Childhood exposure to media violence predicts young adult aggressive behavior

Children’s viewing of violent TV shows, their identification with aggressive same-sex TV characters, and their perceptions that TV violence is realistic are all linked to later aggression as young adults, for both males and females. That is the conclusion of a 15-year longitudinal study of 329 youth published in the March issue of Developmental Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association (APA). These findings hold true for any child from any family, regardless of the child’s initial aggression levels, their intellectual capabilities, their social status as measured by their parents’ education or occupation, their parents’ aggressiveness, or the mother’s and father’s parenting style.

Psychologists L. Rowell Huesmann, Ph.D., Jessica Moise-Titus, Ph.D., Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, M.A., and Leonard D. Eron, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan undertook the study as a follow-up of a 1977 longitudinal study of 557 children, ages 6 – 10, growing up in the Chicago area. In that study, children identified which violent TV shows they watched most, whether they identified with the aggressive characters and whether they thought the violent situations were realistic. Some examples of shows rated as very violent were Starsky and Hutch, The Six Million Dollar Man and Roadrunner cartoons. The current study re-surveyed 329 of the original boys and girls, now in their early 20s. The participants asked about their favorite TV programs as adults and about their aggressive behaviors. The participants’ spouses or friends were also interviewed and were asked to rate the participant’s frequency of engaging in aggressive behavior. The researchers also obtained data on the participants from state archives, which included criminal conviction records and moving traffic violations.

Results show that men who were high TV-violence viewers as children were significantly more likely to have pushed, grabbed or shoved their spouses, to have responded to an insult by shoving a person, to have been convicted of a crime and to have committed a moving traffic violation. Such men, for example, had been convicted of crimes at over three times the rate of other men.

Women who were high TV-violence viewers as children were more likely to have thrown something at their spouses, to have responded to someone who made them mad by shoving, punching, beating or choking the person, to have committed some type of criminal act, and to have committed a moving traffic violation. Such women, for example, reported having punched, beaten or choked another adult at over four times the rate of other women.

Might these results simply be an indication that more aggressive children like to watch violent TV shows? “It is more plausible that exposure to TV violence increases aggression than that aggression increases TV-violence viewing,” said Dr. Huesmann. “For both boys and girls, habitual early exposure to TV violence is predictive of more aggression by them later in life independent of their own initial childhood aggression. Also, the study suggests that being aggressive in early childhood has no effect on increasing males’ exposure to media violence as adults and only a small effect for females.”

Violent films and programs that probably have the most deleterious effects on children are not always the ones that adults and critics believe are the most violent, the authors point out. “Violent scenes that children are most likely to model their behavior after are ones in which they identify with the perpetrator of the violence, the perpetrator is rewarded for the violence and in which children perceive the scene as telling about life like it really is,” according to the researchers. “Thus, a violent act by someone like Dirty Harry that results in a criminal being eliminated and brings glory to Harry is of more concern than a bloodier murder by a despicable criminal who is brought to justice.”

The study suggests a number of steps parents and society can take to prevent or reduce this effect. Research has shown that parental co-viewing of and commenting on the programs seems to reduce the effects of TV violence on children, probably because it reduces the child’s identification with the person committing the violent act, reduces the child’s perception that the violence is real and reduces the likelihood that the child will act out the violent act in fantasy or play immediately after seeing it on TV.

V-chip technology, which gives parents a way to control what the TV will allow to be broadcast in the home, is a step in the right direction, according to the authors, “but only if a content-based rating system is used that would actually allow parents to make judgements on the basis of violent content instead of the age guideline rating system used for many programs.”

Article: “Longitudinal Relations Between Children’s Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood: 1977 – 1992,” L. Rowell Huesmann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard D. Eron of the University of Michigan; Developmental Psychology, Vol. 39, No. 2.

Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office or at http://www.apa.org/journals/dev/press_releases/march_2003/dev392201.html

Lead author L. Rowell Huesmann, Ph.D., is available for media interviews. He is currently in California and can be reached during the day and evening at 949-673-0767 (PLEASE, NO CALLS BEFORE 12:00 NOON EASTERN TIME) or by e-mail at huesmann@umich.edu.

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