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Psychological Effects of Violent Media on Children

By Sky Smith ; Updated June 13, 2017

Most children witness some form of media violence almost every day, whether on the news, in a cartoon, on the Internet, in a TV show or in a movie. These exposures, whether short-term or long-term, can result in negative psychological effects, including increased aggressive behavior and a diminished level of excitement toward violent acts. Although research suggests this negative effect is small, it is nonetheless significant.

Increased Destructive Activity

An experiment at Pennsylvania State University had 100 nursery-age children watch one of three programs: a “Batman and Superman” cartoon, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” or a neutral program, containing neither a positive or negative message. The children shown the aggressive cartoon subsequently became more physically active, breaking toys, getting into fights and playing roughly. In contrast, the kids in the Mr. Rogers’ group were more likely to help the teacher and play more cooperatively. In other words, the study demonstrated that the violent cartoon had increased the destructive behavior of the children.

Imitation of Violent Acts

Observational learning is the process by which children learn to model behaviors of others in real life or on the screen. For instance, a child may imitate a wrestling move if he feels it would garner him attention. Although most violent programs come with a warning urging viewers not to "try this at home,” some children still repeat violent activities they observe on television, especially if, like in the majority of movies, the violent activity is rewarded or not followed by any negative consequences.

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Mean-World Mentality

A University of Pittsburgh Mass Media Violence report found that police dramas, violent cartoons and other programs containing violent activity influenced children to perceive the world as more dangerous and unsafe. In fact, frequent viewers of violent programs are more likely to overestimate the risks of walking outside at night and the chances of becoming a victim of a crime, developing what psychologists call a “mean-world” mentality.

Densensitization

Repeated exposure to violent media results in less psychological arousal in the presence of violent acts, a phenomenon known as desensitization. In one experiment, college students who watched movies containing violent sexual acts viewed rape as less negative of a crime than students who watched neutral movies. Other research published in the Dec. 2003 edition of “Psychological Science in the Public Interest” supports this theory of desensitization, adding that children who even briefly witness violent programs experience less sympathy toward victims of violent acts and less anxiety towards real-world violence following exposure.

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