Pediatric Annals

Media Violence

Leonard D Eron, PhD

Abstract

There can no longer be any doubt that heavy exposure to televised violence is one of the causes of aggressive behavior, crime, and violence in society. The evidence comes from both laboratory and real-life studies.1 Television violence affects youngsters of all ages, of both genders, at all socioeconomic levels, and at all levels of intelligence. The effect is not limited to children who are already disposed to being aggressive and is not restricted to this country. The fact that this same finding of a relation between television violence and aggression in children is obtained in study after study, in one country after another, cannot be ignored. The causal effect of television violence on aggression, even though it is not very large, exists. It cannot be denied or explained away. This causal effect has been demonstrated outside the laboratory in real-life among many different children. It appears that a vicious cycle exists in which television violence makes children more aggressive, and these more aggressive children turn to watching more violence to justify their own behaviors.

More than 35 years ago, when I started to do research on how children learn to be aggressive, I had no idea how important TV was as a determinant of aggressive behavior. I thought it was no more influential than the Saturday afternoon serial westerns that I used to attend, or the fairy stories my parents used to read to me before I went to bed or the comic books I pored over instead of doing my lessons. These, certainly, were very violent. But I grew up OK. I didn't enter into a life of crime. I was not very violent. So I was skeptical about the effects of television violence, and I think most people come to this subject matter with this same sort of mind-set, unconvinced that television can have such deleterious effects.

However, in 1960, we completed a survey of all third-grade school children in a semirural county in New York.2 We interviewed 875 boys and girls in school and conducted separate interviews with 80% of their parents. We were interested in how aggressive behavior, as it is manifested in school, is related to the kinds of childrearing practices parents use. An unexpected finding was that for boys, there seemed to be a direct positive relation between the incidence of the TV programs they preferred and how aggressive they were in school.3 Since this was no more than a contemporaneous relation, we didn't have too much confidence in the finding by itself You couldn't tell by these data alone whether aggressive boys liked violent television programs or whether the violent programs made boys aggressive - or whether aggression and watching violent television were both due to some other third factor. However, because these findings fit well with certain theories about learning by imitation, a cause-and-effect relation was certainly plausible.

Ten years later, however, in 1970, we were fortunate in being able to reinterview more than half of our original sample.4 The most striking finding was the positive relation between viewing of violent television at age 8 and aggression at age 19 in the male subjects. Actually, the relation was even stronger than it was when both variables were measured at age 8.

By use of a variety of statistical techniques, it was demonstrated that the most plausible interpretation of these data was that early viewing of violent television caused later aggression. For example, if the aggression level of boys at age 8 is controlled, the relation does not diminish. As a matter of fact, those boys who at age 8 were low aggressive…

There can no longer be any doubt that heavy exposure to televised violence is one of the causes of aggressive behavior, crime, and violence in society. The evidence comes from both laboratory and real-life studies.1 Television violence affects youngsters of all ages, of both genders, at all socioeconomic levels, and at all levels of intelligence. The effect is not limited to children who are already disposed to being aggressive and is not restricted to this country. The fact that this same finding of a relation between television violence and aggression in children is obtained in study after study, in one country after another, cannot be ignored. The causal effect of television violence on aggression, even though it is not very large, exists. It cannot be denied or explained away. This causal effect has been demonstrated outside the laboratory in real-life among many different children. It appears that a vicious cycle exists in which television violence makes children more aggressive, and these more aggressive children turn to watching more violence to justify their own behaviors.

More than 35 years ago, when I started to do research on how children learn to be aggressive, I had no idea how important TV was as a determinant of aggressive behavior. I thought it was no more influential than the Saturday afternoon serial westerns that I used to attend, or the fairy stories my parents used to read to me before I went to bed or the comic books I pored over instead of doing my lessons. These, certainly, were very violent. But I grew up OK. I didn't enter into a life of crime. I was not very violent. So I was skeptical about the effects of television violence, and I think most people come to this subject matter with this same sort of mind-set, unconvinced that television can have such deleterious effects.

However, in 1960, we completed a survey of all third-grade school children in a semirural county in New York.2 We interviewed 875 boys and girls in school and conducted separate interviews with 80% of their parents. We were interested in how aggressive behavior, as it is manifested in school, is related to the kinds of childrearing practices parents use. An unexpected finding was that for boys, there seemed to be a direct positive relation between the incidence of the TV programs they preferred and how aggressive they were in school.3 Since this was no more than a contemporaneous relation, we didn't have too much confidence in the finding by itself You couldn't tell by these data alone whether aggressive boys liked violent television programs or whether the violent programs made boys aggressive - or whether aggression and watching violent television were both due to some other third factor. However, because these findings fit well with certain theories about learning by imitation, a cause-and-effect relation was certainly plausible.

