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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 Antisocial Behavior

No issue in the media effects arena has received as much attention as violence. Television, movies, video games, and even rap music have been widely criticized for portraying physical aggression as an entertaining solution to problems. Today, most American parents believe there is too much violence in the media and that it is harmful to society.70

Researchers have used scientific methods to quantify the violence in different media. The National Television Violence Study, a three-year assessment of more than 3,000 programs a year, found that a steady 60 percent of programs across twenty-six channels contain some physical aggression.71 On average, a typical hour of programming features six different violent incidents. Violence varies considerably by genre and channel, however. Children's programming is more violent than all other program types, and virtually all superhero cartoons as well as slapstick cartoons contain violence.72 In terms of channels, only 18 percent of PBS programming contains violent content, compared with 84 percent of premium cable shows, such as HBO, 51 percent of broadcast network shows, and 63 percent of basic cable shows.

Other media products that are targeted to youth also contain violence. One study found that virtually all G-rated movies released between 1937 and 1999 featured some violence. 73 Another study found that 64 percent of E-rated (for “Everyone”) video games released between 1985 and 2000 contained physical violence.74 What happens when a child is exposed to violent entertainment? Two theories are helpful in answering that question. One, social cognitive theory (formerly called social learning), posits that children learn ideas, values, emotions, and even behaviors by observing others in their social environment.75 Children can imitate people in their immediate surroundings or they can imitate characters in the media. Indeed, children as young as one are capable of imitating simple behaviors displayed on television.76 According to social learning theory, children are more likely to imitate observed behaviors that are rewarded than those that are punished.77 Children will also imitate behaviors that produce no consequences because, especially in the case of antisocial acts, the lack of punishment can serve as a tacit reward.78 The type of media role model also makes a difference. Children are most likely to learn from models that are attractive and from those they perceive as similar to themselves.79

Social cognitive theory, then, helps explain how children can acquire new behaviors from watching a media character on the screen. Rowell Huesmann uses a second theory, information processing theory, to explain the long-term effects of media exposure. Focusing on the learning of scripts—mental routines for familiar events that are stored in a person's memory—Huesmann theorizes that children develop scripts for bedtime routines, for going to the doctor, and even for getting ready for school.80 He argues that a child who is exposed to a great deal of violence, either in real life or through the media, will acquire scripts that promote aggression as a way of solving problems. Once learned, these scripts can be retrieved from memory at any time, especially when the situation at hand resembles features of the script. The more often an aggressive script is retrieved, the more it is reinforced and becomes applicable to a wider set of circumstances. Thus, children who are repeatedly exposed to media violence develop a stable set of aggressive scripts that are easily prompted and serve as a guide in responding to social situations.

Scholars have written hundreds of studies of the impact of media violence on children's aggressive behavior.81 In 2000, six major medical organizations (American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, and American Psychiatric Association) reviewed this research and issued a joint statement to Congress, concluding that “viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior, particularly in children.”82 In this section, I will review the findings concerning the impact of media on physical aggression as well as social aggression.

Physical Aggression
In support of social cognitive theory, numerous experiments show that children will imitate violent behaviors they see on television, particularly if the violence is rewarded. As an example, one study exposed elementary school children to a single episode of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and then observed verbal and physical aggression in the classroom.83 Compared with a control group, children and especially boys who had watched the violent program committed significantly more intentional acts of aggression such as hitting, kicking, and shoving. In fact, for every aggressive behavior enacted by children in the control group, children who had seen the Power Rangers committed seven aggressive acts. Other research shows that children, especially preschoolers, will imitate a cartoon character as readily as a human character and that they can reproduce aggressive behaviors they have seen on TV up to eight months later.84

But experiments are capable of testing short-term effects only. It will take longitudinal studies that track children over time to assess the long-term effects of media violence. Rowell Huesmann and his colleagues have conducted several of these studies, the most recent one involving more than 500 elementary school children.85 The researchers collected measures of television viewing and aggressive behavior when the children were in grade school and then again fifteen years later when they were adults. The composite measure of adult aggression included self-reports of spousal abuse, punching and choking another person, and shoving others, as well as documented criminal behavior. In support of the idea of learned scripts, heavy exposure to television violence in childhood predicted increased physical aggression in adulthood. This pattern held for both boys and girls, even after researchers controlled for the child's initial level of aggressiveness, the child's IQ, the parents' education, the parents' TV habits, the parents' aggression, and the socioeconomic status of the family. The reverse, however, was not true: being aggressive in childhood did not predict more viewing of violence in adulthood. Put another way, there was more evidence that television viewing contributed to subsequent aggression than that being aggressive led to more viewing of violence.

