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Children's Exposure to TV Violence & Aggressive Behavior

By Amanda Hermes ; Updated June 13, 2017

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry--AACAP, the American Psychological Association--APA, and the Media Awareness Network--MAN, extensive viewing of television violence by children causes greater aggressiveness. While researchers agree that there is a connection between watching violence and acting aggressively, there is disagreement over why this connection exists and how strong the connection is.

Research

Research into media violence and its effect on children is nothing new. For as long as television has been around, scientists have been studying how it impacts the viewer. In 1956, kids in a study who watched a violent episode of “Woody Woodpecker” were more likely to hit other children and break toys than kids who watched a nonviolent cartoon. In 1960, studies showed that kids who watched violent television at home behaved more aggressively at school. A 1963 study showed that children who viewed aggressive behavior in real life were just as likely to act aggressively as those who watched the same event on TV. Both groups were more likely to get aggressive when frustrated than a group who watched nothing. A 2003 Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 47 percent of parents with kids between 2 and 4 reported that their children have imitated aggressive behaviors seen on TV.

A Lasting Impression

According to MAN, study participants who had watched violent TV shows as 8-year olds were more likely, as adults, to commit serious crimes, use violence to discipline their children and treat spouses aggressively. In 2002, Professor Jeffrey Johnson of Columbia University reported that kids who watched more than 1 hour of TV each day when they were teenagers were 60 percent more likely to be involved in assaults and fights as adults. A 2003 study led by L. R. Huesmann and published in Developmental Psychology showed that early childhood exposure to TV violence predicts aggressive behavior in adulthood. In this study, child subjects of a 1977 study on media violence were re-interviewed as adults. Results showed that adults who were exposed to TV violence as kids were more likely to engage in verbal aggression, serious physical aggression and even criminal acts. Critics, however, claim that these studies are too small and limited in scope to prove a connection between childhood TV viewing and adulthood aggression.

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Imitation

The AACAP reports that kids are more likely to imitate what they see on TV when violence is very realistic, frequently repeated or unpunished. According to MAN, children develop “cognitive scripts” that guide their own behavior by imitating actions of people they see, whether the people are real or on television. This is especially true of characters they view as “heroes” in the media.

Problem Solving

As kids watch violent shows, they learn to internalize scripts that use violence as an appropriate method of problem solving. MAN reports that media violence justifies people’s natural aggressive thoughts and feelings, making kids think that it’s okay to strike out at others if you are angry, jealous or hurt, because they see their favorite characters doing it on TV all the time. Since violent behavior often has no consequences for TV characters, kids might be led to act aggressively without understanding or considering the real world consequences.

Opposing Viewpoints

Some experts, according to MAN, report that scientific evidence does not show that watching violence makes people more violent. Scientists disagree about the existence of a connection between TV and real world violence as well as how one affects the other. Increased TV time could be an indication of other environmental or psychological factors in a child’s life that leads to aggressive behavior. Critics claim that exposure to real world violence, family attitudes toward violence, and social class are stronger predictors of aggressive behavior than the amount of exposure to TV brutality.

Prevention

According to the AACAP, parents can protect kids from excessive TV violence. First, parents should pay attention to what programs their children are tuned into and sometimes watch them together. When you see a violent act on TV with your child, explain that violence in real life causes pain, injuries and death, and talk about other ways that characters could have solved their problems. Most importantly, set limits on the amount of time kids spend in front of the TV and ban shows and movies that are known to be violent, especially for younger kids.

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