Ten years later, however, in 1970, we were fortunate in being able to reinterview more than half of our original sample.4 The most striking finding was the positive relation between viewing of violent television at age 8 and aggression at age 19 in the male subjects. Actually, the relation was even stronger than it was when both variables were measured at age 8.

By use of a variety of statistical techniques, it was demonstrated that the most plausible interpretation of these data was that early viewing of violent television caused later aggression. For example, if the aggression level of boys at age 8 is controlled, the relation does not diminish. As a matter of fact, those boys who at age 8 were low aggressive but watched violent television were significantly more aggressive 10 years later than boys who were originally high aggressive but did not watch violent programs.

Similarly, every other plausible third variable was controlled - IQ, social status, parents' aggression, social and geographical mobility, and church attendance. None of these variables had an effect on the relation between the violence of programs preferred by boys at age 8 and how aggressive they were 10 years later.

Then, 12 years after that, when the subjects were 30 years old, they were interviewed again, and archival data such as criminal justice records were consulted. It was found that the more frequently the subjects watched violent television at age 8, the more serious were the crimes for which they were convicted by age 30, the more aggressive was their behavior while under the influence of alcohol, and the harsher was the punishment they administered to their own children (Figure).5 There was a strong correlation between a variety of television-viewing behaviors at age 8 and a composite of aggressive behavior at age 30. These relations held up even when the subjects' initial aggressiveness, social class, and IQ were controlled for. Further, measurements of the subjects' own children, who were now the same age as the subjects when first seen, showed that the subjects' aggressiveness and violence viewing at age 8 related to their children's aggressiveness and their children's preferences for violence viewing 22 years later, when the subjects themselves were 30 years old. What one learns about life from the television screen seems to be transmitted even to the next generation!

Figure. The prediction of adult males' criminal behavior from childhood TV violence viewing.

Figure. The prediction of adult males' criminal behavior from childhood TV violence viewing.

As pointed out earlier, this finding of a causal link between the watching of violent television and subsequent aggressive behavior is not an isolated finding among a unique or nonrepresentative population in one area of the United States at a particular time. Seventeen years after the original data collection, we studied another large group of youngsters in a different geographical section of the United States, a heterogeneous suburb of Chicago, observing them for 3 years, and obtaining essentially the same results.6 Further, this 3 year follow-up was replicated in four other countries - Australia, Finland, Israel, and Poland.7 The data from all five study countries clearly indicate that more aggressive children watch more television, prefer more violent programs, identify more with TV characters, and perceive violence as more like real-life than do less aggressive children. It also became clear that the relation between TV habits and aggression was not limited to boys as we had found in the original study; girls, too, are affected. Generally, the causal relation was bidirectional, with aggressive children watching more violent television and the violent television making them more aggressive.

Of course, it is not contended that television violence is the only cause of aggression and violence in society today. Aggression is a multiply determined behavior. It is the product of a number of interacting factors - genetic, perinatal, physiological, neurological, and environmental. It is only when there is a convergence of factors that violent behavior occurs.8 Furthermore, research supports the view that the effect of violence viewing on aggression is relatively independent of other likely influences and is of a magnitude great enough to account for socially important differences.1

There are a number of variables that define the limits within which the effect of viewing television on the subsequent social behavior of children is operative. We turn now to a consideration of a likely model to explain how this effect comes about.

One aspect of the model has to do with arousal effects. Researchers have alluded to this process as important in activating aggressive behaviors. It has been hypothesized that a heightened state of tension including a strong physiological component results from frequent observation of high action sequences. Arousal here is seen as both a precursor and consequence of aggression.9 Another aspect of the model has to do with the rehearsal of the behaviors the child observes on the part of his favorite TV characters. The more frequently the child rehearses the sequence by continued viewing, the more likely it is to be remembered and reenacted when the youngster is in a situation perceived to be similar. By consistently observing aggressive behavior, the youngster comes to believe these are expected, appropriate ways of behaving and that most people solve problems in living that way. Norms for appropriate behavior are established, and attitudes are formed or changed by observation of other persons' frequent behavior, especially if that behavior is sanctioned by authority figures.10 The child who has been watching programs with primarily aggressive content comes away with the impression that the world is a jungle fraught with dangerous threats and that the only way to survive is to be on the attack.

