The effects of media violence on children

In today’s technologically-developed society, children have become more influenced by the media than their own parents. Though there are a large variety of different types of media content out there, such as non-violent, sports, educational etc., violence in media still remains a huge and prominent genre across all boards. For example, over 60% of television shows aired during prime time contain some form of violence. (Villani, 2003).

Children, especially, are most prone to the effects of violent media, having the exposure at such vulnerable, immature stages of their lives. With the use of technology becoming such an integrated part of children’s lives today more so than ever in the past, (be it, television, video game consoles, tablets etc.), the opportunity to be exposed to violent media is even greater. Specific to television, according to the Neilsen 2013 Irish TV Consumption Report, Irish children, 14 and under, watch on average, 2 hours and 20 minutes of TV daily, with those numbers even reaching 2 hours and 53 minutes of viewing on Saturdays.

Additionally, the average child is exposed to 21 advertisements a day. (Neilsen, 2013). When children watch television, they are physically passive, yet mentally very active, absorbing the information, ideas, roles and values portrayed on screen. Similarly, another form of violent media entertainment are video games.

Unfortunately, the majority of most popular video games in the market played by youth contain violence. Video games sold in stores are universally rated on a system ranging from “E” (suitable for all audiences) to “E10+” to “M” (mature audiences intended to be played by individuals 17 years of age and older). Factually, over 90% of “E10+” games contain a violence descriptor.

Additionally, 70% of children age 9-16 admit to playing mature-rated games. (Gentile, 2007).

According to Forbes, 7 out of the 10 “top ten best-selling video games of 2014” worldwide were games with violent descriptors. The remaining 3 (NBA 2K15, NFL 15, FIFA 15) were in the 3 sports genre. Violence-dominating games have proved time and time again to be successful and in demand in the market, with sales in these categories increasing yearly. (Forbes, 2014). It is important to note that the majority of these violent video game sales occur in America.

In contrast, in Europe, gun-filled and gory games do not sell as well in comparison. Market trends have shown that European gamers prefer shorter, casual games, such as FIFA, rather than long, tedious fantasy games. Further proven financially, in 2008, “Call of Duty 4” sold 900,000 copies in Europe versus 4.8 million copies in the States. (Forbes, 2008). This contrast however, does not mean that violent video game series are not popular and prominent in the European market, but rather it is just not as prominent in comparison to the American market. One can argue children can benefit from the coordination and quick-thinking abilities of playing video games, however, if the child is constantly playing violent games, they will soon begin to believe such types of behaviour are “normal”.

Emanuel Tanay, retired Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Wayne State University explains, “If children begin to think that this type of violence is normal behaviour these thoughts are often said to be difficult to change later in life….Reality is distorted. If you live in a fictional world, the fictional world becomes your reality.” (AAP, 2009).

Psychologists have argued that in relativity, violence on television can be considered “less detrimental” due to the fact the child is not physically playing out the violence. According to this view, the more that children practice violent acts, the more likely they will be to perform the violent act. (Clark, 1993). For decades, extensive research has been done on this topic, both short term and long term, empirically and experimentally and multiple professionals in the field of psychology and psychiatry have come to very similar conclusions. Put simply, according to many studies and overwhelming research evidence, media violence does have a direct negative impact on children’s behaviour and mentality.

The American Academy of Paediatrics states that media violence contributes to degrees of aggressive behaviour, desensitization to real-life violence, nightmares and fear of being harmed. Furthermore, heavy viewers, (identified as children who watch four or more hours of media a day containing forms of violence) put less effort into school work, have poorer reading skills, are less friendly when engaging with friends and participate in 4 much less physical activity. (AAP, 2009).

Aggression can vary from physical, to verbal to social. Violent behaviour can range from mild to extreme. This type of positive correlation between media violence and aggression is reaffirmed through multiple other studies as well. Psychologist Dr. Craig Anderson has proven this conclusion through every form of major type of study design: randomized experiments, cross-sectional correlation studies and longitudinal studies. For example, Anderson and his colleagues had conducted a study in 2007 on children and their teachers testing the relation between aggression and violent media consumption, and had found that both boys and girls who frequently played video games had changed behaviourally over the school year, becoming more aggressive. (Anderson, 2007).

Another longitudinal study conducted earlier between 1977-1992 came to similar findings. Psychologist Dr. Rowell Heusmann and colleagues of the University of Michigan studied 329 youths over the course of 15 years. Once the participants were in their early 20s, he re-questioned them, even evaluating answers from their partners/spouses and checking criminal conviction and traffic violation records. Results show that both the men and women who were high TV-violence watchers as children were more likely to have acted physically with their spouses when angry, responded to insults with mild to severe forms of violence (shoving, punching, etc.) and were more likely to have committed some form of a crime. High TV-violence viewing men were convicted of crimes at over three times the rate of non-TV-violence viewing men. For women, it was four times more than the rate of non-TV violence viewing women. (Heusmann, 1992).

Furthermore, experimental studies have proven that even a single exposure to violent media can stimulate aggression immediately in children. Psychologist Dr. Kaj Bjorkqvist, of Finland, conducted a study, assigning one group of a dozen five year old Finnish children to watch violent movies and another dozen to watch nonviolent movies. He then put the children in a room to play together and asked observers (who did not know which child was placed in which group) to rate their physical and verbal aggression. Not surprisingly, the children who had just watched the violent movies were consistently rated much higher than those from the nonviolent group. (Bjorkqvist, 1985). With the above results in mind, it is important to note that the effects of media violence can have varying effects overtime.

