Pediatric Annals

Does Violent Television Produce Aggressive Children?

Dorothy G Singer, EdD

Abstract

"Children, at least those in the United States are growing up in an environment in which babies and toddiers must not only process the shapes, contours, and objects in their own rooms or decode and imitate the sounds and gestures of the adults and siblings around them; they must also relate to a small box on which figures leap, dance, laugh, scream, destroy each other, and urge purchases of food and toys."1

Given the fact that school-aged children in the United States watch approximately ^Vi to 5 hours of television per day,2 it seems reasonable to expect that television would have some impact on their behavior. Effects, both positive and negative have been summarized in the 1982 update of the Surgeon General's earlier report of 1972. 3 The object of this article is to summarize the major results in the area of aggression and to make recommendations concerning such findings in order that parents and health providers may mitigate the effects of TV violence.

A major conclusion of the 1972 report was that fairly substantial evidence existed for a short-run causation of aggression among some children by viewing violence on the screen. However, much less certain evidence existed from field studies indicating that extensive violence viewing preceded some long-run manifestations of aggressive behavior. These two types of evidence constituted some preliminary indication of a causal relationship, but it was clear from the 1972 report that more research needed to be carried out. Since 1970, over 2,500 studies have been published dealing with television with more than two-thirds of these published since 1975. According to Comstock, about 50 laboratory experiments published before 1972 demonstrated that a positive relation between violence viewing and immediate aggression existed.4 Since then, there have been more laboratory studies, and some field studies that have substantiated these data. Although the evidence accumulated since 1970 seems clear that televised violence and aggression are positively correlated, we are less certain about which processes produce such correlations. Five processes have been postulated: 1) observational learning, 2) catharsis, 3) physical arousal, 4) attitude changes, and 5) justification processes.5

OBSERVATIONAL LEARNING PROCESS

There is a solid body of research evidence suggesting that children who see someone rewarded for a particular kind of behavior are more likely to imitate this behavior.6 Just as children learn intellectual and social skills from imitating parents, peers and teachers, they can learn aggressive behavior from watching characters on television. In our own work, we have found that heavy viewing of action adventure or cartoon shows is linked to overt aggression in preschool children. Typically in such research, records of television viewing are kept by parents, and data about aggression are obtained through various methods such as interviews with parents, ratings of children by teachers, and observation of children by trained research assistants who rate the children according to careful definitions of aggression. Neither the preferential-viewing hypothesis nor the family aggression patterns could explain our results. 7,8

In general, field studies consistently indicate that children who watch a lot of television, especially the more violent shows and violent cartoons, are more aggressive in their behavior.7,9,10 One of the first such studies to implicate observational learning and aggression was by Lefkowitz et al. u Following this important study, researchers in five countries: the United States, Australia, Finland, Poland and Holland, have been tracking large samples of school-aged children.12 Results from the United States, Australia, Finland and Poland thus far suggest that significant positive relations exist between television violence viewing and peer- nominated aggressive behavior. Simple frequency of television viewing correlated highly with aggressiveness. Even when intelligence and social class…

"Children, at least those in the United States are growing up in an environment in which babies and toddiers must not only process the shapes, contours, and objects in their own rooms or decode and imitate the sounds and gestures of the adults and siblings around them; they must also relate to a small box on which figures leap, dance, laugh, scream, destroy each other, and urge purchases of food and toys."1

Given the fact that school-aged children in the United States watch approximately ^Vi to 5 hours of television per day,2 it seems reasonable to expect that television would have some impact on their behavior. Effects, both positive and negative have been summarized in the 1982 update of the Surgeon General's earlier report of 1972. 3 The object of this article is to summarize the major results in the area of aggression and to make recommendations concerning such findings in order that parents and health providers may mitigate the effects of TV violence.

A major conclusion of the 1972 report was that fairly substantial evidence existed for a short-run causation of aggression among some children by viewing violence on the screen. However, much less certain evidence existed from field studies indicating that extensive violence viewing preceded some long-run manifestations of aggressive behavior. These two types of evidence constituted some preliminary indication of a causal relationship, but it was clear from the 1972 report that more research needed to be carried out. Since 1970, over 2,500 studies have been published dealing with television with more than two-thirds of these published since 1975. According to Comstock, about 50 laboratory experiments published before 1972 demonstrated that a positive relation between violence viewing and immediate aggression existed.4 Since then, there have been more laboratory studies, and some field studies that have substantiated these data. Although the evidence accumulated since 1970 seems clear that televised violence and aggression are positively correlated, we are less certain about which processes produce such correlations. Five processes have been postulated: 1) observational learning, 2) catharsis, 3) physical arousal, 4) attitude changes, and 5) justification processes.5

