influence of violence on children

Many children’s television programs involve a substantial amount of violence in one form or another. What impact if any, might these programs what impact, if any might these programs have on the development of aggression?

Since the advent of television there has been growing concern about the apparent effects of violence on the attitudes, values and behaviours of children. Much of the research has focused on the effects of violence on television and aggression expressed by children. Some researchers and theorists believe that violence on television is inextricably linked to human aggression while do not believe a conclusive body of evidence exists to justify this view. The debate surrounding whether violence on television influences children’s aggressive behaviour has typically occurred within a social learning framework. There have been two major criticisms of the current debate. The first of these attacks questions the validity of applying effects found in laboratory studies to the real-world. More specifically, these criticisms address the artificial and unrealistic nature of the laboratory evidence used to illustrate an effect between viewing violence on television and expressed aggression in children. The second argument attacks the use of the social learning framework as it ignores any evidence which might suggest a biological or genetic component to human aggression. (eg Miles & Carrey, 1997). Social learning theory however manages to successfully address these criticisms thus maintaining its status as the major single theory used to explain the influence of viewing violent programs on children’s levels of aggression. (Neapolitan, 1981; Walter & Aubrey, 1971; Bandura, 1965 ;Berkowitz & Alioto, 1973)

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Social learning theory explains human behaviour in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioural and environmental influences of the individual. A prominent proponent of social learning theory is Albert Bandura, The social learning theory of Bandura emphasises the importance of observing and modelling the behaviours, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others. Two basic principles are involved in observational learning: acquisition and performance. Acquisition describes the response by which the behaviour is learned through observation. Performance is the process by which the observer acts out the newly learned response. Acquisition of a behaviour however, does not automatically lead to its performance. Whether or not aggressive behaviour acquired will be acted out depends on the perceived consequences of the actors behaviour for the actor and the consequences of aggressing for the observer. Furthermore, whether a learned aggressive response is performed depends, to some extent, to whether the observer and/or actor is rewarded for doing so.

The effect of reinforcement on aggressive behaviour has been illustrated by numerous researchers, (Singer, Singer, Desmond, Hirsch & Nicol,1988; Sanson & Di Muccio, 1993; Neapolitan, 1981). One of the most noted being a series of “bobo doll” studies conducted by Bandura. In a 1965 Bandura study, children saw aggressive behaviour of a model being either rewarded, punished or suffering no consequences. Children who observed a model being punished subsequently had fewer imitative aggressive responses than did those who saw the model rewarded or treated indifferently. Later, however, each child was offered a reward for performing the response carried out earlier by the model. The addition of this incentive cancelled out the effects on imitative aggression of reward and punishment of the original model.

Children in all three treatment conditions had apparently learned the model’s behaviour equally well with reward acting as a facilitation for performance of these learned responses. Other studies also illustrated that children are more likely to model behaviour if they identified with the model and if the model had an admired status and the behaviour expressed had a functional value. (Bandura, 1969)

These findings have direct bearing on the implications for the effect of violence shown on television. In a recent study in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media (1995), it was found that good characters, or heroes, commit 40% of violent acts; More than one third of programs feature bad characters who aren’t punished and physical aggression that is condoned; and that more than 70% of aggressors show no remorse for their violence and experience no criticisms or penalty when violence occurs. This suggests, working within a social learning framework, that violence viewed on television by children will result in increased levels of expressed aggression in children. Since according to this theory it is under these conditions, where violence is seen as desirable and unpunished, that modelling is most likely to occur.

Bandura’s studies, amongst others, imply that environmental influences moderate and control the expression of aggression. One of the most influential environmental influences on a child’s life is parental. A number of researchers are of the opinion that that any negative effects imposed by viewing violence on television can be negated through parental reinforcement . Singer, Singer, Desmond, Hirsch & Nicol (1988), found that the effects of watching filmed violence are lessened if an adult is present to talk over the content with the viewing child. The impcat is lessened by the parent encouraging the children to be more analytic and critical in their viewing habits and therefore more resistant to modelling behaviours. (Sanson & Di Muccio, 1993). It has also been shown that parents increase aggression through the use of physical punishment and supporting and encouraging such behaviour (Neapolitan, 1981). However, this evidence, while having real impact on the realities of children’s viewing habits, does not directly address the existence of a link between children’s viewing habits and aggressive behaviour.

