Television violence and children:

Who benefits?

© 2011 - 2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Hollywood producers serve up lots of television violence to children, and there is some reason for concern.

For example, research hints that time spent watching violent TV predicts the emergence of behavior problems. 

In one recent study,  children who spent more time watching TV violence at the age of 4 had a small, but statistically significant, increased risk of experiencing emotional problems and lower academic achievement in the second grade.

This was true even after "adjusting for preexisting child and family characteristics such as baseline child aggression" (Fitzpatrick et al 2012). So it seems the link may reflect more than just a tendency for aggressive kids to gravitate towards aggressive television.

Researchers have also found evidence that changing television habits can improve behavior. When Dimitri Christakis and his colleagues asked a randomly-selected group of parents to substitute nonviolent, educational TV shows (e.g., Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer) for the more violent fare their preschoolers usually watched, kids exhibited fewer behavior problems and higher levels of social competence 6 months later (Christakis et al 2013).

The effects were modest, but then so was the intervention.

Compared to their counterparts in the control group, parents assigned to change their children's viewing habits managed to reduce screen time with violent content by just 7 and a half minutes per day.

Might more dramatic changes have yielded bigger benefits? Future research may shed light on the question.

Meanwhile, we might ask what purpose entertainment violence serves for young viewers. It's understandable that children, like adults, are interested in stories that involve conflict between characters. Conflict is a basic element of storytelling, and as social animals we are intrinsically interested in the way that conflicts plays out. But does physical aggression make a story more appealing? Do kids prefer violent content?

And here, researchers offer a surprising answer:

If you edit the violence out of a story, kids still enjoy it.

In fact, kids might actually like it better.

The effect was first documented on adults. In his dissertation research, psychologist Andrew Weaver took a set of popular, prime time TV show episodes (Weaver and Wilson 2009). He did some editing and ended up with three versions of each episode:

• the original version with graphic violence (no editing),

• a version with sanitized violence (light editing), and

• a version with no violence (heavy editing).

Weaver randomly assigned people to watch different versions of the show, and he asked them to rate their enjoyment afterwards.

The results?

Television violence did not enhance enjoyment.

When Weaver controlled for the amount of action in the episodes, he found that people actually preferred the least violent version of the show.

Moreover, this was the case for everybody. Men, women, aggressive individuals--even thrill-seekers.

How can this be?

Violence might compel us to watch--the “I can’t help but look at the train wreck” phenomenon. But you don’t have to portray violence to create action, excitement, conflict, or suspense. And violence can detract from our enjoyment of a story.

Our empathy for the victims might upset us. Or we might feel alienated: When the protagonist behaves violently, we might find it harder to identify with that character. We feel less connected to the protagonist and enjoy the story less.

Do children have similar reactions? Now an assistant professor of communications at Indiana University, Weaver led an experiment to find out.

Weaver and colleagues began by creating a 5-minute slapstick cartoon. In it, a character named "Orangehead" paints a picture for an art competition. Eggle, the villain, tries to steal the painting. But the villain fails, and Orangehead’s painting wins first prize.

This core story was subsequently edited to produce four variants that differed in the amount of action and violence:

• Low action, nonviolent

• Low action, violent

• High action, nonviolent

• High action, violent

Violence consisted of physical fighting between the main characters—e.g., punching and kicking. In each case, the villain initiated the violence and the protagonist responded in kind.

The amount of action was manipulated by speeding up the pace and intensifying the characters’ actions. For example, high-action versions of the cartoon showed characters running instead of walking.

For the big test, Weaver and his team randomly assigned 128 American elementary school students (grades K-4) to watch one of the cartoons. Immediately afterwards, each student was questioned by an interviewer.

What did kids say?

There were some sex differences. The boys liked cartoons with more action. The girls didn’t care. And the boys identified more strongly with the (apparently male) protagonist.

But when it came to violence, both sexes agreed:

Kids didn’t like the violent cartoons any more than they liked the nonviolent ones.

And the boys actually enjoyed the violent shows less, perhaps because they felt less identification with a violent protagonist.

Implications

Are the results applicable to real-world entertainment?