OBSERVATIONAL LEARNING PROCESS

There is a solid body of research evidence suggesting that children who see someone rewarded for a particular kind of behavior are more likely to imitate this behavior.6 Just as children learn intellectual and social skills from imitating parents, peers and teachers, they can learn aggressive behavior from watching characters on television. In our own work, we have found that heavy viewing of action adventure or cartoon shows is linked to overt aggression in preschool children. Typically in such research, records of television viewing are kept by parents, and data about aggression are obtained through various methods such as interviews with parents, ratings of children by teachers, and observation of children by trained research assistants who rate the children according to careful definitions of aggression. Neither the preferential-viewing hypothesis nor the family aggression patterns could explain our results. 7,8

In general, field studies consistently indicate that children who watch a lot of television, especially the more violent shows and violent cartoons, are more aggressive in their behavior.7,9,10 One of the first such studies to implicate observational learning and aggression was by Lefkowitz et al. u Following this important study, researchers in five countries: the United States, Australia, Finland, Poland and Holland, have been tracking large samples of school-aged children.12 Results from the United States, Australia, Finland and Poland thus far suggest that significant positive relations exist between television violence viewing and peer- nominated aggressive behavior. Simple frequency of television viewing correlated highly with aggressiveness. Even when intelligence and social class are taken into account by statistical methods, a clear-cut link between aggressiveness and television viewing persists. In our own studies, we have looked at family life patterns to see if children from families that were more aggressive in discipline or under greater stress might be more aggressive and watch television more. We did find that parents who used physical punishment or "power-assertive" or coercive discipline had children who were aggressive, but heavy television viewing, especially of programs with violent content, predicted aggressive behavior a year or two later even when family patterns were taken into account statistically. Leonard Eron and Rowell Huesmann at the University of Illinois reported that television viewing at age 10 predicts aggressive behavior 20 years later. Similarly a five-year longitudinal study involving 732 children demonstrated that television viewing was positively related to aggression.13

CATHARSIS PROCESS

The psychoanalyticatly-derived catharsis theory implies that drives can be discharged through fantasy or through vicarious participation (eg, watching a football game or prize fight would reduce one's aggression). It is conceivable that a child's aggressiveness could be reduced by exposure to violent programming. Under certain conditions, with consequences of violence portrayed, or discussed and with certain kinds of content, it is possible that a child might not imitate the violence viewed. Nevertheless, practically all evidence suggests that imitation of behavior rather than reduction of aggressive behavior occurs after television violence viewing. In one study, children's frequency of aggressive fantasy was measured by a self-report inventory and found to be positively correlated with their peer-rated aggressiveness. 14 In this study, the fantasies of aggression did not serve to reduce the overt behavior. It may be that fantasizing offers opportunities for aggression rehearsal, and later the behaviors are displayed.

Certainly the catharsis theory cannot explain the results of a study by Ellis and Sekyra.15 First graders were randomly assigned to three groups viewing a football contest, an aggressive cartoon, or a neutral film. Results indicated that those children in the aggressive cartoon group emitted significantly more hostile acts than subjects in the other two conditions. In another study of the impact of television on a community before and after television was introduced, Williams found that children who were highly exposed to television increased in aggression while those who were in the low exposure groups decreased in aggressive attitude.16 If one accepted the catharsis notion, their results would be drastically different.

Thus we are finding that observational learning supersedes the catharsis effect. Children are prone to imitate or model behaviors. Eron, however, suggests that once a child attains adolescence, his/her aggressive habits would be difficult to change with modeling because of predispositions and inhibitory controls.17 Some researchers disagree and suggest that modeling may actually increase among adolescent boys.18 Belson, for example, in his study of adolescent boys in London, found that heavy viewers of television were more aggressive than lighter viewers.9 Erikson's fifth stage of development, Identity vs. Role Confusion is characterized by a search for models and by the question "Who Am 1 to Be?" A look at adolescents* clothing, hairstyles and drinking habits appear to corroborate the continuation of modeling behavior well into the teens. With the recent popularity of Music Video, imitation of rock stars' clothes and hairstyles is apparent. Thus one might expect some behaviors will be imitated by this group just as they are by younger children.

"They've removed the violence. He's become violent about it."

"They've removed the violence. He's become violent about it."