Media violence in the short term for children increases aggressive scripts and cognitions, triggering an automatic inclination to intimate the projected behaviours. Continuous media violence exposure in the long term effects children’s learning processes to think positively, thereby increasing negative emotional responses to violence. (Anderson, 2003). An interesting perspective worth mentioning is that it is not always the most violent films, programs or games that have the most adverse effects on children — but rather, the ones in which the children feel they can most identify with the perpetrator of the violence.  Moreover, if the perpetrator is rewarded/not punished for the action, children will have the tendency to perceive this type of behaviour to be acceptable. (Anderson, 2003).

Continuous media violence exposure in the long term effects children’s learning processes to think positively, thereby increasing negative emotional responses to violence. (Anderson, 2003).

Despite the fact that children will inevitably be exposed to some form of violent media in their childhood, there are preventative measures parents and guardians can take to reduce the effects.

  • Prevention –

Firstly, parental co-viewing and commenting on the programs reduces the effects by informing the child of the fantasy perception and intolerance of such actions. This, thereby, reduces the child’s ability to identify with the character and their likelihood of imitating such behaviours.

Parental blocks on channels and programs also prevent the child from being exposed to inappropriate content. Though this can help moderate the situation between the child and parent, there is no conclusive research that can suggest these interventions can deteriorate aggression in the long term. Delving deeper, it is worthwhile to note there can be more layers that can potentially contribute to a child’s behaviour beyond just the media. Though Dr. Heussman argues that is the media exposure that contributes to the prediction of aggressive behaviour, (regardless of initial existing aggression levels, family status and income), (Heusmann, 1992), a recent study conducted by Psychologist Dr. Douglas Gentile in 2012 states that media exposure is 1 of 6 risk factors that predict future aggression in children. After studying 430 children ages 7 to 11 in Minnesota, he concludes that besides media violence, other risk factors that contribute to aggression are (where applicable): bias towards hostility, low parental involvement, participant sex, physical victimization and prior physical fights. (Gentile, 2012)

Though the majority of findings appear to be American conducted studies, the extensiveness of these research findings can be very applicable across all borders and cultures, as each country and culture possesses their own unique variations of media violence that have the ability to influence their nation’s children. In summary, time and time again, empirical and longitudinal studies have proven that media violence exposure does have degrees of immediate, short term and long term effects on children.

Research dating from the 70s to as recent as 2012, show that violence exposure is an ongoing issue that can negatively impact a child. Because the mass media market is so huge and so powerful in today’s society, it is inevitable that children will likely be exposed to such content and become influenced to certain degrees.


Preventative measures are helpful, but cannot guarantee the success of aggression prevention. With that said, though there already exists a magnitude and wealth of research on the effects of media violence on children, there is always room for future investigation. For one, further research can be done comparing the effects on children who are exposed to violent media and have constant parental intervention versus those who do not.

This research may be able to pinpoint the significance media versus direct familial influence can have on a child. Furthermore, this type of research should be done cross culturally.

Parental styling and disciplining can vary, for example, from Irish parents to Indian parents, and therefore the responsiveness of the child in the long-term will be different. Additionally, other forms of interventions should be tested to see which is the most influential and effective in controlling aggression. Another area of future research can be investigating the correlation between habitual childhood exposure to media violence and violence committed in real life. Because extreme forms of criminal violence is rare (rape, aggravated assault, etc), new longitudinal studies, with large, and diverse sample sizes should be tested to see if violent media exposure in children increases the risk of committing extreme violence.

Especially in today’s society, where there exists hundreds of crime-thriller TV shows such as Criminal Minds and Dexter, this generation of children have way more opportunity to be exposed to this type of content than ever before.

Lastly, another area of research that can be explored is the effect of the media on youth, with specific emphasis of various socioeconomic and cultural factors. There currently exists a wealth of studies conducted in America, and in parts of Europe, however, it would be fascinating to compare and contrast the effects media violence has on children who come from lower socioeconomic classes versus middle and higher, and across all continents in the world. Culture plays a huge role in shaping behaviours, so it is vital to explore and see if certain nation’s children respond to media violence more mildly or extremely than other nations and understand why.

Interesting article by Håvard Ruud for The on the effects of violent video games.

Click Here


  • Bibliography – 

Villani, Susan, 2003. “Media Violence: More than Just Child’s Play? Facts of Life: Issue Briefings for Health Reporters” vol. 8, no. 10. Web. Accessed July 2, 2015.

The Neilson Company. “The TV Consumption Report 2013”. Web. Accessed July 2, 2015.

Gentile, D.A. “The rating systems for media products”. in: S. Calvert, B. Wilson (Eds.) Handbook of Children, Media, and Development. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, UK; 2008:527–551.

Kain, Erik. “The Top Ten Best-Selling Video Games Of 2014”. Web. Accessed June 30, 2015. Irwin, Mary Jane. “Games that Europe Loves to Play”. Web. Accessed June 30, 2015.

Clark, C.S. (1993). “TV Violence. CQ Researcher”. 3(12, Mar26): p. 167- 187.

“Longitudinal Relations Between Children’s Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behaviour 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

The American Academy of Paediatrics: Policy statement. “Media violence. Pediatrics.” 2009. Web. Accessed July 2, 2015.

Anderson CA, Berkowitz L, Donnerstein E, Huesmann LR, Johnson, JD, Linz D, Malamuth NM, Wartella E. “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth. Psychological Science in the Public Interest.” Iowa State University. December 2003 vol. 4 no. 3 p. 81-110

Anderson CA, Gentile DA, Buckley KE. “Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy.” Book. New York: Oxford University Press; 2007.

  1. Kaj Bjorkqvist, “Violent Films, Anxiety, and Aggression”. Book. (Helsinki: Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters, 1985). Gentile, Douglas A., and Brad J. Bushman.

“Reassessing media violence effects using a risk and resilience approach to understanding aggression.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture 1.3 (2012): 138.

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