What watching violent movies does to kids' brains

i-b85e390ba740ddadc820454f2b215090-rocky.jpgOne of the first questions our son Jim asks when a new movie comes out is "what's it rated?" The more "adult" the rating, the more appealing the movie is to him: PG is the lowest rating he'll even consider, PG-13 is better, and R is best. Since he's only 14, we don't take him to many R-rated movies, which is possibly what adds to their appeal.

But even PG-rated movies and TV shows still display an abundance of violence, and plenty of parents are happy to let their kids watch violent programming, especially if there isn't any sex involved. We've reported on a lot of media violence studies on Cognitive Daily, (for a summary of the effects of violent media on youth, see here, here, and here), but it still came as a surprise to us that until now, there hadn't been a brain activation study of children exposed to media violence.

A team led by John Murray has addressed that deficiency with a new experiment on 8- to 12-year-olds. They began by pre-screening 40 children by monitoring physiological responses to violent videos. They selected 15 children who showed similar responses to the videos: they were "accelerators," whose heart rate increased when viewing violence. This would allow them to more easily compare brain responses in the second phase of the study.

These 15 children were monitored by an fMRI machine while they watched three different videos: scenes from the PBS children's show Ghostwriter, a National Geographic nature show, and the over-the-top Stallone vehicle Rocky IV (albeit the edited for TV-version). To get a baseline level, the kids also spent some time viewing a figure X on a blue screen. Seven of the results had to be discarded because the kids moved around too much during the test, but the other eight fMRI scans provided significant results.

The fMRI scan provides a three-dimensional image of all brain activity. Since the brain is active in many different regions, the first thing the researchers had to do is isolate the activity that was different while kids watched videos. This was done by subtracting the values of brain activity while watching the fixed X from the activity while watching videos (Viol - Fix and Non Viol - Fix in the figure below). To compare violent versus non-violent videos, the researchers subtracted the non-violent brain activity from the violent brain activity.


This picture shows three different slices of the brain, viewed from overhead. The front of the brain is at the top of the images. Each row corresponds to a particular level of the brain, at a specified level (the z values indicate the relative distance from the center of the brain). For the most part, similar regions of the brain are activated, corresponding to the visual and auditory areas of the brain. But when we look at the difference between violent and non-violent scans, those areas are mostly cancelled out, and we are left with images showing the differences between viewing violent and non-violent videos.

The next set of images shows only the difference between the violent and non-violent videos, which was the focus of this study.


These images move progressively lower in the brain, showing differences at eight levels. The differences in the paralymbic area (marked Par) in the right hemisphere indicate that the violent videos used significantly more emotional processing. The posterior cingulate nucleus (PCg) was also activated, indicating emotional memory retrieval. The hippocampus (Hipp) activation indicates episodic memory storage, suggesting violent videos are more likely to be remembered. Finally, the right amygdala (Amg), the center of the fear reflex, was also activated.

Murray et al. argue that the activation of primitive regions of the brain such as the amygdala suggest that though children may be aware that violent media present no real danger, their brain's response is identical to situations when a real threat is present. The amygdala is also active in impulsive aggressive individuals, suggesting that children may have little control over their response to violent media. Since long-term memory regions are also affected by violent videos, it's possible that the effects of the videos extend beyond the viewing period.

Murray's team cautions that their study results may not be generalizable. They studied only one type of violence, and didn't compare it to an equally arousing nonviolent video, so perhaps the effects they observed are due to arousal rather than violence.

These results are certainly consistent with Jim's behavior and preference for more violent movies, however. What they can't explain is why, other than to see James Brown's catchy anthem "Living in America," so many people paid $7 to watch a film whose focus was two men pummelling each other while engaging in inane, monosyllabic dialog such as Dolph Lundgren's "I defeat all man."

Murray, J.P., Liotti, M., Ingmundson, P.T., Mayberg, H.S., Pu, Y., Zamarripa, F., Liu, Y., Woldorff, M.G., Gao, J., and Fox, P.T. (2006). Children's brain activations while viewing televised violence revealed by fMRI. Media Psychology, 8, 25-37.


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You would think with all the parental concern about how televised sex and violence affects children there would be lots more research being done on this topic. I can't imagine that it is hard to get grants from either the government or parent organizations.

Of course, most television/movie/video game companies would want to keep researchers away from the topic for fear that it would hurt their business.

Has any similar study ever been done on the sexy part of evil? Why are sex scenes considered harmful to children? I can understand the naive consideration "he sees violence, he'll get violent", but how does this apply to sex scenes?

By dementrio (not verified) on 08 Feb 2006 #permalink

Dennis --

Well, there are sex scenes, and there are sex scenes. What about a passionate kiss -- would that be morally wrong? I think it might be interesting to do a study of PG-rated sex scenes. After all, we're talking about PG-rated violence.

Looks like the brain finds the violent scenes much more exciting and memorable than the non-violent (or the X for that matter). No wonder we love it so much! Why isn't this on the cover of the times!!!

