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Media Violence and Its Effect on Children: Experts Debate

universal-health-care-1.gifIn 1952, while Lucy was causing a ruckus and the Lone Ranger was keeping the peace, Congress was scratching its head. Real-world juvenile delinquency was up. Television and radio were popular. ... Was one connected to the other?

June of that year saw the first congressional hearing on media violence and young people. Nothing much was decided.

Now, decades later, the discussion continues. The American Psychiatric Association and American Academy of Pediatrics say, yes, media violence contributes to real-world violence in some children.

But some researchers agree with University of Toronto professor Jonathan L. Freedman, author of  Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression. "Those who propose that media violence causes aggression have greatly overstated the results of the research, and have generally ignored findings that contradict their views," he wrote in 2007 in response to a media-violence report from the Federal Communications Commission.

We asked two psychologists to share their opinions: Does media violence make some children violent? What do you think? Get in on the debate here.


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YES: Media violence"can play a significant factor" in causing violence in children.

Recent clinical and behavioral research has now demonstrated connections between children playing violent videogames and problems with agression. Such findings are not too surprising given that previous studies have also shown a 10- to 12-percent increase in aggressive behavior after children watch violent television.

The combined results of the research in this area led the American Psychological Association to formally conclude three major effects of watching or playing violence in the media:

  1. Children exposed to media violence may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.
  2. Aggressive media can cause children to be more fearful of the world around them.
  3. Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or hurtful ways toward others when exposed to violent media.

newsletter-graphic-free2In addition to these findings, one must also consider that there are certain times in a child's or adolescent's development when exposure might be even more influential. For example, children between 2 and 5 are still primarily conceptualizing their world in magical ways. When faced with aggressive scenes, a child in this age range could believe what they've viewed is real and may happen to them and their family, creating intensified fear and anxiety.

Adolescents are also particularly vulnerable. Because of increasing levels of hormones, intensifying drives, and desires to be powerful, exposure to overly aggressive material can lead to impulsiveness and poor judgment.

Taken together, while media exposure to violence is not the only cause of aggressive or violent behavior, research and clinical material has shown that it can play a significant factor in most children.

NO: "At most, media violence is a symptom, not a cause" of violence in children.

Throughout history people worried that media from the Bible, jazz, rock, Betty Boop, Harry Potter and Dungeons and Dragons would harm youth. These scares have turned out to be moral panics. Today’s concern about media violence, fueled by politicians and bad science, is one more example.

The research field on media violence is one of the most politicized and poorly executed in social science (and that’s saying something!). Does the research say that viewing media violence leads to aggression or violence? No, and here are several reasons why.

Most aggression measures used don't measure aggression, such as fighting, verbal taunts or violence. Examples include popping balloons with pins, finishing the ending of fairy tales, rating how likeable others are or giving a willing opponent non-painful noise bursts. Research indicates that these are not valid predictors of real-world aggression. A few do look at actual aggression or violence, but these find the weakest effects.

The research is inconsistent. Contrary to what many politicians and even scientists suggest, the research does not consistently document negative effects. Some studies claim to find effects; many others do not.

newsletter-graphic-free2In my own research, correlations between media violence and aggression are usually due to underlying family violence or personality issues. At most, media violence is a symptom, not a cause. Its effects, even assuming the research was valid, are among the weakest in criminal justice research, behind personality, childhood abuse, poverty, genetics and other influences.

Media violence theory doesn't fit with real-world data. Violence among adults and children is currently at the lowest level since the early 1970s. This would be like discussing the perils of global warming while ice-skating in the Everglades. Suggesting this reality doesn't matter is simply lazy pseudoscience.

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hands pulling rope

Dr. Ferguson’s

Meta-analyses of the research suggest that media violence exposure overlaps between 0 and 4 percent with aggressive behavior, not 10 to 12 percent. At the top end, would you notice if you were 4 percent more aggressive today than yesterday? Even this result assumes that these studies are methodologically sound, which they are not.

To put this in perspective, genetics can account for 50 to 55 percent of the variance in aggression. The effect size for smoking and lung cancer is 81 percent. The belief in media violence effects on aggression is the product of dogma and bad science. The only conclusion we can make is that social scientists, like many other people, indulge in moral panics.


Dr. Kanner’s

Statements that concerns are “fueled by politicians and bad science” are an insult to the many dedicated individuals who seek to make society a better and safer place. Furthermore, statements that the multiple studies on the connection are “all bad” are insulting to the highly regarded editors who guide organizations such as the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who both have cautioned parents and educators about the "proven" negative influences.

Certainly, at the least, the fact that so many studies have found associations—whether causational or influential—should result in safeguarding children and adolescents from experiencing material that could negatively affect them. To ignore such important information is ignorant and potentially dangerous.


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Last updated and/or approved: May 2011.
Original article appeared in March/April 2008 former print magazine. Bios current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

Comments (2)add comment
written by Lane Rahlf , April 03, 2013

Hi my name is Lane, I am a student at decorah high school in the northeastern corner of Iowa. I have a couple of questions about media violence for a project that I am working on that is about the media. If you could get back to me soon that would be great!

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written by Chris George , February 20, 2013

I think on some kids it does. But not everyone is the same. I play a lot of violent video games and im still the nice person i was like 7 years ago. Some people like mentally unstable kids shouldnt be allowed to play video games.
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