The Time by Barbara Frazier

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Barbara Frazier

The Impact of TV Violence on Children and Adolescents

One has only to turn on the TV to observe the growing proliferation of violent and aggressive content in today's media. A regular offering includes daytime talk shows, some of which are characterized by blatant emotional, psychological, and physical abuse by panel guests toward each other. WCW (World Champion Wrestling) is viewed by a growing number of Americans, many of whom include young children and adolescents who watch along side of their parents. Network news is littered with graphic renderings of murders, kidnappings, traffic accidents, international war scenes, and the like of which violence is the key component. Prime time TV sports a number of shows that promote violence as a sanctioned means for settling conflicts. The good guys kill the bad guys, most often with an arsenal of weaponry that has become a commonplace possession for today's TV characters. How does all of this affect our children? What do we know about the impact of TV violence on our children's values, attitudes, and behavior? Actually, we know a lot. There is a growing body of research that has tackled these very questions, and the results are in. TV violence can negatively effect our children on a number of levels. Let's begin with some general statistics, and then I will review the main research that has been conducted along with their findings.

Statistics

The Nielson data collected in 1993 reveals that the American child watches TV 21 to 23 hours per week. On the average this includes about 2½ hours per day for children up to the age of five, about 4 hours per day for children between the ages of five and twelve, and then viewing drops off to 2 to 3 hours during adolescence. Furthermore, 98% of American households have TVs, making television the single most important source of media in the lives of children and adolescents. In terms of violent content, prime time portrays 3 to 5 violent acts per hour, and children's Saturday morning programming offers 20 to 25 violent acts per hour. According to a report from the American Psychiatric Association (1996), adolescents will have viewed 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence by the age of 18. Worse yet, the current portrayal of violence is highly graphic and realistic, offering anatomically detailed simulations of killings, maiming, and other physically violent acts. At the same time, violent acts go unpunished 73% of the time. The "good guy" is often the perpetrator of violence, which sends the message that violence is justified and a viable method for dealing with problems.

Primary Effects of TV Violence

The research on the effects of TV violence have been summarized by the National Institute of Mental Health (1982): " . . . violence on television does lead to aggressive behavior by children and teenagers who watch the programs. This conclusion is based on laboratory experiments and on field studies. Not all children become aggressive, of course, but the correlations between violence and aggression are positive." NIMH goes on to say that there are two other deleterious effects of TV violence on children. One is that chronic exposure to violent depictions can cause desensitization to violence. This means that children may become more willing to accept violence from others as well as perpetrate violent acts themselves. Secondly, overexposure to violence, and particularly realistically portrayed violence, may lead children to believe that the world is primarily a dangerous and unsafe place. They may begin to overestimate the possibility that they will be victims of violence, leaving them with undue anxiety and stress.

Research Findings

There are a number of studies that have linked the viewing of TV violence with aggressive behavior. One of the earliest and most well-known studies was conducted by Bandura in 1963. He had a group of children view a TV video of a model who kicked and punished an inflated plastic doll. After the viewing, the children were placed in a playroom with other children who had not seen the video. Those that saw the video displayed significantly more aggressive behavior than those who didn't. A second study (Liebert & Baron, 1972) confirmed Bandura's findings. This study investigated children's willingness to hurt other children after viewing aggressive TV programs. Two groups of children watched a different TV program, one of which had aggressive content and one of which was neutral. Those who saw the aggressive program (The Untouchables) were found to be more willing to hurt another child after viewing the program than those who watched the neutral program (a track race). Several other studies found that the same held true for viewing violent cartoons, and additionally that children were less likely to share their toys after viewing violent cartoons. One of the most convincing studies compared the incidence of aggressive behavior among children both before and two years after TV was introduced into the Canadian community where they resided (Joy, Kimball, Zabrack ,1986; Williams, 1986). There was a significant increase in both physical and verbal aggression after two years of viewing TV. What's important about this study is that it was easier to isolate the variable being tested, which was the effect of TV, since television had never previously been available to these children.

Other studies have focused more on the question as to whether all children have the same reactions to TV violence. For a long time, it was believed that only certain types of children and adolescents were adversely affected by violent programming. These are termed high trait aggressive individuals, or those whose personalities are characterized by aggressive tendencies. These children seem to be aroused (or excited) by aggression. As such, they seek out aggressive television programming more than other children and are at the same time more prone to be adversely effected by viewing it. In fact, high aggression children view action and adventure TV programming four times as often as low aggression children (Singer & Singer, 1986). These same children have also been found to be more prone to aggressive behavior toward other kids as a result of viewing televised violence.

Most researchers agree that aggressive children and adolescents are more prone to the negative effects of TV violence than those who are not aggressive. However, many studies such as the Canadian study show that all children are susceptible to harm from exposure to TV violence.

