There is little evidence to suggest that the media context has immediate consequences on its audience as this model stipulates. 

Assessing the effectiveness of the model

The hypodermic model of media violence

The hypodermic syringe approach to media effects believes that a direct correlation exists between the violence and anti-social behaviour portrayed in films, on television, in computer games, in rap lyrics, etc. and violence and antisocial behaviour such as drug use and teenage gun/knife crime found in real life. The model suggests that children and teenagers are vulnerable to media content because they are still in the early stages of socialisation and therefore very impressionable.

Believers in this hypodermic syringe model (also known as the ‘magic bullet’ theory) point to a number of films which they claim have resulted in young people using extreme violence.

Imitation or copycat violence

Early studies of the relationship between the media and violence focused on conducting experiments in laboratories, e.g. Bandura et al. (1963) carried out an experiment on young children which involved exposing them to films and cartoons of a self-righting doll being attacked with a mallet. They concluded on the basis of this experiment that violent media content could lead to imitation or copycat violence.

McCabe and Martin (2005) concluded that media violence has a disinhibition effect – it convinces children that in some social situations, the ‘normal’ rules that govern conflict and difference can be suspended, i.e. discussion and negotiation can be replaced with violence with no repercussions.


Newson argued that sadistic images in films were too easily available and that films encouraged viewers to identify with violent perpetrators rather than victims. Furthermore, Newson noted that children and teenagers are subjected to thousands of killings and acts of violence as they grow up through viewing television and films. Newson suggested that such prolonged exposure to media violence may have a drip-drip effect on young people over the course of their childhood and result in their becoming desensitised to violence. Newson argues that they see violence as a normal problem-solving device and concluded that, because of this, the latest generation of young people subscribe to weaker moral codes and are more likely to behave in anti-social ways than previous generations.


Newson’s report led directly to increased censorship of the film industry with the passing of the Video Recordings (Labelling) Act 1985, which resulted in videos and DVDs being given British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) age certificates. The BBFC also came under increasing pressure to censor films released to British cinemas by insisting on the film makers making cuts relating to bad language, scenes of drug use and violence.

Television too was affected by this climate of censorship. All the television channels agreed on a nine o’clock watershed, i.e. not to show any programmes that used bad language or contained scenes of a sexual or violent nature before this time. Television channels often resorted to issuing warnings before films and even edited out the violence themselves or beeped over bad language.

Critique of the hypodermic syringe model

A number of critiques have developed of the imitation-desensitisation model of media effects, e.g. some media sociologists claim that media violence can actually prevent real-life violence.

  • Fesbach and Sanger (1971) found that screen violence can actually provide a safe outlet for people’s aggressive tendencies. This is known as catharsis. They suggest that watching an exciting film releases aggressive energy into safe outlets as the viewers immerse themselves in the action.
  • Young (1981), argues that seeing the effects of violence and especially the pain and suffering that it causes to the victim and their families, may make us more aware of its consequences and so less inclined to commit violent acts. Sensitisation to certain crimes, therefore, may make people more aware and responsible so that they avoid getting involved in violence.

The methodological critique of the hypodermic syringe model

Gauntlett (2008) argues that people, especially children, do not behave as naturally under laboratory conditions as they would in their everyday environment, e.g. children’s media habits are generally influenced and controlled by parents, especially when they are very young.

The media effects model fails to be precise in how ‘violence’ should be defined. There are different types of media violence such as in cartoons, images of war and death on news bulletins and sporting violence. It is unclear whether these different types of violence have the same or different effects upon their audiences or whether different audiences react differently to different types and levels of violence. The effects model has been criticised because it tends to be selective in its approach to media violence, i.e. it only really focuses on particular types of fictional violence. It could therefore be argued that all models of this mode, because they mostly have been done under a lab experiment, lack ecological validity, meaning they cannot be applied to real life. 

The effects model also fails to put violence into context, e.g. it views all violence as wrong, however trivial, and fails to see that audiences interpret it according to narrative context. Research by Morrison suggests that the context in which screen violence occurs affects its impact on the audience.

Some sociologists believe that children are not as vulnerable as the hypodermic syringe model implies, e.g. research indicates that most children can distinguish between fictional/cartoon violence and real violence from a very early age, and generally know that it should not be imitated. Sociologists are generally very critical of the hypodermic syringe model because it fails to recognise that audiences have very different social characteristics in terms of age, maturity, social class, education, family background, parental controls, etc. These characteristics will influence how people respond to and use media content. Cumberbatch (2004) looked at over 3500 research studies into the effects of screen violence, encompassing film, television, video and more recently, computer and video games. He concluded that there is still no conclusive evidence that violence shown in the media influences or changes people’s behaviour.

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