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

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

Media and Moral Development

One criticism often leveled against the media is that they are contributing to the decay of morality. Indeed, a recent national poll reported that 70 percent of Americans are very or somewhat worried that popular culture, as portrayed in television and movies, is lowering moral standards in the United States.62 The concern is fueled by the tremendous amount of time youth are spending with the media and by their easy access to explicit content. Children can readily find stories about violence, sexual promiscuity, theft, and greed in a variety of media outlets including fictional programming, reality shows, rap music, and the Internet. Almost no research, however, focuses on how the media shape children's moral development. Researchers have written widely on how the media affect children's behaviors, both prosocial and antisocial. But they have paid little attention to the moral lessons children learn from the media that may be underlying these behaviors.

Moral development in children follows a predictable developmental path. When presented with an ethical dilemma, children under the age of eight typically judge an action as wrong or incorrect when it results in punishment or goes against the rules set forth by authority figures.63 As children mature, they begin to consider multiple perspectives in a situation, taking into account the intentions and motives of those involved and recognizing the often-conflicting rules inherent in moral dilemmas. In other words, their moral reasoning becomes more flexible and “other” oriented.

Marina Krcmar and her colleagues have conducted several studies on whether watching violence on television affects children's moral reasoning. In one survey, they presented six- to twelve-year-olds with hypothetical stories in which a perpetrator performed aggression either for reasons of protection, called “justified” violence, or for random reasons, called “unjustified” violence.64 Most of the children perceived the unjustified aggression to be wrong. But children who were heavy viewers of fantasy violence programs such as Power Rangers were more likely than children who seldom watched such programs to judge the “justified” aggression in the stories as being morally correct. And indeed researchers have found that much of the violence in popular superhero cartoons is portrayed as justified.65 In the Krcmar study, both children who watched a great deal of fantasy violence and those who watched more realistic entertainment violence, such as Cops, displayed less advanced moral reasoning strategies, focusing more on rules and the presence or absence of punishment in their reasoning about moral dilemmas.

A follow-up study found the same pattern.66 Again, children who watched a great deal of fantasy violence were more likely than light viewers to perceive justified violence as morally acceptable. Heavy doses of fantasy violence also were linked with a child's ability to take on someone else's perspective. In particular, children heavily exposed to fantasy violence had less advanced role-taking abilities, which in turn predicted less sophisticated moral reasoning skills. This second study also looked at the family's influence on children's television viewing and moral reasoning. In families where parents stressed communication, children were less likely to watch fantasy violence on television and therefore exhibited higher moral reasoning skills. Parents who stressed control had children who watched more fantasy violence and had less advanced moral reasoning.

Both these studies suggest that watching a great deal of violence on television may hinder children's moral development. Yet it may also be that children with less sophisticated moral skills are drawn to violent programs, especially superhero shows, because their fairly simplistic storylines depict aggression as typically justified and rarely punished.67

Two recent studies shed some light on this puzzle. In an experiment, Marina Krcmar and Stephen Curtis tested the causal effect of television on children's moral conceptions of right and wrong.68 Children between the ages of five and fourteen were randomly assigned to one of three groups: one group watched an action cartoon that featured characters arguing and eventually engaging in violence; another group watched a similar clip involving an argument from which the characters walked away instead of fighting; and a control group did not watch television. Afterward, children listened to and judged four hypothetical stories involving violence. Children who had watched the violent program were more likely than those in the control group to judge violence as morally acceptable. They also exhibited less sophisticated moral reasoning in their responses, often relying on authority or punishment as rationales (for example, “You shouldn't hit because you'll get in trouble”). The reaction was the same regardless of the children's age. In fact, older children (nine to fourteen years) who had seen the violent clip displayed reasoning skills that were on par with those of younger children (five to eight years) in the control group. The experiment demonstrates that exposure to a single program containing fantasy violence can alter children's short-term moral evaluations of aggression and can even adversely affect the strategies they use to make sense of those evaluations.

Unexpectedly, the study found that children who viewed the nonviolent version of the cartoon reacted much the same as those who viewed the violent version; that is, they judged violence as being more morally acceptable than did members of the control group. The authors reasoned that action cartoons might be so familiar to children and so typically full of violence that even watching a nonviolent segment from this genre triggers mental models or schemata in children that involve justified violence.

A second study, in this case a longitudinal one, also illuminates how the media affect moral development. Judy Dunn and Claire Hughes tracked forty “hard-to-manage” preschoolers and forty matched control children over a two-year period, measuring their cognitive skills, social behavior, and emotional functioning.69 The two groups of preschoolers engaged in similar amounts of pretend play at age four, but the hard-to-manage children were substantially more likely to engage in play that involved killing, death, and physical violence. Many of these fantasy play incidents were tied to media characters and programs. In addition, children from both groups who engaged in much violent pretend play at age four had significantly lower moral reasoning scores at age six, even after researchers controlled for verbal ability, aggression, and friendship quality at age four. These violent-play children were more likely than their peers to respond in selfish or hedonistic ways to moral dilemmas, often focusing on punishments rather than on the motives and feelings of the story characters. Although the study did not directly measure children's media habits, the preschoolers' violent fantasy play was often tied to violent television and movies they had seen.

To summarize, some research suggests that extensive viewing of television violence can alter children's views about the acceptability of violence and perhaps even hinder the development of their moral reasoning. Fantasy violence that is portrayed as justified or heroic is most strongly implicated here, again suggesting that the type of content children watch is important. Such conclusions must be tentative, however, because of the paucity of studies in this area. With the exception of one experiment and one longitudinal study, nearly all the evidence is of the snapshot-in-time variety and does not permit drawing causal conclusions. In addition, the research has examined only children's moral views about aggression. It has paid little attention to media's effect on other moral issues such as altruism and even other types of antisocial behavior such as cheating, lying, and stealing. Finally, the focus to date has been on detrimental effects of media exposure, not on whether some programs and genres can enhance moral development. And the research has focused solely on television. Websites, video games, movies, and even children's books sometimes grapple with moral dilemmas, and researchers need to explore their impact as well.