Moreover, the harm is much greater for children who are preadolescent, especially those younger than eight years of age. This is because children younger than eight still may have some difficulty in separating fantasy from reality. Further, these children have not yet developed enough abstract thinking to be able to evaluate what they see and measure it against reality. They are more in what I call the "sponge" stage. That is, they tend to soak up what they are exposed to rather than analyze and evaluate their exposure and experience. One study was able to make an important link between heavy viewing of TV violence by 8-year-olds with serious criminal behavior by the same group at the age of 30 (Huesmann, Eron, Lefkowitz & Walder, 1984). At the same time, this correlation did not hold true for 18-year-olds who preferred TV violence, i. e., the 18-year-old group did not display any significant increase in aggressive behavior resulting from viewing violent programming. This study verifies that younger children are likely to experience more profound negative effects from viewing TV violence, especially a steady diet of it, than are older teens who have some capacity for evaluating what they see and for distinguishing fantasy from reality.

The final finding has do to with the effects of chronic exposure to TV violence as opposed to the occasional viewing. According to a study conducted by Bushman (1998), it has been found that when we view violent programming, we store in memory a perceptual and cognitive representation of the event. That means we can draw it up in our thoughts, and also visually. Then when we are in a real situation that is similar to the memory we have stored (the violent vignette we saw on TV), that memory is activated and the memory or script becomes available to us. This fits in with the research on 8 year-old-boys. At a much later age, the violent vignettes they had stored in their memories were pulled up and activated when they were adults and influenced their behavior. They were in fact more aggressive. Bushman's research takes this a step further. He believes that chronic exposure to TV violence results in chronic accessibility to these stored memories, which he calls "primed aggressive constructs." In other words, the more exposure to TV violence, and the younger the child, the more harm done.

What Parents Can Do

In trying to decide what steps to take to protect your children from the negative effects of TV violence, it is important to realize that in today's modern culture they will be exposed to a certain amount of this type of programming even if they don't see it at home. So we must adjust ourselves to that reality and figure out what can be done in view of that. We suggest the following:

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Try and restrict television time to one or two hours per day, however, keep in mind that quantity is not as much an issue as quality. In other words, it's what is watched more than how much is watched that is most important.

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Preview ahead programs that your kids want to watch and make an informed decision as to whether they are appropriate or not.

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Substitute your children's favorite videos for network programming. Most kids like to watch favorite videos repeatedly.

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Frankly discuss any violent content with your children. Be sure that they have a firm grasp on the difference between fantasy and reality. Focus on the suffering caused by violence as opposed to messages that portray violence as acceptable. Research has found that one of the best ways of avoiding the negative effects of TV violence on children is to involve them in discussions about how children can be fooled or hurt by what they see on television.

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Encourage viewing of pro-social and educational TV programming. Some research suggests that viewing television programs that enhance learning, teach moral lessons, and model caring behavior (such as Mister Rogers' Neighborhood) can be a positive influence.

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Find alternatives to watching TV. Encourage reading, participation in sports or extracurricular activities, or simply more creative play that occurs when the TV is off.

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Don't use television as a babysitter. This is sometimes hard, especially for working parents. It's quite tempting to sit kids in front of the TV so you can get dinner on the table, or attend to chores that need to be done, or even have a few moments to yourself. Be sure that the TV viewing is going to be a positive experience for your child no matter what the circumstances.

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Finally, and this is probably the most important one - you want to be sure that you have a close relationship with your child that is nurturing and caring. You must spend adequate positive time together. Also, take the time to teach the values you want them to internalize. Help them learn to solve problems and conflicts through nonviolent means and effective communication. Children who have strong attachments to their parents, and feel loved and secure in those relationships, are much less likely to be negatively effected by television than those who feel isolated and neglected. Be sure that you are the primary influence in your child's development rather that the TV.



AC Nielsen Company (1993). 1992-1993 Report on Television. New York, NY: Nielsen Media Research.

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. H. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66 (1), 3-11.

Bushman, B. (1995). Priming effects of media violence on the accessibility of aggressive constructs in memory. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 24 (5), 537-549.

Huesmann, L. R. & Eron, L. D., Lefkowitz, M. M., & Walder, L. O. (1984). Stability of aggression over time and generations. Developmental Psychology, 20, 1120-1134.

Joy, L. A., Kimball, M. & Zabrack, M. L. (1986). Television exposure and children's aggressive behavior. In T. M. Williams (ed.) The Impact of Television: A Natural Experiment Involving Three Towns. New York: Academic Press.

Liebert, R. M. & Baron, R. A. (1972). Short term effects of television aggression on children's aggressive behavior. In G. A. Comstock, E. A. Rubinstein, & J. P. Murray (eds.) Television and Social Behavior, vol. 2, Television and Social Learning. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.

National Institute of Mental Health (1982). Television and behavior: Ten years of scientific progress and implications for the eighties (vol. 1), Summary report. Washington, DC: United Sates Government Printing Office.