Cognitive Daily

Yesterday we reported on the results of studies on the impact of media violence. Today we’ll discuss theoretical implications and responses to those studies, as reported by Craig Anderson et al. in their report “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth.”

Given the fact that there is a significant correlation between media violence and aggression, Anderson and his colleagues believe there are several possible causes. Since humans (and chimpanzees, for that matter) learn a great deal simply through observation and imitation, children may simply be “learning” violent behaviors when they see them on TV or in video games. They are more likely to imitate a behavior when they admire the person doing it, and since kids typically watch shows they like, the impact is exaggerated.

Another cause may be “priming,” the activation of a memory associated with a particular person or object. For example, a child may have seen a baseball bat used as a weapon in a TV show, and then later, be primed to behave aggressively towards an innocent person carrying a baseball bat. If a certain cue is associated with violence often enough, then a person may favor violent solutions when exposed to that cue. Studies have shown that people will behave more aggressively when a weapon is visible to them, even if they are not threatened directly.

Finally, repeated exposure to graphic violence may “desensitize” viewers to the impact of violence or aggression. Desensitization is a physical and emotional response: when people initially are shown violent scenes, they react with unpleasant symptoms, such as nausea or cold sweats, but after repeated exposure, these symptoms diminish. Desensitization is commonly used to treat phobias such as fear of snakes: after repeatedly seeing others successfully handle snake encounters, the unnatural fear response can completely vanish. But when desensitization to violence occurs, it may make people more prone to violent acts.

There has been comparatively little research on the impact of environment and other factors on response to media violence. Age and gender appear to have mixed impacts, and although children with lower IQs appear to view more media violence, the correlations exist for all IQ levels. Parents do appear to have a significant role in the child’s response to media violence: if parents express disapproval or restrict children’s exposure to it, those children are likely to display lower levels of aggression.

One thing is certain: children are exposed to massive amounts of media violence. Nearly all American families with children have a TV, 70 percent have a video game system, and perhaps most surprisingly, more than half of all children have a TV in their bedroom. Children average 4 hours a day at the TV or computer screen. Sixty-one percent of all TV programs feature violence (not including TV news, which would probably raise that figure), and three-quarters of violent scenes depict no negative consequences for violence. The average child will witness 8,000 TV murders by the time he or she finishes elementary school (and perhaps even more video game murders, though no research has quantified this).

Though there have been hundreds of studies demonstrating the link between media violence and aggression, surprisingly little has been done to investigate how to mitigate its impact. One study by Nathanson did find that if parents discourage or disparage violent TV, kids became less aggressive, but if parents watched TV with their kids and said nothing, then aggressive behavior increased. There have been a few systematic efforts in schools to educate children to the impact of television with lessons stretched over the course of the school year, culminating in a 10-day “TV Turnoff” period. This reduced peer reports of aggressive behavior, but not aggression observed by parents or independent observers. However, this effort wasn’t specifically directed at violent TV, so the question remains open.

It’s clear from the research we have discussed in the last few days that media violence is a significant problem. What’s less clear is precisely what to do about it. Aside from the research on parental intervention, little has been done to determine the best way to address the problem. If the goal is to reduce aggression and violence in the greater society, then more resources should be devoted to finding solutions, rather than only adding to the voluminous literature indicating that a problem exists.


  1. #1 Brian
    April 14, 2005

    A few questions. First, what is the metric? What should we be measuring to note the effect of less media violence? Am I looking for fewer fights at school? fewer meetings with guidance counselers? a decrease in the violent crime rate? Better grades? Also, what level of decrease is necessary to see some difference? I would imagine there is some sort of saturation for media influence, such that any more than 3 hours of tv/halo/quake a week is bad, but that 6 hours isn’t noticably worse (in terms of agression increase) than 3.

  2. #2 Steve
    April 15, 2005

    Is there similar research for the filthy content of much of main stream entertainment?

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    April 15, 2005

    Brian, I think the metric would be decreasing the negative outcomes of media violence. So, less aggression and less violence. It wouldn’t be hard to design a study to test the impact of different interventions. My kids had a “TV turn-off week” at school. Why not a TV violence awareness week, and an accompanying study to assess its effectiveness? I didn’t see a lot of studies in the report discussing an effect related to the quantity of media violence consumed, so I suspect simply trying to decrease hours watched probably won’t do the trick.