ATTITUDE CHANGE PROCESS

Children's attitudes toward aggressive behavior are affected by the kinds of programs they watch. We adduce our rules, attributions, and explanations from observed behavior. If a child watches a program where even the "good guys" triumph by violent fights or gunshooting, he or she may come to believe that violence is condoned in society. Gerbner and Gross found for example, that the more a person watches TV, the more he is likely to believe that the world is a hostile, scary place. 19 We have found in our work, that children who watch considerable amounts of television not only are aggressive, extremely restless, and have less imagination, but their view of the world is a "mean and scary" one.20

Experiments by Drabman and Thomas have indicated that brief exposure to violent films can increase a child's willingness to accept aggressive behavior in other children.21·22 ZiIl reported an association between beliefs of a "mean world" and television viewing. 23 Similarly, Greenberg found that greater viewing of violence is positively associated with attitudes favorable to the use of violence. 24 Other researchers have found a positive association among Australian adolescents between exposure to television and the degree of violence perceived in the world, and in accord with Gerbner's "mean world index. "25 Gerbner and Gross suggested that persons who viewed more hours of television frequently selected statistics more in accord with the television world than the real world. 19 These statistics described such .aspects of the world as the proportions of people engaged in such professions as law enforcement and entertainment; the risk of falling victim to a crime or assault; and the proportions of people who are US citizens.

Finally, in a demonstration of how attitudes can mitigate the effect of violence, Huesmann et al introduced a clever device in their longitudinal study.26 After the first wave of measurements, the upper quartile of children on TV violence viewing were selected and randomly divided into two groups, an experimental group and a placebo group. The experimental group received three sessions dealing with the unrealistic nature of TV violence. Material was presented to demonstrate how problems could have been solved without resorting to violence. The placebo group was shown non-violent educational segments followed by discussion. At the beginning of the third year, experimental subjects were instructed to write a paragraph on "why television violence is unrealistic and why viewing too much of it is bad." There was further opportunity for rewriting of the paragraphs; the children were taped reading their paragraphs; and watched a tape of themselves and classmates reading the material. The placebo group made a tape of what they had done last summer^ After this intervention, six months later, final data were collected. The aggression score for the experimental group (N = 61) obtained through peer-nomination was significantly lower than for the placebo group (N = 62). Evidently changes in children's attitudes could be achieved through intervention techniques.

AROUSAL PROCESS

A special property of American television is the rapid pace of presentation of material with its constant cuts, interruptions, shifts in sound level and special effects. The camera uses fades, zooms; we hear loud music, see a variety of characters and scenes in a short amount of time, and we are exposed to numerous rapid-fire commercials. There is an emphasis on most action/adventure shows on physical action, car chases, shoot-outs, fist fights. Even in programs that are directed to children, we see stimuli that are disorganizing such as the animated super-hero cartoons with their special effects and weird creatures. Data from a longitudinal study suggested that even Sesame Street, a much lauded program, but one that has copied the short commercial format, is linked to aggressive behavior and restlessness in preschoolers who viewed that program several times in one day.7 Research by Wright and Huston attempted to separate content and what they call the perceptually salient features of television such as intensity, contrast, change, novelty, incongruity and surprise. 27 All of these are used to elicit attention of the viewer. When these features are varied along with program content and when violent content is eliminated, children will still attend to a program. These researchers suggest that television producers could eliminate much of the violent content from their programs without reducing the viewers' interest. Under some circumstances, however, high rates of salient formal features can stimulate aggression in children.27

One might argue that frequent viewing of violence might lead to desensi fixation. There are some indications in experimental laboratory studies that subjects who viewed heavy doses of aggressive material displayed less physiological arousal to new scenes of violence. 28,29 Even with such reports of habituation, it is difficult to prove that persistent viewing of violent programs would reduce the future probability of aggressive behavior. Zillmann's many studies demonstrate that when a subject is aroused, it is more likely that aggressive behavior will result than not.30'32 This is in keeping with the work of Zajonc who states that once a higher level of arousal is achieved, the most likely behaviors to be emitted are those we can retrieve most readily from memory. î3 If these are the behaviors related to heavy television viewing, then aggression will result. It may be that the desensitized viewer needs to behave in a more aggressive way in order to reach an appropriate level of self-arousal. Certainly this is in keeping with the notion that there is an optimal level of arousal which each individual finds most satisfying.34

We have found that programs such as variety and game shows, along with cartoons and action/adventure shows elicit aggressive behaviors in young children.8 Upon examination, many of these game and variety shows have material or incidents that may not affect an adult, but seem exciting and disturbing to a preschooler. The screams of the audience in a game show; the frenetic behavior of the contestants; and the suspense generated by the music confuse a young child who is unable to process the events as readily as an adult. Thus, the heavy viewing of material that is stimulating and exciting may lead to negative behaviors at a later time depending upon motivation and setting.