Seriously, I love how 90% of these cutting-edge neuroscience studies that just confirm what a little old-fashioned intropection could have told us. This is why psychology moves at a snail's pace.

And as for the moral implications, damage to children's fluffy little minds and all that (well the ones that aren't getting beat up at school like I was), that's up to parents to decide. I hope this kind of research isn't used to sanction more government censorship. I hate to see science aiding the religious right.

By James Gambrell (not verified) on 09 Feb 2006 #permalink

Hmmm... so introspection is all we need, huh? Then we probably want to head back to the psychology of the middle ages, when it was believed that a tiny little man inside your brain was responsible for thinking. Vision was accomplished by shooting invisible rays out of your eyes. Yes, good ol' introspection, the most reliable research method around!

Mr. Munger,
Well first of all, as you well know "Introspection" in psychology refers to the 19th century practice, made famous by no less a personage than the father of experimental psychology, Wilhelm Wundt!

This school of psychology was a dominant force until the era of behaviorism. Now, it could be argued that the dominant approach today, cognitive psychology, is really a blending of these two schools. Therefore I would expect the writer of "Cognitive Daily" to be more respectful of this historical school! To reject intropection entirely is nessesarily to be a strict behaviorist, or a solipsist. You have no alternative way of infering that other people have thoughts, feelings, or consciousness besides introspection.

Just for the record, real middle-ages style psychology would have to be some kind of dogmatic study of Aristotelian teachings or other authoritative texts, not intropection.

But anyway, the point I was making was just that you don't need a brain scan to know that violent content as opposed to otherwise similiar non-violent content makes stimuli (quoting from the post):
"more emotional"
"more likely to be remembered"
and to paraphase "fear inducing"

The thing is, its very easy for people to look at posts like this and see justification for censoring video games, violent movies, etc. When in fact there is no consensus in the scientific community over what to make of these kinds of studies. Its not at all clear how to interpret the meaning of bits of the brain lighting up in response to stimuli beyond vague statements like "emotional response", "long term memory activated". Statements like these could apply to almost anything. And anyway, why would you want to watch something if you weren't going to get an emotional response out of it or remember it? And couldn't this be a good thing? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catharsis)

I just think there should be a lot more caveats and clarifications about what these scans show and what they really mean. Too much vague media violence research gets misconstrued too easily, and people jump to conclusions light-years beyond actual research findings. The truth of the matter is that science cannot offer meaningful, reliable, trustworthy analyses of media influence because media and culture simply change too fast for consensus to develop. What are the effects of Gilligan's Island or the atari 2600 on our youth? We will never know. Thus these studies are little more than political fodder.

P.S. One more thing I just have to add in response to your comment. Despite claims to the contrary, today's psychology has not really killed off the homunculous inside our heads, and cannot do so until it can articulate a full understanding and explanation of consciousness. Philosophy of mind is not a "seperate issue" that can be just set aside during brain research.

By James Gambrell (not verified) on 09 Feb 2006 #permalink


I'll not comment on your analysis of the history of psychology, since that's more Greta's area. I did want to focus in on one quote of yours:

"its very easy for people to look at posts like this and see justification for censoring video games, violent movies, etc."

I agree with you; people could do that. They could also read the Bible and do that, or use "introspection" and do that. Personally I don't advocate government censorship of any of those things. I do believe that when people know what's going on inside their brains or their children's brains when they are exposed to violent media, they are better prepared to make good decisions about what media to consume. That's not the same thing as advocating censorship.

One more thing: using your logic, someone might read your comments and use them as an excuse to advocate censorship of research on media violence. Do you think that's a valid criticism of your comments?

because it would just be morally wrong to allow a child to see that.

Why? In many cultures families live in the same house and frequently see the relatives couple. It would seem to me a child raised in an environment where sex is seen as part of the household would not see it as something to be shunned.

What I never understand is why some people will find sex/violence objectionable while at the same time taking a child to church and indoctrinating their version of 'hell' into them. That to me is more 'immoral'.

I dont consider kids going to church immoral opposing to kids watching violent films. Thats nonsense. Heres a fact, why does America have one of the most shootings and homocides in the world. How would you explain this? Easy, The media breaks all of us down by creating fear, and by having fear hardwired in our mind we would naturally react out of our emotion.

im hannah and im 14 and i think its fine watching 18 movies iv neva ad a prbz wid it so fuk off sayin its bad

i just want to say that i believe that it is up to the person watching the movie or playing a violent video game to decide what they want to to with the information they have recieved. i found your site because i was looking for charts on a paper i have to write about violence in the media and the effects of it.

my name is Jake, im 12, and i honestly think that violence and such is a good thing, if scary movies were not bloody or violent what fun would it be to wacth them? i would probably never wacth another movie without violence so i say we should leave it just the way it is. If people are dumb enough to try to try out the violence in movies thats their fault not the medias.