Media Violence Effects on Children Essay

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Brad Bushman Ohio State University University of Michigan Many children today spend more time consuming media than they spend attending school, or in any other activity except for sleeping. By media we mean any form of mass communication such as television, the Internet, video and computer games, comic books, and radio. Violence is a dominant theme in most forms of media. For example, content analyses show that about 60 percent of television programs in the USA contain violence, and so do about 70–90 percent of the top-selling video games. By violence we mean an extreme act of physical aggression, such as assaulting another person.

Types Of Violent Media Content

For decades researchers have investigated the short- and long-term effects of media violence. These researchers have found evidence for at least two important short-term effects and three important long-term effects. The short-term effects are ‘priming effect’ and ‘mimicry effect.’ The long-term effects are the ‘mean-world effect’; the ‘observational learning effect,’ and a ‘desensitization effect.’

Regarding the short-term effects, experimental studies on priming effects have shown that exposing participants of any age to violent media for relatively short amounts of time (e.g., 20 minutes) causes increases in their aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and aggressive behaviors. For example, exposure to violent media makes people more willing to shock others or blast others with loud noise. The exposure to violent media activates these aggressive ideas and thoughts in the mind (primes them), which in turn makes aggressive behavior more likely. Experiments on mimicry effects have shown that even very young children will immediately mimic violent or nonviolent behaviors they see being done in the mass media. Bandura et al. (1963) first showed this for nursery school children hitting Bobo dolls, but others have shown the same effect with nursery school children hitting other children. The propensity to mimic facial expressions and simple observed behaviors seems to be a ‘hard-wired’ process that emerges in infancy. It is differentiated from ‘imitation,’ which is a longer-term process requiring encoding of a script, its retention in memory, and its use at a later time.

 In the area of long-term effects research has shown that heavy TV viewers are more fearful about becoming victims of violence, are more L. Rowell Huesmann distrustful of others, and are more likely to perceive the world as a dangerous, mean, and hostile place (mean-world syndrome). This process seems to begin early in childhood, with even 7–11-year-olds displaying this pattern. In general, the mean-world syndrome only seems to apply to appraisals of environments with which people have relatively little experience. More recent theoretical approaches to imitation have distinguished immediate copying of observed behaviors (mimicry) from delayed copying (imitation, or observational learning). Often what is acquired in observational learning is not a simple behavior but behavioral scripts, beliefs, attitudes, and other cognitions that make a class of behaviors (e.g., aggressive behaviors) more likely.

A number of longitudinal studies have now shown that exposure to media violence in childhood has a significant impact on children’s real-world aggression and violence when they grow up (Anderson et al. 2003). For example, in one study children exposed to violent media were significantly more aggressive 15 years later. Importantly, this study also found that aggression as a child was unrelated to exposure to violent media as a young adult, effectively ruling out the possibility that this relationship is merely a result of more aggressive children consuming more violent media (Huesmann et al. 2003).

The effects of violent video games on children’s attitudes toward violence are of particular concern. Violent video games encourage players to take the perpetrator’s perspective. Exposure to violent TV programs and films increases people’s pro-violence attitudes, but exposure to violent video games has the additional consequence of teaching decreased empathy for victims. For instance, in one study, children who saw a violent movie were then less willing to intervene when they saw two younger children fighting (Drabman & Thomas 1974). In part, this impact occurs because exposure to violent media desensitizes people emotionally to violence and makes them more tolerant of their own aggression (see below). However, a more important process is likely that violent media teaches children that violent behavior is an appropriate means of solving problems, the violent scripts they can use to solve social problems, and that good consequences can come from behaving violently. In addition, the more realistic a game is perceived to be, the greater the player’s immersion, and the greater the immersion, the more cognitive aggression is generated in the player (McGloin et al. 2013).

Moderators And Size Of Violent Media Effects

Not all forms of violence are alike. Media that glamorize violence and feature attractive role models (e.g., ‘good guys’) may have a particularly strong influence, especially when the model’s behaviors are reinforced. Whether someone is more likely to become an aggressor or a victim may also depend on whom they identify with, the perpetrators of violence, or their victims. However, for practical purposes, the sheer amount and variety of violence children are exposed to make it likely that all children are vulnerable to these effects in varying degrees. Both boys and girls, more and less intelligent children, and aggressive and nonaggressive children are affected. The long-term effects are greater for children than for adults (Bushman & Huesmann 2006).

Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, but smoking is an important risk factor for the disease. Similarly, not everyone who consumes violent media becomes aggressive, but violent media is an important risk factor for aggression. Research has clearly shown that effects of violent media content are not restricted to people who are genetically or biologically predisposed to be aggressive (and thus also exposing themselves to more violence; see Bushman & Huesmann 2014).


  1. Anderson, C. A., Berkowitz, L., Donnerstein, E. et al. (2003). The influence of media violence on youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 81–110.
  2. Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N. et al. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behaviour in eastern and western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 151–173.
  3. Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 3–11.
  4. Bushman, B. J. & Huesmann, L. R. (2006). Short-term and long-term effects of violent media on aggression in children and adults. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 160, 348–352.
  5. Bushman, B. J. & Huesmann, L. R. (2014). Twenty-five years of research on violence in digital games and aggression revisited: A reply to Elson and Ferguson. European Psychologist, 19(1), 47–55.
  6. Carnagey, N. L., Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2007). The effect of video game violence on physiological desensitization to real life violence. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 489–496.
  7. Drabman, R. S. & Thomas, M. H. (1974). Does media violence increase children’s toleration of real-life aggression? Developmental Psychology, 10, 418–421.
  8. Huesmann, L. R., Moise-Titus, J., Podolski, C. L., & Eron, L. D. (2003). Longitudinal relations between children’s exposure to TV violence and their aggressive and violent behavior in young adulthood: 1977–1992. Developmental Psychology, 39, 201–221.
  9. Huesmann, L. R., Dubow, E. F., & Yang, G. (2013). Why it is hard to believe that media violence causes aggression. In K. E. Dill (ed.), The Oxford handbook of media psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 159–171.
  10. Kirsh, S. J. (2012). Children, adolescents, and media violence: A critical look at the research, 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  11. McGloin, R., Farrar, K., & Krcmar, M. (2013). Video games, immersion, and cognitive aggression: Does the controller matter? Media Psychology, 16(1), 65–87.
  12. Meirick, P. C., Sims, J. D., Gilchrist, E. S., & Croucher, S. M. (2009). All the children are above average: Parents’ perceptions of education and materialism as media effects on their own and other children. Mass Communication and Society, 12(2), 217–237.

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