You can watch samples of the Orangehead and Eggle show.

Click here for a violent version or here for a non-violent version.

As you’ll see, these shows lack the production values of a Hollywood cartoon, and the slapstick violence isn’t particularly flashy or sophisticated. Maybe kids would respond differently to a live action demonstration of fancy martial arts moves.

But Weaver’s work on adults--and other research about on-screen violence (e.g. Sparks et al 2005; Diener and Woody 1981)-- support the general conclusion: If you control for action and other entertainment values, kids might be just as happy watching nonviolent fare.

It's ironic, given the history of children's television programming. When researcher Barbara J. Wilson and her colleagues analyzed Americans television of the 1990s, they found that children's shows were in some ways more violent than adult's shows were. A greater proportion of children's shows featured violent content (69% versus 57%), and kids' shows depicted higher rates of violence among its characters (2.7 incidents per hour versus 6.5 incidents per hour).

Furthermore, these weren't trivial conflicts. More than half of the violent incidents in children’s television shows were rated by the researchers as “lethal” (Wilson et al 2002).

Speculations

Why are adults creating so much violent content for kids? Maybe writers and producers assume they won’t get an audience without violent storylines (Weaver et al 2011). If so, the new research may help change minds.

But I suspect there is a bit more going on. It may be easier to write stories that use violence to move along the plot.

And as ethnologist David Lancy recounts in his excellent book, The Anthropology of Childhood, adults around the world have often used violent stories to frighten children into behaving properly.

These stories might have entertained, but they probably weren’t designed with the delight of children as the primary goal. There was a social agenda.

It makes me think of research on real-world violence. Frequent physical punishment of children is more common in societies with high levels of warfare, low levels of democracy, and/or high levels of social stratification (Ember and Ember 2005).

Does corporal punishment train children to accept dominance hierarchies and authoritarian rule?

And might television violence serve a similar socializing function?

It makes me wonder what children take away from stories where the protagonist avoids violence and outwits his opponent.

Some of the most popular folktales recount the triumph of intelligence over brute force: The trickster tales of Bre’r Rabbit, Anansi the Spider, Coyote, Loki, Japanese Kitsune or Reynard the Fox.

And trickster tales are a favorite of hunter-gatherers, who are perhaps the most stubbornly individualistic and egalitarian people in the world.

More reading

To read more about the possible effects of media violence, see my article about violent video games.

For more information about the effects of corporal punishment, see my Parenting Science guide to the research on spanking.



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References: Television violence: Do kids really want it?

Christakis DA, Garrison MM, Herrenkohl T, Haggerty K, Rivara FP, Zhou C, Liekweg K. 2013. Modifying media content for preschool children: a randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics 131(3):431-8.

Diener E and Woody LW. 1981. Television violence, conflict, realism, and action: A study in viewer liking. Communication Research 8: 281–306.

Ember C and Ember M. 2005. Explaining Corporal Punishment of Children: A Cross-Cultural Study. American Anthropologist 107(4): 609-619.

Fitzpatrick C, Barnett T, and Pagani LS. 2012. Early exposure to media violence and later child adjustment. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2012 May;33(4):291-7.

Lancy DF. 2008. The anthropology of childhood: Cherubs, chattel, and changelings. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sparks GG, Sherry J, Lubsen G. 2005. The appeal of media violence in a full-length motion picture: An experimental investigation. Communication Reports 18(1): 21-30.

Weaver AJ. 2007. Reconceptualizing attraction to media violence: A meta-analysis and an experiment. PhD thesis UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN. Weaver AJ, Jensen JD, Martins N, Hurley R, and Wilson BJ. 2011. Liking violence and action: An Examination of gender differences in children's processing of animated content. Media Psychology 14: 49-70.

Weaver AJ and Wilson 2009. The role of graphic and sanitized violence in the enjoyment of television dramas. Human Communication Research 35: 442–463.

Wilson BJ, Smith SL, Potter WJ, Kunkel D, Linz D, Colvin CM and Donnerstein E. 2002. Violence in children’s television programming: Assessing the risks. Journal of Communication 52: 5–35.

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