In one of the most extensive meta-analyses of television violence, Haejung Paik and George Comstock analyzed 217 studies and found an overall effect size of .31, a medium effect.86 Animated and fantasy violence had a stronger effect on aggression than more realistic programming did, which challenges the claim that cartoons are innocuous. The effect of television violence on aggression also varied with age: the effect was greatest on preschool children younger than six. The effect was also slightly larger on boys than on girls.

To provide some context, Brad Bushman and Craig Anderson compared the effect of television violence on aggression with other well-established connections in the medical field.87 The television violence-aggression link turns out to be larger than the link between lead exposure and children's IQ. The effect of television violence on aggression is only slightly smaller than the documented effect of smoking on lung cancer.

Clearly, repeated exposure to television violence poses risks for children. What about playing violent video games? That topic has attracted less research, particularly with regard to youth. A few early experiments showed that video game play had no effect on children's aggression.88 The violent games tested in these studies, however, were quite mild compared with the games available today. The more recent experimental evidence generally is in line with studies of violent television.89 The largest experiment to date randomly assigned 161 nine- to twelve-year-olds to play a violent or a nonviolent video game for twenty minutes.90 Two different E-rated (for “Everyone”) violent games were used; both involved cartoon-like characters engaging in continuous violence again nonhuman enemies. Afterward, children played another computer game that allowed them to select how much punishment, such as a noxious noise blast, to deliver to an opponent, whom they were told was a competitor in the game. Children who played a violent video game delivered significantly more intense noise blasts than did those who played a nonviolent game. Although boys were generally more punitive (that is, aggressive) than girls were, playing violent video games increased short-term aggression in both genders.

To date, only one published study has focused on the long-term effects of playing violent video games on youth.91 Craig Anderson and several colleagues tested a sample of 430 third through fifth graders twice, roughly five months apart. Children were asked to report on their violent media exposure, aggression, and hostile attribution bias (that is, their tendency to perceive ambiguous situations in a hostile fashion). In addition, the study collected teacher reports and peer ratings of aggression for the children. The study revealed that students who played violent video games early in the school year engaged in significantly increased physical aggression and hostile attributions several months later. The patterns held up even after researchers controlled for sex, race, initial levels of aggression, total time spent with screen media, and parental involvement. Viewing violence on television also predicted increases in aggression over time, but the effect of video game playing was more robust after various controls were introduced.

Although the evidence available is not large, scholars have conducted meta-analyses on the video game research. The most recent analysis evaluated thirty-two independent samples of participants and found a significant and positive overall effect size of .20.92 When researchers eliminated studies with serious methodological shortcomings, the effect size rose to .25, which is closer to the effect documented for television violence. It should be noted, however, that most of the studies in this meta-analysis involve adults rather than children.

To summarize, scholars have accumulated strong evidence from experiments, surveys, and longitudinal studies that viewing violent television programming contributes to both short- term and long-term increases in children's aggressive behavior. Younger children may be particularly vulnerable to social learning from television, although older children are not immune and can be primed to act aggressively after viewing violent programs. Boys show slightly stronger effects than girls do, but no demographic group is immune to this type of influence. The evidence on violent video games is less extensive but is growing. Controlled experiments, surveys, and one longitudinal study now document a link between game playing and aggression in children. Again, boys show slightly stronger effects, but they also play more video games and prefer violent content more than girls do.93 Some speculate that video games may be more harmful than television because they are highly involving and often allow players to become violent perpetrators, strengthening the personal identification in this fantasy violence. Yet comparing the effects of television and video games may be less important than looking at a child's overall media diet. As it turns out, youth who are attracted to violence on television are also more likely to play violent video games.94 All of these screen experiences can increase and reinforce the number of aggressive scripts that a child develops in memory.

Social or Relational Aggression
Parents, teachers, and even researchers have been so preoccupied with physical aggression that they have tended to overlook other forms of hostility, especially those that are more social or relational in nature. Social aggression involves harming others' feelings through social exclusion, gossip, or friendship manipulation. This type of behavior begins to emerge as early as the preschool years and is more common among girls than boys.95

The popularity of movies such as Mean Girls and television programs such as Lizzy McGuire, which feature girl friendship struggles, have led some to ask what role the media play in children's social aggression. The topic, however, has attracted little research. One study found incidents of relational aggression in 92 percent of television programs popular with teens.96 Another study found that teens who viewed social aggression on television tended to practice such behavior. 97 Longitudinal research has linked heavy exposure to television violence in childhood to increased social aggression in adult females, even after controlling for childhood aggression, childhood IQ, parental education, parental TV habits, and the socioeconomic status of the family.98 Although these studies are suggestive, it will not be possible to draw conclusions about whether media violence causes this alternative form of childhood aggression until more research is conducted.