Media Violence and Its Effects on Children
The second Bobo doll study conducted by Bandura and his colleagues presented videotapes of the models behaving aggressively toward the Bobo doll (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963a). The observation in this study that children did, indeed, imitate the aggressive behavior of models seen on film, but not in person, has become one the most influential articles in history, both in terms of stimulating further research on the modeling of aggression and in terms of practical applications (e.g., ratings on television programs, video games, and CDs with controversial lyrics). In their introduction to an issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest (PSPI) on media violence and its effects on children, Ceci and Bjork (2003) describe how the authors of this particular PSPI issue were a collection of experts brought together to prepare a portion of the U.S. Surgeon General’s report on youth violence. However, political concerns led the Surgeon General’s office to radically alter the report. The authors protested, and attempted to satisfy the concerns of the politicians. Ultimately, however, this portion of the report was dropped from the final version. So, the editors of PSPI chose to publish this valuable psychological information, which clearly causes political concerns for some, so that psychologists, psychiatrists, law enforcement officials, teachers and school administrators, government policy makers, parents, indeed anyone who has a vested interest in youth violence, might have the most current information available on the effects of media violence on America’s youth. I would also like to acknowledge an important point made by the authors themselves. This issue of PSPI was a collaborative project by eight experts on the effects of media violence. The authors decided that the fairest way to list their names was alphabetical order. Thus, as I refer to the article as Anderson, et al. (2003), please note that the “et al.” includes widely respected experts, chosen by the National Institute of Mental Health for this project, each of whom contributed significantly to this article.
It would be difficult to do justice to this report by summarizing it here, since the report, which is a review itself, is nearly thirty pages long and cites 245 research studies. Clearly, the attention drawn by this question, the role of media violence in affecting violent behavior among children, provides a testament to the significance of this research. Anderson, et al. (2003) provide an overview of the empirical research, offer theoretical explanations, they address moderating effects, media use and content, and they examine research on interventions.
Empirical research on media violence and aggression has covered of wide variety of media types, including dramatic television and movies, television news violence, music videos and their lyrics, video games, and the internet. The review of this extensive body of research has shown a statistically significant association between exposure to media violence and aggression and violence among youth. Exposure to media violence, and the findings are consistent across the various types of media, increases the likelihood that children have aggressive thoughts and, indeed, engage in aggressive behavior. Most importantly, longitudinal studies have consistently shown that exposure to media violence in childhood, even beginning in late adolescence, are predictors of increased aggression and violent behavior in adulthood. Although the effects are at best small to medium, the authors note that they are as high as other problems that are considered significant public health issues, such as cigarette smoking and exposure to asbestos.
Several theories have been put forth to explain the manner in which exposure to media violence increases aggression in children, not the least of which is Bandura’s theory of observational learning. Observational learning appears to be so important to the humans, and other primate species, that we have developed a specific neurological system to learn from watching others: the mirror-neuron system (see Rizzolatti & Craighero, 2004). Additional theories suggest that exposure to media violence prepares an individual to engage in aggressive behavior. This can occur either because the media violence primes the individual by activating aggressive thoughts and scripts or by generally arousing the individual, and that arousal then carries over into heightened aggressive behavior in situations that provoke aggressive actions. Finally, there is the widely used, and often misunderstood, term “desensitization.” Anderson et al. (2003) prefer the term emotional desensitization to refer to a reduction in distress-related reactions to observing or thinking about violence. Although emotional desensitization may result in an individual being more willing to engage in aggressive or violent behavior, there is no evidence that it stimulates aggression. Thus, although emotional desensitization may be related to the disinhibition discussed in the chapter (it may even be the same thing), its role remains unclear.
Not all children are affected by media violence in the same way, and not all examples of media violence are equally effective in enhancing aggression. Thus, there must be moderating factors that come into play in the relationship between exposure to media violence and subsequent aggressive behavior. For example, the effects of media violence decline as children grow older, media violence is less likely to affect children who are less aggressive to begin with, and, although there is not a direct effect of intelligence, children of lower intelligence are more likely to watch television and to be at risk for other factors enhancing aggressiveness. The way in which the violence is presented in the media is also important, as is any portrayed justification for the violence as well as its consequences. However, all of these relationships are complex, and have not been studied in great detail. Thus, there is much more work to be done. Finally, one of the most important moderating factors is parental control. When parents discuss the content of media violence with their children, when they comment regularly on the reality of violence, children are much less likely to demonstrate aggressive tendencies.
