Does Violence in the Media Contribute to Violent Children?

Alaina Davis

While some people may disagree that violent media contributes to violent children, the fact remains that violence is now part of our everyday world. Many tragedies, from the Gulf War to the loss of the World Trade Center Towers were televised nightly or even 24 hours a day on some news channels. I am not suggesting children be deprived of the knowledge that there is violence in our world, rather I would suggest that children must be supervised for such programming, because children cannot always tell the difference between fact and fantasy.

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In this paper, we will look at three specifically violent events and the feelings of children who viewed the events on television, or were within close proximity to the violence and watched it televised as well. I do not personally believe that television has the exclusive power to create a violent child however; I do believe that it can be an integral part of a storm of events that can help to create a violent child.

There is an amazing array of numbers and facts surrounding television alone, regardless of programming and the ages of the children who watch unsupervised. Fremont (2007), states that there is an average of three televisions in 41% of American homes.

Children from ages 2-7 watch television unsupervised and alone 81% of the time. In this same age group, 33% have televisions in their own bedrooms. I personally feel that this is far too much television for children of this age to watch television so much with no adult supervision. It is obvious that television has indeed become the new babysitter. Another statistic from Fremont (2007) is that children watch televised news 65% of the time as compared to 44% who read newspapers. Television, and images in general tend to generate a more visceral reaction than reading printed text does. For example, I can write a text only report about the violence surrounding the Twin Towers Attacks on September 11, 2001, and it will no doubt stir up some reaction, in part because we all had such a large amount of television exposure to the event. However, even at that, reading a text only report, will not elicit the same visceral response as showing pictures will, and that response will heighten with each enhancement to the report. Videography, with a narrator and actual live footage of the event, elicits the strongest reaction to any event, good or bad. However, in our society, violence seems to elicit the strongest responses and the most interest. This is true of not only our news broadcasts, but of television shows, movies and video games.

A few more facts, which will become more clear as we relate them to specific events:

Less than 50% of children display feelings of anger, depression, or sadness after watching the news (Fremont, 2007). Bushman (2007), states that younger children are more likely to imitate what they see on television. Considering the amount of the age 2-7 group of children that are allowed unsupervised viewing and the psychological processing of that age group, it is easy to see why they would imitate what they see without reasoning for consequence. Browne & Hamilton-Giachritsis (2007). have shown a correlation between homes that are violent in nature, children who watch large amounts of televisions in these violent homes, and juvenile delinquency in their teenage years.

There are many forms of violence available on television, as entertainment, education, or in conjunction with television and the internet, such as on violent gaming. As a starting place, we are going to briefly visit three national tragedies, in order of happening because television coverage increased with each tragedy. As coverage increased, so did the amount of televisions available to view it on, as well as the time of the coverage.

The first national tragedy is the Challenger accident, resulting in the destruction of the space capsule, as well as everyone on board, including a civilian female schoolteacher. Compared to the next two national tragedies, the Challenger received little airplay of the accident scene that was aired on the national news of the takeoff, and the very sudden violent explosion of the capsule. As an adult, I briefly remember the news coverage about the accident, and I remember that coverage was short lived. I had a 3-year-old daughter at the time, but she was never allowed to watch television unsupervised as a child, and she did not watch televised news. However, in a small study done at the time of 153 children from Concord, NH, and Porterville, CA, there was no initial reaction difference between the two coasts (Fremont, 2007). There was an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in East coast children, as opposed to the West coast children (Fremont, 2007).

Fremont (2007). did not state the ages of the children involved in the study, but we know that children under eight are generally less able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. That is why children from 2-7 still believe in the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and the monsters under the bed. Because they do not always process these events as real, and therefore not as horrific as older children, juveniles do and adults do, if they develop symptoms at all, it is likely as an emotional cue that this is how we are supposed to act in response to such a tragedy.

The Oklahoma City Bombing was a personal event because I live in Oklahoma. There was more national coverage on the news, and for a longer period of time than with the Challenger accident. Neighbors talked about it for longer periods, even after the news stopped covering it.

