Children and Media Violence

The impact of violent media on children and adolescents has been the subject of debate since the advent of mass media, and has involved a complex interplay of policies, politics, research, commercial interest, and public advocacy. The U.S. Congress and federal agencies, prodded by professional organizations and child advocacy groups, have claimed that violence in the entertainment media negatively affects children and have called for more self-regulation and social responsibility by the media industries. The industries, especially television, have responded by criticizing a number of studies on which the claims were based, disputing findings or their interpretations, and pointing to their First Amendment rights.

While the overall U.S. rate of individual homicide has been fairly consistent over the past decades, the rates of homicidal behavior in school-age children have risen sharply. Gun-related homicide among fifteen- to nineteen-year-olds has tripled since 1980. Several highly publicized murders in schools have alarmed the public and politicians.

Youth violence is a complex problem caused by the interaction of many factors, among them ineffective parenting (including inadequate or inappropriate patterns of communication, domestic violence, poor monitoring), drug use, poverty, racism, peer pressure, peer rejection, and violence in the culture. It is difficult to determine the impact of each of these factors because parents have been considered the most potent and prominent force in children's emotional and social development; the role of the media in this process has been under-estimated.

The telecommunications media have become a pervasive feature of American family life and thus a powerful force in the child's socialization and cultural upbringing. As a result, symbolic violence is now recognized as a pressing social issue. The Fifth Annual Survey of Media in the Home (2000) shows that nearly all families have a television set and a VCR, and the majority have a computer and video game equipment. More than half of the children in the survey had a television set in their bedrooms. Children spend an average of four and a half hours per day looking at some form of video screen, half of this time being television.

Such extensive exposure underscores the question of the media's power to shape perceptions and attitudes. Death is not a topic parents like to discuss with their children. Because personal encounters with natural death are less frequent in the early twenty-first century than in previous eras, there are fewer counterbalances to media's violent death themes. In younger children, the distinctions between fantasy and reality are less clear, making them more susceptible to misunderstandings of death. Thus, what is at issue is the media's potential to adversely affect children's perceptions of reality. The high level of violence in entertainment media provides a model for understanding death and grief that is a gross distortion of the demographic facts, and a failure to portray adequately at least part of the pain and suffering a death causes surviving family members and friends. For the entertainment industry, whether in action drama or homicide/detective programs, violent death is a tool to drive tension and propel dramatic action. Pain, suffering, and funeral rituals do not contribute to this kind of plot.

Violence in Television Programming

Scholars have made extensive studies of both the extent of violence and the contexts in which it occurs. Since the 1967 television season, George Gerbner and his associates have analyzed prime-time programming and children's Saturday morning cartoons by network and number of violent acts per hour and have derived the "violence index" and what Gerbner calls the "cultivation effect."

In 1998 Barbara Wilson and her team sampled the entire television landscape (individual programs throughout the day and evening, including sitcoms, sports, and talk shows). They also performed content analyses of violent portrayals, building on factors identified in previous work by George Comstock, who proposed that identifying the contexts in which violent acts occur may help to reveal the potential impact of depicted violence on the child viewer. The analysis of violent content is guided by questions such as:

  • • Is the aggressive behavior on the screen rewarded or punished?
  • • Is the violence gratuitous or justified? Does it have consequences?
  • • Does the child identify with the aggressor or the victim?
  • • Does the child see television violence as realistic?

Two key findings emerged: First, the amount of television violence has been consistently high over the years and has been rising. Nearly twothirds of the programs contain violence, which is most prominent in action dramas and homicide/ detective series. A third of violent programming contains at least nine violent interactions. Nearly one-half of the theatrical films shown on television depict acts of extreme violence (e.g., The Gladiator (Fox), Marked for Death (CBS), and The Rookie (ABC)), some of them containing more than forty scenes of violence.

The amount of violence in prime-time "familyoriented" programs has increased steadily over the years in violation of an agreement reached between network broadcasters and the Federal Communications Commission in the 1970s. Children are frequent viewers of prime-time and other programs designed for adults.

Violent incidents are highest in children's programming, with an average of twenty to twenty-five acts per hour. What mainly distinguishes children's cartoons from adult programs is that animated characters are repeatedly smashed, stabbed, run over, and pushed off high cliffs, but they do not stay dead for long. The portrayal of death as temporary and the characters as indestructible reinforces young viewers' immature understanding of death.

