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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

Risk Factors for Media Effects on Youth

The modest effect sizes charted in figure 1 suggest that other variables interact with or modify the media's influence. As I have noted along the way, one such variable is the age or developmental level of the child. Television violence seems to have the strongest impact on preschool children, in part because they are still learning social norms and inhibitions against behaving aggressively. Prosocial effects of watching television are strongest for slightly older children, peaking at about age seven or eight. Prosocial lessons are often conveyed more subtly in the media and therefore require more advanced cognitive skills to decipher. The influence of media on fear and anxiety is common throughout childhood, although the types of content that upset children differ with age. Younger children are frightened more by fantasy portrayals; older elementary school children and preteens, more by realistic content, including the news.

Another important variable is a child's perception of how real the media are. Children differ in the degree to which they believe that what they see on the screen is realistic.119 When media storylines seem realistic, children are likely to pay closer attention to what they are watching and presumably exert more cognitive effort in processing the information. Shows perceived as being real may also encourage children to imagine themselves in the characters' place. And indeed, television violence has a heightened effect on children who perceive television as realistic.120 On the other hand, children who are able to discount television as unrealistic will have a less intense fear reaction to a scary television portrayal.121

Another variable in children's susceptibility to the media is the extent to which they identify with characters and real people featured on the screen. Children begin developing attachments to favorite media characters during the preschool years.122 Fondness for media characters can last throughout childhood and adolescence. In one survey nearly 40 percent of teens named a media figure as their role model—nearly the same share that named a parent or relative.123 Consistent with social cognitive theory, children are more likely to learn from those they perceive as attractive role models. Strongly identifying with violent characters, for example, makes children more likely to learn aggression from the media.124 Identifying with victims of tragedy also enhances children's fear responses to news stories.125