Children and media violence: the evidence is crystal clear

May 26, 2015 Children and the Media


Children and media violence:the evidence is crystal clear Ed Donnerstein University of Arizona

The relationship between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior has been an ongoing focus of inquiry by academic researchers, policymakers, and the public for decades. It has also been of concern to major health organizations within the Unites States such as the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, and a recent United States Surgeon General report on youth violence. In all of the reviews by these organizations it is very clear that exposure to violence in the media is one of a number of risk factors that can increase children and adolescents aggressive behavior, both in the short and long term.

For those who actively research the causes and contributions to aggressive behavior, there is universal agreement that there are many factors that contribute to such behavior such as gangs, drugs, guns, racism and other environmental factors. Nevertheless, there’s always been the realization that the mass media in all its forms also plays a significant role and contributes to aggressive behavior. The mass media are another risk factor that needs to be considered and evaluated. While we would all agree that there is no single cause of violent behavior, and certainly the media is not the most important contributor, it is nevertheless an area of concern particularly given easy and early exposure of children to violent media content.

One major analysis of this content revealed that over 60% of TV programs contained some form of physical violence in which an individual intentionally harms another, exactly the type of violence of concern within our society.

The greater concern from this research is the context in which this violence was presented. Most aggression in the media tends to be glamorized. More than 50% of the individuals who committed violence were attractive, the exact qualities that make it easier for children to identify with these individuals. Furthermore about 75% of this violence shows no immediate punishments or even condemnation for the behavior. In addition, much of the violence that is viewed is considered sanitized. The majority of the depictions show no pain or even harm to victims. And even if harm is present, a substantial majority of these presentations are unrealistic, particularly within children’s programming. Perhaps more disturbing given our contemporary society, about 25% of viewed aggressive interactions involve the use of a gun. These types of findings occur both in TV depictions and violent video games.

Does the viewing of all this violence in the media actually do anything to the viewer? The overwhelming answer from the academic and public health communities is a resounding yes. There is absolutely no doubt that those who are heavy viewers of this violence demonstrate increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior. These aggressive habits learned early in life form the foundation for later behavior. Longitudinal studies in many countries, covering up to 30 years, strongly support this finding.

In addition to increasing violent behaviors toward others, viewing violence in the media changes attitudes and behaviors toward violence in two other significant ways. First, prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward real world violence and the victims of violence, which can result in callous attitudes toward aggression directed at others and a decreased likelihood to take action on behalf of the victim when violence occurs. Second, viewing violence can increase fear of becoming a victim of violence, with a resultant increase in self-protective behaviors and increased mistrust of others.

Of course, not all violent portrayals are equal with regard to the risk they might pose. The portrayal of violence need not lead to aggressive attitudes and behaviors if the consequences and harms of violence are made clear. But if violence is glamorized, sanitized, or made to seem routine, as it often is, then the message is that it is an acceptable, and perhaps even desirable, course of action. It is fairly obvious that over the long term, children learn from these messages

Are there any potential solutions to the concerns we have about media violence. The answer is yes. For example:

  1. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended that parents limit the amount of screen time for children while also monitoring and co-viewing content with their children. The research on parental co-viewing has shown it to be effective in reducing both the impact of violent and sexual content.
  2. Comprehensive media literacy programs are essential given the vast amount of exposure children and adolescents have to violent media. Both children and adolescents can be taught “critical viewing skills” in schools so that they learn to better interpret what they see in the media.
  3. For the media industry we can recommend more programs that show alternatives to aggressive interactions, or certainly an emphasis on the personal and societal consequences of this behavior.
  4. For policy makers we can recommend that television, film, and video game ratings accurately convey to parents the risks associated with different types of violent portrayals.

Ed Donnerstein was one of several presenters at the Australian Conference on Children & the Media: Scared, sleepless and hostile: Children, violent/frightening media and public policy


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