The second key finding is that the contexts in which most violence is presented also poses risks for the child viewers. Most violent incidents involve acts of aggression rather than threats: Perpetrators are frequently portrayed as attractive characters and heroes rather than as villains; perpetrators and victims are predominantly male; most violence is committed for personal gain or out of anger; and most violent acts do not have consequences—that is, they portray little or no pain and suffering by victims or survivors. In nearly three-fourths of the violent scenes, there is no punishment of the aggressor, no remorse or condemnation; some acts are even rewarded. In children's cartoons, humor is a predominant contextual feature.

There is a striking contrast in the depiction of death in the entertainment media: In prime-time action drama death is often glamorized, and in children's cartoons it is trivialized; depictions in both types of programs are a misrepresentation of real life and death.

Effects on Children

Most studies are based on social learning theory, pioneered by psychologist Albert Bandura, particularly the principle of observational learning called "modeling." Models can be physical, involving real people, or symbolic, involving verbal, audio, or visual representations, or combinations of these. Modeling is recognized as one of the most powerful means of transmitting values, attitudes, and patterns of thought and behavior. According to modeling theory, television violence has negative effects on children, particularly when the perpetrators are attractive characters and are not punished, and when there is little pain and suffering by the victims.

Two distinct methodological approaches, correlational and experimental, have been employed. Correlational studies seek to determine whether exposure to television violence is indeed related to young viewers' behavior and attitudes and also tries to measure the strength of such relationships. However, a correlation between the two variables does not establish a cause-effect relationship. Violence in the media may lead a child viewer to aggressive behavior, but also an aggressive child may like to watch violent media.

The experimental method involves the manipulation of filmed or televised aggression shown to children. Most experimental studies are carried out in the laboratory. Children are randomly assigned to an experimental group that is shown aggressive videos and to a control group that is shown nonviolent programming, and then children are observed on the playground or in similar social settings to find out whether there are differences in the behavior between the two groups. The strength of experimental studies lies in their ability to attribute direct causality. Experimental studies can also be longitudinal, carried out in natural contexts or "the field." A widely known field experiment reported by Leslie Joy, Ann Kimball, and Merle Zabrack in 1986 involved children in three rural Canadian communities before and after the introduction of television in towns receiving either the government-owned channel (CBC), U.S. networks, or a combination. Children were studied in first and second grades and re-evaluated two years later.

The extensive research literature was reviewed in 1972 by the Surgeon General's Advisory Commission, in 1982 by the National Institute of Mental Health, and in 1993 by the American Psychological Association's Commission on Violence and Youth. Their reports and those of more recent investigations are consistent across time, methods, child populations, and funding sources. Key findings show the following:

  1. There is a causal link between the viewing of televised violence and the subsequent aggressive behavior and attitudes in children who are frequent viewers of violent episodes, ranging from preschool to late adolescence. These children are more likely to model their behavior after aggressors in the programs than those who watch infrequently, particularly when the aggressors are depicted as attractive and get away without punishment, and when there is no apparent pain and suffering on the part of the victims. Children who have few positive role models in their lives are more vulnerable than those who do.
  2. Aggressive behavior and attitudes are learned at young ages and can result in lifelong violence unless there are interventions.
  3. Violent behavior is a preventable problem. There is a wide availability of broad-based programs. Reduction in media violence and access to media violence are a component of these programs.
  4. Frequent viewing of television violence leads to the belief that such violence is an accurate portrayal of real life, resulting in an exaggerated fear of violence from others. Fear stemming from watching scary media may be immediate and short-term but can also be enduring.
  5. Prolonged viewing of filmed and televised violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward actual violence. Because young viewers tend to identify with the perpetrator and violent episodes seldom depict pain and suffering, there is a blunting of viewers' empathy for the victims and a reduced willingness and readiness to help.

Considering the finite amount of time in a child's day, frequent exposure to violent media content affects children's behaviors, attitudes, and perceptions while depriving them of opportunities for viewing equivalent amounts of prosocial behaviors as viable solutions to interpersonal problems.

Government Policies to Benefit Child Viewers

Major policy battles over programming for children date back to the Communications Act of 1934 and to policies adopted in 1974 and 1990. Health professionals and private advocacy groups led the U.S. Congress to enact the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which mandates that parental guidelines and procedures be established by the industries for rating upcoming video programming; that parents be provided technological tools that allow them to block violent content ("V-chip"); and that regularly scheduled programming designed for children be developed. To gain license renewal, every broadcast station in the country is required to air a minimum of three hours per week of children's programming—this is known as the "three-hour rule."

