Are We Creating Monsters?: TV and Aggression (page 2)
The amount of violence portrayed on television is staggering. Researchers estimate that by the time the average child in the United States leaves elementary school, that child will have viewed more than 8,000 murders and 100,000 other violent acts on network TV alone. This doesn't include cable channels or movies on videotapes or DVDs! Saturday-morning cartoons and late-afternoon and early-evening programs, all aired at times when children are most likely to be watching, have the highest rates of violent acts (Comstock & Paik, 1991; Huston et al., 1992). In addition, TV often portrays violence as good, without consequence, causing no pain or suffering, and even funny: In short, TV portrayals are very different from real-life violence.
But even if children view violence regularly on television, does it affect their behavior? Meta-analyses of the many studies investigating this issue conclude that TV violence has a moderate negative impact on children's behavior. The effect is similar for boys and girls, and it is larger for children than adults (Bushman & Huesmann, 2001; Hogben, 1998; Huston & Wright, 1998; Paik & Comstock, 1994). In general, then, violence on television is related to later aggressive behavior, and the relationship may be of particular concern for children.
One well-known study followed a sample of boys and girls for 22 years. The researchers looked at the relationship between the amount and level of violence of the television they watched as children and their aggressive behavior in adulthood (Eron, Huesmann, Lefkowitz, & Walder, 1972; Huesmann & Miller, 1994). For boys, watching TV violence at age 8 was the best predictor of aggressiveness at age 18, and those who watched the most TV at age 8 were most likely to engage in violent criminal behavior by age 30. But couldn't it be that children who had aggressive tendencies chose to watch more violent TV and engaged in more violent behavior, so the violence of TV was not a causative factor? Boys who were already aggressive at age 8 did watch more TV. But even among these already aggressive children, the boys who watched more TV had committed more serious criminal offenses by age 30 than those who watched less. It seems there is a bidirectional effect: More aggressive children prefer more violent TV, but TV violence increases their aggression even more. Later studies showed similar relationships between TV violence and later aggression in women and in several countries (though not in all countries studied), even after researchers statistically controlled for the influences of earlier aggression, intelligence level, and social class (Bushman & Huesmann, 2001; Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, & Eron, 2003).
Establishing a relationship is one thing, but even a strong correlation does not prove a causal link. Experimental studies are needed for this, and there have been many experimental tests of the short-term effects of television violence on children's aggressive behavior. Probably the best-known examples were experiments conducted by Albert Bandura. Bandura randomly assigned children to view either violent or nonviolent video clips, then observed the children's behavior afterward while they played with one another or with toys. Children who viewed the violent videos behaved more aggressively with both people and objects. Bandura found this effect across genders, across ethnicities, and regardless of whether children showed preexisting aggressive tendencies (Bandura, 1977). The evidence is clear that watching violence on television causes children to behave more aggressively in the short term; and there is increasing evidence of a long-term effect as well (Anderson et al., 2003; Comstock & Scharrer, 2006).
Does this mean that any viewing of media violence will create aggressive behavior in all children? No. There are important interactions with other factors. As we saw in the longitudinal study described earlier, TV violence may exert its greatest long-term influence on children who already have aggressive tendencies. The effects are stronger for children who identify more with the TV characters, whose fantasy play and conversation are more centered in television, and whose parents use harsh physical punishment (Anderson et al., 2001; Gunter & McAleer, 1997; Huesmann et al., 2003). One journal article compared the relationship between TV violence and aggression to the link between smoking and lung cancer. Not everyone who smokes develops lung cancer, and not everyone who gets lung cancer is a smoker; smoking is not the only cause of lung cancer. Similarly, not every child who views hours of TV violence becomes aggressive, and not every child who behaves aggressively has watched lots of TV; watching violence on TV is not the only cause of aggressive behavior. But just as smoking is a significant risk factor for lung cancer, watching a steady diet of violent TV during childhood seems to be a risk factor for later aggressive behavior (Bushman & Anderson, 2001).
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