However, television's influence cannot be explained solely in terms of arousal or observational learning and the setting of norms of behavior. Aggressive behavior is determined by many factors and the variables discussed thus far all contribute their effects. The process, however, seems to be circular. Television violence viewing leads to heightened aggressiveness, which in turn leads to more television violence viewing. Two mediating variables that appear to play a role in this cycle are the child's academic achievement and social popularity. Children who behave aggressively are less popular, and perhaps because their relations with their peers tend to be unsatisfying, less popular children watch more television and view more violence. The violence they see on television may reassure them that their own behavior is appropriate or teach them new coercive techniques that they can attempt to use in their interactions with others. Thus, they behave more aggressively, which in turn makes them even less popular and drives them back to the television.

The evidence supports a similar role for academic failure. Those children who fail in school watch more television, perhaps because they find it more satisfying than schoolwork. Thus, they are exposed to more violence and have more opportunity to learn aggressive acts. Because their intellectual capacities are more limited, the easy aggressive solutions they observe may be incorporated more readily into their behavioral repertoire. In any case, the heavy violence viewing isolates them from their peers and gives them less time to work toward academic success. Of course, any resulting increase in aggression itself diminishes the child's popularity. Thus, the cycle continues with aggression, academic failure, social failure, and violence viewing reinforcing each other.

Despite the overwhelming evidence, some of which has been cited above, the television industry has not accepted responsibility for the damage being done by its violent programming. Grudgingly in the past year they have agreed to use warning labels for programs with excessive violence and have arranged with independent agencies to do annual monitoring of the amount of television violence being shown on national and cable stations.

However, this does not absolve parents of their responsibility to monitor what their children watch and work with them to minimize the deleterious effect of television violence on their children. Concerned parents should limit the amount of television their children watch, especially those programs with excessive violent content, and encourage them to spend their time on sports, hobbies, and playing with friends. They should watch TV with their children, helping them to distinguish between what is portrayed on the screen and real life, pointing out that the behaviors they see on TV are not normative and that there are alternative ways of solving problems. They might ask their children to talk about other ways that the character could have reacted and to think of other nonviolent solutions to the problem.

Parents should encourage their children to watch programs that demonstrate helping, caring, and cooperation. Studies have shown that such programs can influence children to become more kind and considerate. Television is a powerful teacher. It can be a force for good.11 Parents should make every effort to use it that way.

REFERENCES

1. Comstock G. Television and the American Child. New York, NY: Academic Press; 19') 1.

2. Eron LD, Walder LO, Lefkowitz MM. Learning of Aggression in Children. Boston, Mass; Little, Brown & Co; 1971.

3. Eron LD. Trie relationship of TV viewing habits and aggressive behavior in children, J Abnorm Psychol. 1963;67:193-196.

4. Lefkowitz MM, Eron LD, Wälder LO. Huesmann LR. Growing Up To Be Violent. New York, NY: Pergamon Press; 1977.

5. Huesmann LR, Eron LD, Lefkowitz MM, Wälder LO. The stability of aggression over time and generations. Developmental Psychology. 1 984;20: 1 1 20- 1 1 34.

6. Huesmann LR, Lagerspetz K. Eron LD. Intervening variables in the television violence and aggression relation: evidence from two countries. Developmental Psychology. 1984;20:748-755.

7. Huesmann LR, Eron LD. Television and the Aggressive Child. Hillsdale. NJ: Lawrence Erlhaum Associates Ine; 1986.

8. Eton LD. Parent-child interaction, television violence, and aggression of children. American Psychologist. 1982:37:197-211.

9. Huesmann LR. Information processing models of behavior. In: Hirschberg N and Humphreys L, eds. Multivariate Applications in the Social Sciences. Hillsdale. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associations; 1982:261-288.

10. Tower RB. Singer DG. Singer JL, Biggs A. Differential effects of television programming on preschoolers' cognition, imagination, and social play. American Journal of Anthropsychology. 1979;49:265-281 .

11. Singer JL, Singer DG. Television. Imagination, and Aggression. A Study o/ Preschoolers' Play. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlhaum Associates lnc; 1981.

10.3928/0090-4481-19950201-07

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