Studies evaluating industry compliance with the Telecommunications Act show the following:

  1. The broadcasting, cable, and program production industries have developed a rating system for children's and general programming, the "TV Parental Guidelines." It was found to be adequate for general classification but lacking in specific content categories that would guide parents. In addition, the "TV Parental Guidelines" are inadequately publicized.
  2. V-chips have been installed in new televisions since 2000.
  3. Commercial broadcasters appear to be complying with the three-hour rule. However, a fourth of the programs were found to be of questionable educational value, with most of them clustered around Saturday and weekday mornings; less than a tenth were during after-school hours and none during prime time, when children are most likely to watch television.
  4. Children's programs sampled in this study contained less violence than those aired in the past.

Feature Films, Home Videos, and Electronic Games

Experts agree the violence level found in feature films exceeds that on television. For years violent films have been among the top box-office draws in movie theaters across the country. Although the film industry rates films by age groups, local movie theaters often fail to adequately check ticket buyers' ages. Community standards for what is an acceptable level of violence have changed over the years. Many parents are more lenient or less concerned about possible negative influences. Parents can also be observed taking their preadolescent children and even young children to see feature films deemed unsuitable for children by the film industry's own ratings system. Home videos remain largely unrated. Studies have shown that parents are only slightly concerned that their children seek out extremely violent home videos.

Public health and advocacy groups are alarmed at the extent of violence in video games (among them Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers, and Ground Zero Texas). Interactive media may have an even greater impact on children than the more passive media forms. According to a 2000 Federal Trade Commission Report, "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children," the graphics in video games are approaching motion-picture quality, making them more realistic and exciting. Many parents are unfamiliar with the content of the video games that their children play in arcades or purchase and play at home.

Television News

Television news has become a major source of information for children as well as adults; most children rank it as a more reliable source than teachers, parents, and peers. There is news coverage throughout the day and evening, with frequent repetitions and "breaking news." Because of the

Sixty percent of the audience for interactive games, like this video hockey game, are children. The electronic gaming industry has voluntarily begun to rate its products, although rating labels and advisories are widely ignored by distributors and retailers. CORBIS
Sixty percent of the audience for interactive games, like this video hockey game, are children. The electronic gaming industry has voluntarily begun to rate its products, although rating labels and advisories are widely ignored by distributors and retailers.
capability for instant communication across the globe, an enormous number of events are potentially "newsworthy." Because most news programs are owned by the major conglomerates in the entertainment industry, an attendant blurring of news and entertainment values exists.

The major networks and cable companies are highly competitive. In all news programs there is a bias toward over-reporting dramatic events. Improved technologies for visual reconstruction or recreation of events make the portrayals more graphic. Depictions of violent actions and events are not balanced with representations of others that are positive and constructive. The merging of news and entertainment (e.g., the "docu-drama") may blur the distinction between fantasy and reality. Learning to distinguish between fantasy and reality is an important developmental task for the young child.

Media coverage of violent behavior in children seems particularly high, causing fears and alarm and unwittingly contributing to distorted perceptions in parents, children, and the public about the rates and incidence of youthful homicidal behaviors. Extensive attention to such behavior in the news tends to lead other young people to copy such acts.

Suggestions for Parents

While most scientists conclude that children learn aggressive attitudes and behavior from violent media content, they also agree that parents can be a powerful force in moderating, mediating, and reducing such influence.

Talking about real deaths. Parents can help their children deal with death as a natural and normal process by permitting them to share their thoughts and fears about death, answering questions honestly, and allowing children to participate in the care of ill and dying family members, in funerals and memorial services, and during the grieving process.

Being informed. Parents need to know the major risk factors associated with media violence. They should become familiar with the programs and video games that their children favor and with existing parental guidelines, ratings, and advisories. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) publishes the "TV Parental Guidelines" on its web site at . Information on activating and programming the V-chip is available through the V-Chip Education web site at . The National Institute on Media and the Family, an independent nonprofit organization, has developed a universal rating system that applies to video games, TV programs, and films, and can be found at .

Setting limits. A 2001 study by Thomas Robinson and colleagues shows that reducing children's television and video game use reduces aggressive behavior. The V-chip can be used to block out content that parents deem potentially harmful. In family discussion, parents may set up rules for extent, times, and types of media interaction by children.

Mediation and intervention. Mediation and intervention may be the most effective antidotes to media violence. Parents who watch television with their children can discern their children's preferences and level of understanding. This coparticipation provides an opportunity for parents to counteract violent messages in drama programs by pointing to their fictional nature. Watching the news with children enables parents to provide perspective and comfort, convey their values, and encourage their children to watch programs that demonstrate prosocial behavior. Family oriented activities away from the mass media can provide a healthy alternative to the violence-saturated airwaves and video games that increasingly dominate the consciousness of the youth of the United States.

See also: Children ; Grief: Family ; Homicide, Epidemiology of ; Literature for Children


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Internet Resources

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