In another study, seven weeks after the event, 3000 children of middle and high school age were surveyed. Freemont (2007). noted that those who were bereaved through involvement, directly, or indirectly, were more likely to report symptoms than those who were not so closely involved with the incident. However, it is also important to note that the Murrah Building Bombing’s television exposure did lead to trauma related symptoms for more than 2 years past the actual event date (Fremont, 2007). Given the additional coverage time and duration of this incident, which occurred nine years after Challenger, it is obvious that violent television broadcasts do have an effect on children.

Our final national tragedy is the day simply known now as 9/11. On September 11, 2001, hijacked jets being flown into each of its twin towers attacked the World Trade Center in New York (Manhattan). Television and radio coverage started before anyone even knew what was happening. First reports were only for a plane of undetermined size having crashed into the North Tower. Before it was all over, a third plane would have crashed into the Pentagon, and a fourth would be diverted by extremely brave passengers into crashing into a farm field, rather than its target, which was assumed to the be the White House. The second crash into the Twin Towers was televised in live time, as it happened. People all over America and the world watched as those towers burned, smoke rolling from them, and people jumping amid the papers blowing off the exposed upper floors. Finally the entire crash of first one tower and then the other, all taking place on live television, in real time. This was horrific for a number of reasons: the amount of people initially dead and missing, relatives across the country, and around the world were uncertain if they were in shock for the nation, grieving personally, or both. Television coverage went on and on, replaying the horrific images repeatedly on 24-hour broadcasts. Other news was reported while these images played in the background on some channels.

Fremont (2007). reports in a study done of grade 4-12 aged children in the New York City School system reported an increase of 8.5% of PTSD symptoms following this tragedy. A supporting study confirmed that there were symptoms of PTSD (particularly anxiety) in children who had excessive television exposure to this event even as far away as the West Coast. The difference was that children at a distance suffered more anxiety over whether a loved one was injured or killed; children on the East Coast suffered grief for those injured or killed in the attacks, as well as anxiety about their futures, and the impact this tragedy would have on their future (Wilson, A.C., Lengua, L.J., Meltzoff, A.N., & Smith, K.A., 2010). Again, parental influences did have some bearing on how much stress a child suffered from this event. According to Wilson, A.C. et.al. (2010), children from single parent homes displayed more symptoms than homes where both parents were present. Another important point is that children who had parents who showed positive emotional responses following the 9/11 attacks, such as crying in grief were much more likely to seek out or ask for help with their feelings over the attack.

We do see that violence has an effect on children, at least, on school age children. The three events we have discussed so far were real incidents, happening to real people, and being broadcast in real time on television. But what effect does interactive violent media have on our children?

The more attractive video games, to the age 8 and above group, are violent. Whether it is fantasy violence, such as Angry Birds, or animated human violence, such as Halo, or other war programs, these are the games that are advertised heavily, promoted as “great gifts” and come with a great amount of attached peer pressure to play these games. Bushman (2007). noticed that females had become increasingly violent as the media and society supports the tough, aggressive female character. Traditionally, females are exposed to violent video games later than males, because they are not drawn to watch violent sporting events such as football and hockey (Bushman (2007).

While news broadcasts of national tragedies obviously cause symptoms of stress and anxiety in older children, what about younger children? For younger children, violence seems to really have not much of an effect. We read Grimm’s stories to our toddlers; it rarely gives them cause for stress, or anxiety. They are unlikely to display infantile reactions to stress from being read Hansel and Gretel, for example by sucking their thumb, or wetting the bed after hearing the story. Yet, this story is violent; two children, left in the woods by their parent, found by a witch, who attempts to murder them. For children under the age of eight, most research seems to agree that televised violence, viewing video games, or even hearing stories such as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, have little to no effect.

Kotler and Calvert (n.d.), support that younger children tend to use instrumental aggression; aggression that is used in the quest of controlling or obtaining an object. Therefore, an average preschooler may strike another child in the quest to get a toy, for example. However, by the time the child enters the first grade, at age 6 or 7, they are starting to use words to fight, rather than physical violence, and may even reject physically aggressive school peers.

Supporting my theory that violent media alone does not make a violent child, Kotler and Calvert (n.d.) assert that by the time a child is a pre-adolescent or adolescent, they understand that the quest of revenge, such as is displayed in many video games, is the wrong moral path. However, those children without strong social ties, and who tend to be isolated, endorse violent revenge (Kotler & Calvert, n.d.). Further support to the fact that while violent media does contribute, but is not the sole reason for violent children, is a study conducted by Johnson, et.al.,

over 17 years in a community of 707 individuals. In each case, there was significant support for those who watched violent television in early adolescence and subsequent aggressive acts in adolescence and young adulthood.

