Television violence: Do kids really want it?
Evidence that children are happier when they consume less aggressive entertainment
© 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
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.
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 one study, Andrew Weaver and Barbara Wilson (2009) took a set of popular, prime time
TV show episodes and edited them. The results were 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).
The researchers randomly assigned people to watch different versions of the show, and then, afterwards, they asked viewers to rate their enjoyment.
Television violence did not enhance enjoyment.
When researchers controlled for the amount of action in the episodes, they 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. And when Weaver ran a follow-up study, he obtained similar results. Although people were more likely, beforehand, to request violent programming to watch, viewing violence didn't boost happiness. People enjoyed the nonviolent episodes more (Weaver and Kobach 2012).
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
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
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.
Are the results applicable to real-world entertainment?
You can watch samples of the Orangehead and Eggle show.
Click here for a violent version
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).
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
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
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
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.
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
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Diener E and Woody LW. 1981. Television violence, conflict,
realism, and action: A study in viewer liking. Communication Research 8:
Ember C and Ember M. 2005. Explaining Corporal Punishment of
Children: A Cross-Cultural Study. American Anthropologist 107(4):
Fitzpatrick C, Barnett T, and Pagani LS. 2012. Early exposure to
media violence and later child adjustment. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2012
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.
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thesis UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN.
Weaver AJ, Jensen JD, Martins N, Hurley R, and Wilson BJ. 2011. Liking
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Weaver AJ and Wilson 2009. The role of graphic and sanitized
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Weaver AJ and Kobach M. 2012. The relationship between selective exposure and the enjoyment of television violence. Aggressive Behavior 38(2): 175-184.
Wilson BJ, Smith SL, Potter WJ, Kunkel D, Linz D, Colvin CM and
Donnerstein E. 2002. Violence in children’s television programming:
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