Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008

Media and Children's Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
Barbara J. Wilson

Introduction

Children today live in a world where many of their experiences are mediated by screen technologies. Small children are likely to feel some of their first fears as they watch a scary movie or television program, feel some of their earliest non- familial attachments as they view a favorite media character, and even experience the beginnings of emotional empathy as they follow the adventures of a well-liked media protagonist. Because American children spend so much time with the media, much of their social life takes place while they sit in front of a television or a computer screen or concentrate on an iPod or a cell phone. In fact, children under the age of six spend more time watching television than they do playing outdoors.1 Historically, the United States has reached a point where most of children's social experiences no longer consist of face-to-face interactions with other people.

Children develop their emotional and social capabilities through a complex process. To participate effectively in their culture, they must acquire the norms, rules, and values that will enable them to form connections and function in families, peer groups, and the broader society. They learn about emotions and about relationships from parents, friends, teachers, and siblings. They also bring their own personalities, temperaments, and cognitive abilities to each social situation. Electronic media too play a role in children's socialization. Television programs, movies, and even the Internet provide children with a window into popular culture. Children can come to appreciate norms and standards of conduct by watching social actors in fictional stories and can even experience emotional and social situations in a vicarious way through the media.

In this article I review the research evidence regarding how electronic media influence children's emotional and social well-being. I begin by exploring the role the media can play in children's affective or emotional development. I show how children can learn about the nature and function of emotions from the media, and I summarize research on how electronic media contribute to the development of empathy in children. Next, I address the questions of whether the media can elevate children's fears and anxieties. Moving away from emotions, I then explore the effect of media on children's social development. In particular, I examine how repeated exposure to electronic media can influence children's moral development. I also review evidence about how the media can affect children's tendency to behave in a prosocial manner with others and also their tendency to act aggressively in social situations. I then sum up the positive and negative effects of exposure to media on children's well- being, commenting on considerations that make youth susceptible to media's influence and on ways they can be shielded from harmful effects. I conclude by discussing the important role parents can play in their children's media experiences.

Two themes emerge in this review. First, electronic media can have both positive and negative effects on children's development. It is thus simplistic to argue that the media are detrimental or valuable to children. Much of the effect depends on the content to which children are exposed. Some media messages can teach children positive, prosocial lessons, while others can lead children to be fearful or even to behave antisocially. What children are watching onscreen makes a crucial difference, perhaps even more than how much time they spend in front of that screen. Second, not all children are influenced by the media in the same way. A child's age or developmental level makes a difference, for example. In some situations, younger children are more susceptible to media influence than older children are. But older children and teens are certainly not immune. In fact, media content that is complex or highly abstract is likely to affect only those with more sophisticated cognitive skills who can comprehend the message. A child's gender, race, temperament, and home life also come into play. Throughout this article, I will highlight which groups or types of children are more susceptible to media's influence on emotional and social development.