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Does Violence on Television Cause Aggressive Behavior in Teens?

In a world where violence sells hit movies and teens are usually attracted to what’s new and cool, attention is warranted towards how teens process and handle what they see on television. While aggressive behaviors can be explained by a myriad of variables, there appears to be some link between things viewed and how it later affects behaviors.

Effects of TV Watching

Of all the forms of mass media, television may have the biggest impact on the behavior of children, according to John Santrock in his 2007 book “A Topical Approach to Life-Span Development.” The author notes there is a great amount of scientific evidence to suggest that violence on television can lead to aggression and antisocial behavior 1. For example, a study by Jeffrey Johnson and colleagues published in 2002 in “Science” magazine found there was an association between time spent watching television during adolescence and aggressive behavior 17 years later 2.

Altered State of Consciousness

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What appears to happen is when adolescents watch television, they are in an altered state of consciousness, as Santrock explains. When in this state, rational thought is suspended, which allows for arousing, aggressive scripts to be learned more easily. Essentially, teens passively learn the behavior without attaching rational judgment to it.

Exposure to TV Violence

It is estimated that children in the U.S. view 20,000 hours of television by the time they graduate high school, according to Santrock. Furthermore, as of 2002, one hour of children’s shows contains an average of 20 to 25 violent acts and prime time shows contain between 3 to 5 violent acts per hour. Such exposure places teens in front of a great deal of violent acts.

Difficulty to Know Which Teens Most Affected

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It has been hypothesized that instead of violent television causing aggressive behavior, it is adolescents who are already prone to aggression who tend to have a preference to watch violent programming, according to Johnson and colleagues. However, their study put necessary controls in place and identified that in their sample, this was not the case. In other words, preferences for violent programming did not fully explain the tendency to engage in aggressive behavior.


When trying to understand why violent television can lead to aggressive behavior in teens, the need for role models and heroes should be considered, according to Elly Konijn and colleagues in a 2007 study in “Developmental Psychology.” Specifically, teenagers look for examples to help them shape their own identities. In the study by Konijn and colleagues, aggressive children who played violent video games expressed wanting to be like the violent characters of the game. Given what is known about teenage identity formation, it seems reasonable that the same holds true for violent television program watching.