In sum, according to the social learning theory, television violence has an impact on expressed levels of aggression in children by the following proces; children learn to be aggressive by watching actors on television and then model the actors aggressive behaviours. Television violence can make children more accepting of aggressive behaviour, that is, they become desensitised to the effects of violence (possibly through habituation). (Lande, 1993). There is a corresponding increased acceptance of violence as an appropriate means of conflict resolution (Collins, 1973). An Alternate way of presenting this is that children learn new violent behaviours by encoding, rehearsing, storing and retrieval of scripts for aggression (Hauseman & Erron, 1986).

However, the studies proposing these models of increased aggressive behaviour have been challenged on the basis of methodological problems. (Green, 1984, Cook, Kendziersky & Thomas, 1983)

One of the major criticisms put forth by Freedman (1984) concerns the external validity of laboratory experiments. (eg Bandura, 1965). He argues that the viewing environment set up in experiments is artificial and cannot be generalised to real-world television experiences. This is an important point since, as already mentioned, according to the social learning theory a key determinant of the likelihood to model behaviour is the extent to which a child can identify with a particular model. This is supported by research illustrating an effect of realistically filmed violence on children’s levels of aggression and no effect when unrealistically filmed violence was viewed by children. (Noble, 1973). An explanation for performance of modelled aggression during laboratory experiments could be explained by experimental demands for imitation rather than aggressiveness per se. Friedrich-Cofer and Huston maintain that although such demand may occur, there is no evidence that it accounts for the effects of violent television. On the contrary, their work found that violent television is more likely to produce aggressive behaviour when the experimenter leaves the child alone than when the adult remains during the test for aggression. (Stein & Friedrich, 1975).

It has also been argued that the stimuli used in laboratory experiments were not typical of normal program viewing. Most children’s television diet consists of pro-social as well as aggressive models. It is therefore difficult to isolate the effects of violent television programs on children. However, content analyses have shown that since 1968 there have been 5 or 6 incidents of violence per hour in prime television and 15 to 16 incidents per hour in cartoons (Signorielli, Gross, & Morgan, 1982)

This suggests that laboratory studies do not misrepresent levels of violence shown to children in the real world. This concern is however legitimate and should be investigated in further research.

While concerns remain over the atypical nature of stimuli, strong arguments exist to support the studies conducted within the social learning framework . Friedrich-Cofer, et al., maintain that the potential biases in the laboratory method are both positive and negative. On one hand, the effects of television violence could be magnified since the effects of other variables are minimised (eg pro social models). On the other hand however, effects could be underestimated as stimuli used in laboratory experiments are brief and often less violent than the programs typically viewed on television.

Researches have consistently shown a genetic influence on aggression. (Miles, & Carey, 1977; Carey, 1994; Bouchard, & McGue 1990). A potential weakness in research emphasising the importance of environmental influences, such as television on aggression, is that biological and genetic evidence could be ignored. From a biological perspective, it may be that children who are predisposed to aggression watch violent television. That is, there could be a bidirectional relationship between violence viewed on television and levels of aggression in children. (Freedman, 1984). This perspective is consistent with the arousal theory of human aggression. This states that aggressive individuals are internally under aroused and therefore seek compensatory stimulation from their external environment. It is this need for extra stimulation which leads the individual to become more aggressive.

This criticism has been addressed by Friedrich-Cofer et al., on two levels. Firstly, random assignment of subjects to treatments ensures that any differences shown between groups are not a function of other unmeasurable variables such as naturally occurring violent tendencies. Secondly, the theory and research supporting a bidirectional relationship between television violence and aggression is consistent with social learning theories which articulate the reciprocal effects of environmental variables and qualities of the individual. (Mischel, 1979). Independent assessment of each direction of causality supports the conclusion that there is a small though positive correlation between viewing violent television and later aggressive behaviour (Fredrich-Cofer et al.).

In conclusion, the weight of social learning theory and convergent evidence supports the likelihood that television contributes to aggression in many children.

Should consider evidence presented with policy making and also maybe in terms of behaviour modification.


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