Males outweighed females in the same age brackets, but routinely, those who watched television for more than 3 hours per day, regardless of the violent content, were 14.6% more likely, overall to engage in physical assault or fighting that would result in injury at age 16 or 22. For those same ages and the same amount of television, 12.7% were likely to engage in any aggressive act on another person. These statistics were true whether or not the adolescent had any of the other risk indicators present for aggressive behavior, or a history of aggressive behavior (Johnson, Cohen, Smailes, Kasen, & Brook, 2005).

I have to admit that when I chose this topic, I was not on the side of violent television causing violent children, or even being a major contributor. However, the facts are irrefutable; children who view violence after the age of 8, particularly when the situation of the children’s lives are coupled with a low income home that may be violent in nature, is more likely to become violent, or at least accept violent behavior in their adolescent and young adult years. Of course, contributing to my own view is the fact that when I was a child, most homes did not even own one television, programming was rarely violent in terms of today’s acceptable programming, and we were generally limited to an hour of prime time, supervised viewing with the entire family between dinner and bedtime.

With the research conducted however, it is not possible to deny that younger children (under age 8) are less able to process and disseminate information, because they simply have no frame of reference for what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of violence. I do not believe, however, that children of this age should watch television unsupervised, simply because they are learning to reference what they see. Without an adult present to help them interpret what they see, in later years, they will not have a frame of reference to fall back on.

Society will never be perfect; we will always have those children, as well as adults who suffer rejection, bullying, and other forms of violence simply because they are different. However, I honestly believe if we all take the advice of the researchers, and supervise our young children, rather than forbid violence in all forms, we will raise children who will be able to survive those rejections, bullying’s and other hurts of growing up without becoming violent. On the other hand, limiting and supervising the viewing and use of violent media in the home may help those children who suffer from disabilities that already promote low empathy (such as Autism Spectrum Disorders like Asperger’s) to understand that violence solves nothing.

Finally, parents must accept primary responsibility for their children, their children’s viewing and gaming habits, and ensure that their friends have parents who are involved and engaged with their children as well. Fremont (2007). recommends that the age group under eight not view television or other media without supervision. She also recommends that the adults in a child’s life be prepared to help them with responsible interpretation of any violent content that is viewed.

References

Browne, K.D., & Hamilton-Giachritsis, C. (2005). The influence of violent media on children and adolescents: a public health approach. Lancet, 365(9460), 702-210. Retrieved from Ebscohost. October 29, 2011.

Bushman, D. B. (2007, March 2). The impact of entertainment media on children and families. Retrieved October 30, 2011, from Iowa State University Extension: http://www.extension.iastate.edu/families/media/pages/qa.bushman.html

Fremont,Wanda P., M.D., (2007, November 15). Reactions of children exposed to media coverage of terrorism. Retrieved October 28, 2011, from St. Josephs Hospital and Health Center: www.sjhsyr.org/sjhhc/pdf/chip_FremonReactions07.ppt

Johnson, J. G., Cohen, P., Smailes, E. M., Kasen, S., & Brook, J. S. (2005, March 29). Television viewing and aggressive behavior during adolescence and adulthood. Science, 295, 2468-2471. Retrieved from Ebscohost. October 29, 2011.

Kotler, J. A., & Calvert, S. L. (n.d.). Children and adolescents’ exposure to different kinds of media violence: Recurring choices and recurring themes (Research Paper). Retrieved from Children’s Digital Media Center/Georgetown University: http://cdmc.georgetown.edu/papers/children_and_adolescent’s_exposure.pdf

Wilson, A.C., Lengua, L.J., Meltzoff, A.N., & Smith, K.A. (2010). Parenting and temperament prior to September 11, 2001, and parenting specific to 9/11 as predictors of children’s post-traumatic stress symptoms following 9/11. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 39(4), 445-459. Doi: 10.1080/15374416.2010.486317, Retrieved from Ebscohost. October 30, 2011

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