JUSTIFICATION PROCESS

The justification theory postulates that people who are already aggressive watch programs that are violent because they can then justify their own behavior. If, for example, one's favorite hero uses his nsts or drives a car in a reckless fashion, then it is easy to rationalize behavior that is similar in real life. This theory would satisfy those who believe that watching television violence is a result of aggressive behavior rather than a cause. There is very little empirical research that can support the justification theory. One study by Fenigstein found that subjects who were told to think about aggressive words later chose aggressive films for viewing.35 We have tried in our longitudinal study to explore this justification theory by using statistical techniques to determine over time whether heavy television viewing by preschoolers increased their aggression measured three months later compared to whether their aggression increased the amount of television viewing measured three months later. We found that the amount of television viewing remained constant, while the amount of aggression increased as a result of the viewing patterns of these children.8 Records of television viewing were kept by the parents in a natural setting.

SUMMARY

We suspect that people who choose to watch television violence may in part be attracted to these shows, not necessarily because they are aggressive people themselves, but because the programs offer escape and adventure. Unfortunately, the data demonstrate that heavy viewing of televised violence does indeed affect the overt behaviors of some people. One study by Milavsky and colleagues at NBC failed to support the results of over a dozen other studies reported in the Technical Reviews issued in 1982. 36 In the NBC study, some of the most aggressive boys had dropped out early thus limiting the range available for statistical purposes. In general, even the findings of this study were in accord with other studies suggesting a link between television viewing and aggressive behavior.

While correlations range from .15 to .30 in the many studies measuring the effects of television violence viewing and aggression and though the statistical associations are small and account for perhaps 10% of the possible influences on aggression, such a small effect of television viewing cannot be minimized when we consider the millions of children watching television. Even the small incremental effect of television viewing on the level of aggression in thousands of children must be taken seriously as indeed the National Institute of Mental Health report suggests.

SUGGESTIONS FOR TELEVISION CONTROL

We have written numerous articles and books including practical suggestions for parents and educators concerning the controls of television and how it can be used in a positive manner (Yale University Family Television Research and Consultation Center. Bibliography of Articles and Books). Briefly, the pediatrician can advise the caregivers of young children to set up a TV schedule allowing limited times for TV viewing each day. Parents may want to use a television guide in their newspaper to find out what shows are suitable for their children according to age. Previewing programs before the child sees them is one way of ascertaining their appropriateness. Not only should hours of viewing be controlled, but obviously the kinds of programs children watch. Finally, parents or caregivers should discuss program content. This affords an opportunity to explain some of the material, clear-up misunderstandings, and even tie content into a child's own experiences.

Teachers may want to use some of the many published curricula that have been prepared by researchers and educators in order to teach children how to become more critical consumers of television. At Yale University, we developed such a program consisting of eight lessons called Getting the Most Out of TV37 geared for elementary school-aged children. Each lesson is designed to fit into a language arts or social studies curriculum. Topics cover not only aggression and violence on television, but stereotypes, commercials, the news, reality and fantasy, and how a television program is actually produced and conveyed into the home. Videotapes accompany the lessons and a teacher's manual is available. Activities are provided for both classroom and homework. Our hope is that schools will begin to teach about the medium that occupies a substantial part of a child's daily life.

The television industry has a major responsibility in determining the degree and kind of violent programs currently available. We urge writers, producers, and directors to think about whether or not an aggressive act glorifies a character and presents him or her as a hero. Are consequences of a violent act portrayed? Does the viewer see the pain and suffering that follow such an act or is the viewer made aware of the mourning and grief of a victim's family? Is the aggressor punished? The question uppermost in a writer's or director's mind should be, "Is this act of violence truly necessary for my story?"

Television can offer us an expanded view of the world. It has the power and the potential to bring us quality material. We as parents and professionals have the power to turn off the set whenever we want to do so in the interests of our children's development. We should take this responsibility seriously in view of the research data. Who do we want to influence our children's attitudes, sensitivity to violence and control over their motor behavior - the television producers or our own family values?

REFERENCES

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10.3928/0090-4481-19851201-07

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