It has been estimated that the average child in the United States spends more time each week watching television than attending school. This is of great concern, as a surprisingly large proportion of what children watch is violent. Saturday morning cartoons, for example, present as many as twenty violent acts per hour. One research team estimated that the average child in the United States will see at least 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other acts of violence before ﬁnishing elementary school, simply by watching TV. Concern over the amount of violence being seen by children led to the law requiring a V-chip to block out programs containing violence in every new television set sold, as well as a system of television ratings, in the mid-1990s, yet the producers of violent programming have often continued to protest that children will not imitate what they see in those programs.
This last claim has sounded disingenuous to psychologists ever since Albert Bandura’s classic “Bobo doll” studies in the early 1960s. Bandura showed preschoolers a ﬁlm of an adult playing with a new toy, known at the time as a Bobo doll. It was an inﬂatable, four-foot-tall clown with a weighted base, designed to pop back up if knocked over. The toy has remained sporadically popular, usually in the shape of a currently popular cartoon character. At the time, the toy had just come on the market and was thus unfamiliar to the children. The adult in the ﬁlm heaped abuse on the toy in various ways, punching it, kicking it, striking its head with a hammer, and throwing other toys at it, all the while clearly enjoying herself. The children were then led into a room with various toys in it, including the Bobo doll. Children who had seen the ﬁlm were far more likely to beat up the doll than children who had not. This prompted Bandura to describe a new type of learning theory (beyond what was covered by B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning, which requires that an action be reinforced to be learned); this theory is known as social learning or modeling.
Subsequent experiments revealed an interesting pattern: if the adult was praised for her behavior, the children became far more aggressive than the children who saw her scolded instead. Bandura called these phenomena vicarious reinforcement and vicarious punishment. Ever since Bandura’s initial work in this area, psychological research indicating a clear link between children’s television viewing and their subsequent actions has poured in, some of it rather frightening. In the famous Rip van Winkle study (so named because it was a longitudinal study that followed a group of children for two decades), psychologists Leonard Eron and E. Rowell Huesmann found that the amount of violent television watched at age eight was not linked to aggression at age eight, but it was predictive of long-term effects instead, including likelihood of arrest by age thirty.
In another study, a unique opportunity arose to examine the effect of American television on a population that had not previously been allowed to see it: the population of South Africa. In the days of apartheid, South Africa’s repressive segregation of blacks, American and most European broadcasts were banned, as it was believed that seeing the state of race relations on those programs would incite rebellion. After the collapse of apartheid, American television shows were allowed and became quite popular. A comparison of white-on-white (the only kind looked at, in order to control for any rise in racial violence accompanying the large-scale societal change) murder rates before and after the introduction of American television shows a very clear increase, a pattern that has been observed in several other previously remote places as well.
The consensus among most psychologists is fairly clear. A recent comprehensive review of all research on media violence and aggression, commissioned by the American Psychological Society, concludes that “research on violent television and ﬁlms, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts.”
This is no longer a matter of serious debate among psychologists. Television and video game violence and music with violent lyrics are deﬁnitely risk factors for aggressive and violent behavior.
It is important, however, to consider what that actually means. Risk factor does not mean the same thing as cause, a fact that is really not as well understood as it should be by many people. Consider the relationship between frequent sun exposure and skin cancer, for example. Frequent sun exposure elevates a person’s chances of getting skin cancer, but it does not guarantee it. To the contrary, most people who are exposed to the sun frequently do not develop cancer. This is because many other factors intrude as well, including skin pigmentation, family history, and general health, to name just three. In the same way, violent television is a risk factor but nothing more. Most people who watch a lot of violent TV, or even play violent computer games, will not become violent offenders. Violent television has an effect on behavior, but it is often a very weak effect, because a person’s likelihood of becoming violent is affected by a great many other factors as well.
In the Eron and Huesmann study described above, for example, the long-term effects of watching violent television were moderated by a variety of other things, including whether or not parents watched television with their children. Violent television deﬁnitely has an effect on aggression and violent behavior, and parents should be cautious about how much television children watch, but the effect is at best a weak one and interacts with many other variables.
- Anderson, C. A., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E., Huesmann, L. R., Johnson, J. D., Linz, D., Malamuth, N. M., and Wartella, E. “The Inﬂuence of Media Violence on Youth.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(3) (2003).