Explaining Media's Effects
Why do media have the effects they do? Let's consider several explanations. First, children are very capable of observational learning, or learning through watching and imitating. And this holds true regardless of whether the child is observing in person or through television (Bandura, 1977). Children often imitate specific behaviors they see in the media, particularly when they actively attend to the behaviors, strongly identify with the characters, and have the opportunity to engage in the behaviors in real life. This opportunity to practice is the reason many researchers are concerned about the prevalence of violence in video games. Not only do these games model aggression, but the game format also gives children chances to practice simulated violent acts like kicking, hitting, and shooting "virtual" humans. The likelihood that children will imitate the behavior increases even more if parents, teachers, peers, or others provide reinforcement for it (knowingly or not, through behaviors such as cheering when a child scores a hit in a game, complimenting them on their high scores, etc.). Children also learn specific strategies, overall problem-solving approaches, and attitudes through observation. If a child regularly sees helpful and cooperative models solving problems and interacting in prosocial ways, he or she will be getting consistent mental practice in those strategies and will be more likely to think of them first when attempting to solve real-life problems. In contrast, if a child regularly sees aggression being used to address problems, his or her first inclination is more likely to be an aggressive approach.
Second, cognitive psychologists propose that children also acquire cognitive schemas, as opposed to specific behaviors, through observation (Huston & Wright, 1998). A schema is a person's understanding of the objects and sequences of events that are likely to be encountered in a specific situation. A steady diet of unrealistic, stereotyped, and perhaps even prejudiced presentations of people and events on television can encourage inaccurate cognitive schemas. Younger children, who have less real-life experience to counter the information, are particularly vulnerable to this effect. Additionally, if children regularly see violent intentions, interpretations, and behavior in the media, they can develop cognitive schemas for social interaction that overemphasize violence. These schemas may lead children to interpret situations as menacing when they really pose no threat.
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