Facts of Life

Facts of Life:
Issue Briefings for Health Reporters
Vol. 8, No. 10
October 2003

Media Violence:
More Than Just Child's Play?

The Issue

The Facts

For Kids, Seeing Is Believing

What's in a Game?

Expert Sources



The Issue:

Like everything they encounter early in life, what children see and hear in the media makes an impression in their lives.
From Shakespeare to the Sopranos, violence is a staple of popular entertainment. More than 60 percent of TV shows contain violence. Young viewers see up to 10,000 violent acts a year.

Normalizing Violence

Researchers have associated exposure to violent media with subsequent aggressive or risky behavior by children, teenagers and young adults. Media violence may instill a meaner, more frightening view of the world, making violence seem like a normal part of life and an acceptable way of solving problems. Screen violence may also blunt the normally negative human reaction to real violence and its consequences.
No one suggests that watching media violence is the sole reason that children commit violent acts, either as youth or adults. But it is one risk factor for youth violence


Which Comes First?
Makers of movies, television programs and video games argue that their products do not directly cause real-life violence. Many watch these media but few commit serious acts as a result, they say. An “association” of media exposure with aggression or violence could work both ways, they note: Violent children may be more drawn to violent media.



The Facts:


For Kids, Seeing Is Believing

Violent content on TV, the Internet, movies or video games tells children that people are vindictive, negative events are deliberate acts of malice, and retaliation is a valid response to conflict, says Craig Anderson, a leading researcher on the effects of media violence on children.

“People learn and content matters,” says Anderson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “More than 1,000 scientific studies and reviews conclude that significant exposure to media violence increases the risk of aggressive behavior in certain children, ... desensitizes them to violence and makes them believe that the world is a ‘meaner and scarier’ place than it is.” [12]

One study followed children from elementary school to their early 20s, reporting that “childhood exposure to media violence predicts young adult aggressive behavior in both males and females.” [13]

However, some argue that the real effect is minimal. One untested hypothesis is that exposure to media violence actually provides a healthy release for the frightening emotions of adolescence.

Anderson maintains that such a view is simply wrong. A 2001 U.S. surgeon general’s report on youth violence found only modest associations between exposure and aggression, but it focused on overt, criminal violence committed by young people rather than broader measures of aggression.

How can the effects of media violence be minimized? Many agree that censorship is both undesirable and unlikely.

“Parental influence is far more powerful than anything in the media,” says educational technology consultant Jennifer Borse. “If the parents are raising their children well, they can make kids more aware of what they are seeing and the effect it has on them.”

Both parents and children might become more media literate — more aware of what they are seeing and more conscious of the effect it has on them, Borse says. Parents can view things with their kids and help interpret content, explaining that what they are seeing is not real and that in real life, people find other, non-violent ways to settle conflict.

In fact, studies have shown that parents frequently have no clue about what their children actually watch. So parents need to know and guide the ingredients in children’s media diets, just as they supervise the contents of a healthy food selection at home, says Anderson.

Finally, researchers suggest that parents direct their children away from the couch and electronic media, and more toward activities with other people. [14]


What's in a Game?

Many consider video games to be particularly pernicious in terms of children’s exposure to violence. Many popular games are overtly about shooting and killing, and video games are a more active experience than the passive viewing of films or television.

But while academic researchers can point to decades of study about movies and TV, video games are relatively new and changing rapidly. What little research exists quickly becomes outdated as new games enter the marketplace.

The video industry argues that game players know the difference between the game and real life, and that studies of video games and violence have found only short-term effects.

“Most people know the difference between right and wrong in the real world and the difference between the video game and reality,” says educational technology consultant Jennifer Borse. “But the real question is, what causes some people to blur that distinction between violence on the screen and in real life?”



Expert Sources:

Susan Villani, M.D.
Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University
(443) 923-4507

Craig A. Anderson, Ph.D.
Iowa State University
(515) 294-6424

L. Rowell Huesmann, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
(734) 647-3662

Brad J Bushman, Ph.D.
University of Michigan
(734) 764 8360





1. Villani S. Impact of media on children and adolescents: a 10-year review of the research. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2001 Apr;40(4):392-401.

2. Cantor J. The psychological effects of media violence on children and adolescents. Presented at the Colloquium on Television and violence in Society. Montreal, PQ, Canada. April 19, 2002. http://www.joannecantor.com/montrealpap_fin.htm. Accessed September 5, 2003.

3. Huesmann LR, Moise-Titus J, PodolskiC-L, Eron LD. Longtiudinal relatiosn between children’s exposure to TV violence and their agtgresive and violent behavior in young adulthood: 1977-1992. Dev Psychol. 2003 Mar;39(2):201-21.

4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD. 93.

5. Paik H, Comstock G. The effects of television violence on antisocial behavior: a meta-analysis. Communication Research. 1994;21:516-546.

6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD. 91

7. Anderson CA, Bushman BJ. Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psych Science. 2001 Sept;12(5):353-359.

8. Johnson JG, Cohen P, Smailes E, Kasen S, Brook JS. Television viewing and aggressive behavior during adolescence and adulthood. Science. 2002 Mar 29;295:2468-2471.

9. Anderson CA. Video games and aggressive behavior. In Ravitch d and Viteritti, JP, eds, Kid Stuff: Marketing Sex and Violence to America’s Children. 2003. Baltimore and London:The Johns Hopkins University Press. 157.

10. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD. 94.

11. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Youth Violence: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD. 87.

12. American Academy of Pediartrics, Committee on Public Education. Media Education (RE9911). Pediatrics. 1999 Aug;104(2):341-343.

13. Huesmann LR, Moise-Titus J, Podolski C-L, Eron LD. Longitudinal relations between children’s exposure to TV violence and their aggressive and violent behavior in young adulthood: 1977-1992. Developmental Psychology. 2003;39(2):201-221.

14. Anderson CA. Video games and aggressive behavior. Ch 7 in Ravitch D & Viteritti JP. Kid Stuff: Marketing sex and violence to America’s children. 2003. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.





The Center for the Advancement of Health is an independent nonprofit organization that promotes greater recognition of how psychological, social, behavioral, economic and environmental factors influence health and illness. The Center advocates the highest quality research and communicates it to the medical community and the public. The fundamental aim of the Center is to translate into policy and practice the growing body of evidence that can lead to the improvement and maintenance of the health of individuals and the public. The Center was founded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which continue to provide core funding. Funding for this series was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

For Information Contact:
Kristina Campbell
Editor, Health Behavior News Service
Center for the Advancement of Health
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