The heart of the matter of child exposure to violence in media is threefold: (1) children are massively exposed to media from very early childhood; (2) a large fraction of mass media content contains violence; and (3) media directed toward older children and adolescents may be particularly violent, while media (particularly television) directed toward younger children, some argue, may contain “risky” violence.
Children in the 21st century increasingly inhabit a media-saturated environment, one that more than ever allows them to choose, without mediation, an extraordinarily wide array of content. Much of this content is violent. While neither positive nor harmful effects may be postulated from exposure to such content, that the media environment is a violent one is beyond dispute; moreover, a robust body of literature suggests that media violence, and particularly the sorts of violence presented in prime time television and theatrical film, is a predictor of aggression and attitudes associated with aggression.
Child Exposure To Media
Media, particularly screen media (television, computers, videogames), are virtually ubiquitous in 21st-century households. Researchers estimate that among U.S. households with children, television penetration exceeds 98%, while 80% of such households have computers, and nearly half have videogame consoles (in families of older children, this rises to 83%). Studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation show that children under age 6 and 8to 18-year-olds are becoming increasingly media saturated, as new media technologies become layered atop one another in the home. Moreover, almost all television households are now multiset households, and even young children may have televisions in their bedrooms—18% of those under age 2, 39% of 3to 4-year-olds, and more than two thirds of 8to 18-year-olds. Though older children begin to supplant some of the time they devote to television to using other media, particularly computers, TV remains the dominant, consensus family medium. Two indicia of the degree of media saturation are that nearly a third of all children under age 6 live in homes where a television is on nearly all day (among kids under age 6, 1 hour and 57 minutes per day is spent using all screen media, just under 1 hour listening to music, and 40 minutes reading or being read to) and that children ages 8 to 18 average 8 hours and 33 minutes exposed to all media; allowing for “multitasking” exposure to more than one medium at a time, 8to 18-year-olds average 6 hours, 21 minutes per day using mass media (of this, 43 minutes are spent on print media; 1 hour, 2 minutes on computers; 3 hours, 4 minutes on television; 49 minutes on videogames; and 1 hour, 11 minutes on movies on DVD or video). Among this group, half say a TV is usually on in the home, even if no one is watching.
While large majorities of parents of young children say they have rules about media use, newer media and in-bedroom televisions are frequently beyond the close scrutiny of parents. Among 8to 18-year-olds, slightly fewer than half report any family rules governing TV watching and, of these, only an eighth report rules about which shows a child may or may not watch.
Violent Content In Media
Mass media content of course varies widely in the presence, degree, nature, and context of its violent content. Content specifically targeted to very young children contains relatively little violent content, but content targeted to older children and adolescents may in fact be more violent than that intended for adult audiences. As many content analyses have shown, screen media— television, videogames, and theatrical film—generally manifest relatively high instances of violence.
The most comprehensive analysis of television content ever undertaken, the National Television Violence Study, reported that over three TV seasons on 23 network, independent, basic cable, and premium cable channels, about 60% of all programming contained some violence, with more than half of programs depicting violence in realistic settings, and almost three quarters of violent scenes showing no remorse or penalty for commission of violent acts. The study’s authors concluded that the depiction of televised violence was pervasive, glamorized, sanitized, and trivialized. Violent depictions were most prevalent on premium cable, dominated by reruns of theatrical films (90% of which contain violent content), followed by independent stations, then broadcast networks, then basic cable (public TV channels have next to none). While violence was somewhat more prevalent during prime time, when young children were less likely to be in the audience, the difference was strong only on broadcast television; on cable, daytime TV was almost as violent as prime time TV.
As noted above, parental enforcement of rules for television viewing is most likely to concern the amount of time children watch TV. Rules regulating content are less prevalent; one survey found that about a quarter of parents use TV ratings “often” to make decisions about acceptable programs, and just 7% have used the V-chip.
Large majorities of the most popular videogames and theatrical films contain content that is violent, much of it also glamorized, sanitized, and trivialized. In both media, industry self-regulatory ratings systems are designed to keep the most violent content away from young audiences. Such systems are variably enforced, and some research has pointed to a “forbidden fruit” effect, wherein, at least for older children, a more “mature” rating may serve to attract audiences while a “G” rating may repel them.
The Risks Of Exposure To Violent Content
Older children and adolescents may be disproportionately exposed to violent media content. Programmers use violent content to attract this audience based on purchase and ratings data that indicate preferences for this content in shows watched, motion pictures attended, and videogames purchased, and economic analysis suggests these content preferences are more pronounced for adolescents and young adults than for older adults. Preferences for violent content are believed to reflect young people’s seeking excitement, adventure, and risk.
While younger viewers of screen media, particularly television, are less exposed to violence than older children, researchers for the National Television Violence Study employed a cognitive developmental theory to suggest that the cartoon fantasy and slapstick humor violence to which they are exposed places them at risk, since young children are unable to distinguish fantasy from reality or to make adultlike inferences about motives and consequences. In addition, the media-effects research literature has shown that violence coupled with humor, endemic to cartoon violence, is linked with learning of aggressive behavior.
- Hamilton, J. T. (1998). Channeling violence: The economic market for violent television programming. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- National Television Violence Study. (1998). National Television Violence Study (Vol. 3). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Rideout, V., & Hamel, E. (2006). The media family. Retrieved from https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/7500.pdf
- Roberts, D., Foehr, U., & Rideout, V. (2005). Generation M: Media in the lives of 8–18 year-olds. Retrieved from https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/generation-m-media-in-the-lives-of-8-18-year-olds-report.pdf
- Wartella, E., & Robb, M. (2007). Young children, new media. Journal of Children and Media, 1, 35–44.
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