Television violence: Do kids (and adults) like it?
Studies suggest that both children and adults are happier when they reduce exposure to violent content
Â© 2011 - 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Media creators serve up lots of television violence, and there's reason for concern. Exposure to media violence may cause sleep problems in young children. It also puts kids at higher risk for developing behavior problems.
Defenders argue that the benefits outweigh any costs, because viewers crave violent conflict. It's what makes stories engaging or fun.
But is that really true? Fascinating experiments suggest otherwise. Let's take a look at the effects of television violence, and what happens when we reduce exposure -- or remove it from a story altogether.
Evidence that media violence undermines sleep, and interferes with the development of prosocial attitudes and behavior
It's no surprise to parents coping with bedtime problems: Studies show that children get better sleep when their parents monitor what they watch, and reduce exposure to violent content.
For example, when school-aged kids watch less television violence, they tend to get more sleep (Gentile et al 2014).
And when the parents of preschoolers have replaced violent media content with prosocial alternatives (like Dora the Explorer and Curious George), their children experienced fewer sleep problems (Garrison and Christakis 2012).
So it appears that television violence can undermine sleep. What about a child's waking behavior? Research hints that time spent watching violent TV predicts the emergence of behavior problems.
- In one 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 grade. This was true even after "adjusting for preexisting child and family characteristics such as baseline child aggression" (Fitzpatrick et al 2012).
- A study of older children -- 5th graders -- found that "child-reported media violence exposure was associated with physical aggression" even after adjusting for other relevant factors, like socioeconomic status, exposure to family and community violence, and any mental health symptoms a child might have (Coker et al 2015).
- More recently, researchers in the United States and Singapore tracked kids for up to 24 months, monitoring how their attitudes and behavior changed over time. Kids with higher exposure to violent media content -- from television and video games -- were more likely to develop normative beliefs about aggression. These beliefs, in turn, predicted the development of more physical aggression (Gentile et al 2017).
So it seems the link between content and behavior reflects more than a tendency for aggressive children to seek out aggressive media. In many cases, exposure to television violence appears to precede changes in attitudes and behavior.
Does that mean we can prevent or reverse aggressive tendencies by reducing a child's exposure? There's good reason to think so.
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.
Might more 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.
Evidence that viewers prefer stories with less violent content
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 out.
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 interviewer.
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 or 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 television 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.
Evidence that children's programming features higher rates of violence than does programming aimed at adults
When researcher Barbara J. Wilson and her colleagues analyzed American 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).
Has that changed?
That's hard to say, because (as of 2017) I haven't yet found any follow-up studies of television in the United States. But when researchers analyzed the violent content of Hollywood films released between 1937 and 2013, they found that movies aimed at children were actually more likely than adult films to feature death and murder (Colman et al 2014).
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 minds.
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: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings adults around the world have often used violent stories to frighten children into behaving properly.
These stories might entertain, but they probably weren't designed with the delight of children as the primary goal. There is a social agenda.
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 the world.
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.