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Television Violence: 
What the Research Says About Its Effect on Young Children

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The message of TV violence research is loud and clear:
exposure to media violence causes
children to behave more aggressively, both immediately and when they are older.

We must ask

  • How can we understand the research about the media's role in the violence we see in our society?
  • How can we help parents understand that they are their children’s most important teachers?
  • How can we avoid the marketing ploy that watching television violence is okay since it is merely a reflection of our society?



Parents are their children’s most important teachers.



Here's a classic book about how parents can change the way their children interact with media:
The Plug In Drug
by Marie Winn

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Television Violence: 
What the Research Says About Its Effect on Young Children

1996 by Jeanne Beckman, Ph.D.

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Article:  Effects of
Television Violence

This article is based primarily on information obtained from the following source:
Huesmann, L. Rowell and Miller, Laurie S. (1994). Long-term effects of repeated exposure to media violence in childhood.  In L. Rowell Huesmann (ed.) Aggressive Behavior, (pp. 153-186), New York: Plenum Press.


Does watching violence on television truly harm young children?  Some experts say that televised violence has a profound effect on children.  However, it’s not difficult to find other “experts” who dismiss its effects, claiming that watching violent TV shows is no different than listening to fairy tales.  These conflicting statements tend to make parents give up the TV battle with their children.

As a developmental psychologist and a parent of three young children, I want to tell you what we already know regarding children’s exposure to television violence.  There is a great deal of research which goes back over 20 years.  This research has followed the lives of real children viewing real television.  The message of this research is loud and clear:  Exposure to media violence causes children to behave more aggressively, both immediately and when they are older.  Those “experts” who say that media violence has no effect on children are ignoring the vast volumes of research in the same way as the “experts” who say that cigarette smoking does not cause cancer.

Some of the Specifics and Statistics which you should know includes:

  • Children watch an average of over 28 hours of television per week.  By the time the average child reaches the age of twelve, he or she has witnessed over 8,000 murders.
  • Children’s television programs actually contain five times more violence than the average prime time hour of TV.
  • By the age of 8, aggression becomes so ingrained in a child that it predicts adult aggression.
  • Children who spend more time watching violent television programming are rated more poorly by their teachers, rated more poorly by their peers, have fewer problem-solving skills, and are more likely to get in trouble with the law as teenagers and young adults.
  • Those children most at risk are the ones who most prefer television violence:  More aggressive children watch more violent television and actually prefer more violent television than their less aggressive peers.
  • Parents often worry that their children will not be able to fit in with their friends if they do not watch popular children’s television programs.  The research, however, tells us that children who watch more violent television programs are actually rated more poorly by their peers..
  • Researchers have determined that the high level of violence in our society is being made worse by so many children having a regular habit of media violence.

I have heard so called “experts” say that watching violent children’s programming is no different than the fairy tales in books. However, television is different from fairy tales in books and as told by storytellers for many reasons.  First of all children are very visual learners. 

Television is more visual, more salient, more intense than the fairy tales that are read or told to children.  Having fairy tales read by a parent is a shared experience.  It encourages development of a child’s imagination, and there is usually an opportunity to comment and talk about what happened in the story.  Parents also have an opportunity to talk about what they would do in the situation of the story.  Parents can also gauge their children’s reaction to the story and “tone it down” if necessary.  These read-aloud stories actually become an opportunity for parents to share their own family values with their children.  On the other hand, television is a very passive, solo activity usually done without the parent sharing the experience.  Talking and discussion are actually discouraged by television viewers (“Shhh!  Quiet!   I can’t hear the TV!”).

Dr. Jerome Singer, is a professor of psychology at Yale University.  He suggests that parents to view TV as a stranger in their house.  This stranger, he says, teaches your kids to punch and kick their way through conflict resolution and this stranger tries to sell your children all kinds of products, some of which you may not approve.  Just as you would not allow a real uninvited stranger in your house, you need to think twice about what TV strangers are saying and doing to your children.  You also need to be aware of the moral and advertising messages you allow your children to see and hear without your supervision.

Since children are very visual learners, they model both the positive and negative the behaviors they see.  Children watching violent television view the acceptance of aggressive behavior, even if this aggressive behavior is performed by the “good guys.”  Children are learning that THE way to resolve conflict is through fighting; they observe and learn that it is acceptable to use violence to resolve conflict.  When children who watch superheros beating the villains with violence, they learn that fighting is the preferred method of conflict resolution.

In Home Alone II, the bad guys would have been killed many times over from the defensive acts that little Kevin performed.  These acts appeared very real, very do-able by children.  Yet these acts of violence are made humorous so that children laugh at one individual inflicting deadly force upon another.

Parents are their children’s most important teacher.  Parents can teach their children both by modeling appropriate behaviors and by saying that they do not like watching so much fighting on TV (as they turn off the TV).  Do not accept the marketing ploy that watching television violence is okay since it is merely a reflection of our society.  I don’t know about you, but my view as a parent and a professional is that Hollywood writers rarely have a clue about what non-Hollywood society is truly like.  I want to teach my children that there are still important values that we should follow.  Children need to learn that violence is not the preferred mode of conflict resolution. Parents need to work at feeling comfortable in teaching their children their family values, not mindlessly believing some media advertiser’s concept of what children want.

Television viewing is different today than when we were kids.  Children of today have far more television programming available while parents are busier and therefore less accessible to their children than in previous generations.  At the same time, children have fewer opportunities for unstructured social interactions with their peers where they could learn and practice conflict resolution.  Parents of today need to take a more active role in teaching their children how to resolve conflict and to get along with others.

The vast research on the effects of children’s exposure to media violence gives us a clear message that it causes children to be more aggressive both immediately and as they grow older.  Children with greater exposure have more difficulties in problem-solving and poorer peer relationships.  Parents need to watch and listen carefully to that stranger in the house(the media) and decide whether the message it delivers supports the values that individual family believes are important.




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Dr. Jeanne Beckman
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Telephone: 847-446-1251