    Steve, are you talking about pornography? Or simply things like references to sex that you see on sitcoms? There’s been a lot of research on the former, but I suspect not much on the latter.

    It could be that there is a relationship between the tacit acceptance of promiscuity on TV and things like sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy. The difficulty in researching it, I think, would be determining what to measure. References to sex and sexuality are much harder to define than “violence.” Would a chaste kiss between husband and wife count? What about a scene that hinted at an extramarital affair but didn’t actually depict it? Even the tamest Fred and Ginger movie has a subtext that’s all about sex.

  4. #4 Brian
    April 15, 2005

    When you count tv murders (8000 by eighth grade!) what is counted? Maybe I watched the wrong shows growing up, but 2+ media murders a day seems high. Obviously, all the caveats for anecdotal evidence and n’s of one apply. But thinking back, I just don’t remember all that much that would count (in my mind now) as murder/homicide. The forces of cobra always parachuted out of their jets, for example. The A-team, I don’t think, ever actually hit anyone with their guns (perhaps a problem). Do tom and jerry and bugs bunny and cartoons count? And even as dark as the batman cartoons are, there isn’t much blood or death.

  5. #5 Dave Munger
    April 15, 2005

    Brian, I wonder about that myself. One thing that they may be counting is commercials. Also, I do remember watching shows like Kojak, Starsky and Hutch, Fantasy Island, Star Trek, and Columbo as a kid. I think those shows had their fair share of death. I wonder if times have changed a bit since that study, with more channels specifically for kids. But whatever they don’t see on TV anymore is probably made up for with video games.

    Cartoons can also be very violent: cf Road Runner, or Bugs Bunny. I remember a particularly violent (but also hilarious) one where Bugs had two country bumpkins square dancing to his call, and he made them do incredibly mean things to each other. I even found the lyrics online:

    Promenade across the floor
    Sashay right on out the door
    Out the door and in to the glade
    And everybody promenade

    Step right up, you’re doing fine
    I’ll pull your beard, you pull mine
    Yank it again, like you did before
    Break it up with a tug of war

    Now into the brook and fish for the trout
    Dive right in and splash about
    Trout, trout, pretty little trout
    One more splash and come right out

    Shake like a hound dog, shake again
    Wallow around in the old pig pen
    Wallow some more, you all know how
    Roll around like an old fat sow

    Allemande left with your left hand
    Follow through with a right-left grand
    Now lead your partner, the dirty ol’ thing
    Follow through with an elbow swing

    Grab a fence post, hold it tight
    Whomp your partner with all your might
    Hit him in the shin, hit him in the head
    Hit him again, the critter ain’t dead

    Wop him low and wop him high
    Stick your finger in his eye
    Pretty little rhythm, pretty little sound
    Bang your heads against the ground

    Promenade all around the room
    Promenade like a bride and groom
    Open up the door and step right in
    Close the door and into a spin

    Whirl, whirl, twist and twirl
    Jump all around like a flying squirrel
    Now don’t you cuss and don’t you swear
    Just come right out and form a square

    Now right hand over and left hand under
    Both join hands and run like thunder
    Over the hill and over the dale
    Duck your head and lift your tail

    Don’t you stray and don’t you roam
    Turn it around and promenade home
    Corn in the crib pen, wheat in the sack
    Turn your partner, promenade back

    And now you’re home
    Bow to your partner
    Bow to the gent across the hall
    And that is all

  6. #6 mac
    April 21, 2005

    Steve: Define “filthy”

    Brian/Dave This thing about violence is as old as the hills. Growing up in the 50’s the same conversation was held about comic books. In fact it went so far as to ban some, Bugs, et al, in limited areas of the country.

    I doubt there is anything to it. It is all personal prejudice. Let them view it, learn it, get good at it then draft them.

  7. #7 mac
    April 21, 2005

    PS I stepped out for coffee and realized the value of my comment

    I said let them view it, learn it, get good at it then draft ’em.

    The value: The kids get to see what they want, the producers get to make it thus getting money, the Armed Forces meet their requirements and by the time they have put in 25 years most will be dead so their S.S. payments can go to the peaceful ones.

    See, a socialogical question, a financial situation and a political problem all solved at once.

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