This entire discussion would be moot, if not for the prevalence of media in our society and the content of that media. Data reported by Anderson, et al. (2003) from three national surveys provide an amazing view of media availability in America. Virtually all families with children have a television set, most have at least one VCR or DVD player, and about three quarters of those families subscribe to cable or satellite television. Approximately 70 percent of families with children have a video game system and a computer, and most American children have a television in their room (including 30 percent of children age 0 to 3 years old!). Watching television is the third most common activity for children, after sleeping and going to school. A significant number of children watch more than 40 hours of television a week, and children ages 0 to 6 years spend more time engaged in media entertainment than engaged in reading, being read to, and playing outside combined! And what’s included in that media content? Plenty of violence: 61 percent of programs contain violence, and only 4 percent of programs contain an anti-violence theme:
…put in another way, 96% of all violent television programs use aggression as a narrative, cinematic device for simply entertaining the audience…Moreover, most aggression on television is glamorized and trivialized…and nearly 75% of all violent scenes feature no immediate punishment or condemnation for violence. (pg. 101; Anderson, et al., 2003)
Similar findings have been reported for violence in video games, both in America and in Japan. Parents seldom recognize the popularity of those violent games, and only about one third of parents even knew the name of their child’s favorite video game (Anderson, et al., 2003).
Despite the wealth of information on the relationship between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior, and a number of potential approaches for intervention, there has been little empirical research on potential interventions. In general, there are three approaches to reducing the influence of violent media: changing attitudes to counter violent messages, encouraging parental monitoring and guidance, and providing education on the content and effects of various forms of media. But once again, none of these potential interventions has been studied in detail. It must also be remembered that this is only one of many factors that contribute to aggressive and violent behavior amongst youth, though it may be the least expensive to address, since it involves little more than making choices about the media children are exposed to:
…However, the troubling truth is that violent media are entering the home and inviting active participation of even very young children - often with little parental supervision…Although additional research to address unresolved questions is needed, it is clear that media violence is a causal risk factor that should be addressed in thoughtful ways…parents can reduce and shape their children’s consumption of violent media…from a public-health perspective, today’s consumption patterns are far from optimal. And for many youths, they are clearly harmful. (pgs. 105-106; Anderson, et al., 2003)
Research on this important issue certainly did not end with the publication of the PSPI issue in 2003. In a more recent study, Carnagey and Anderson (2005) had college students play one of three versions of a race-car video game: one version rewarded all violence, one punished all violence, and one was non-violent. Overall, rewarding violent actions in the game increased hostile emotion, aggressive thinking, and aggressive behavior. In contrast, punishing violence still increased hostile emotion, but did not increase aggressive thoughts or behaviors. The authors suggest that an important mechanism through which violent media increases aggressive behavior is to first increase aggressive thoughts and states of mind. Another interesting result in this study was that the non-violent game did not result in as much violence as the game in which violence was rewarded, suggesting that the violent behavior in the game was not simply the result of competitiveness by the players. Of course, not everyone responds aggressively when aggression is modeled. It appears that individuals who score high on the trait of agreeableness (one of the “Big Five” traits, see Chapter 13) are able to short-circuit the effects of aggression-related cues and curb their aggression (Meier, Robinson, & Wilkowski, 2006). Meier, et al. go on to suggest that teaching other people to associate aggression-related cues with prosocial behavior might become a valuable intervention in continued efforts to reduce aggression and violence in our society. First, however, it might prove important to reduce the number of weapons present in American society (or at least our relationship with them). Klinesmith, Kasser, and McAndrew (2006) recently demonstrated that when male college students were exposed to a gun there was an increase in both their testosterone levels and their aggressive behavior. Media violence is clearly not the only aggression-related cue present for most people. However, as noted above, it may well be one area in which a distinct reduction in such cues can easily be accomplished without substantial financial costs (but certainly with substantial benefits) to society.