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The Effects of Television Violence on Children


The effects of violence shown on television towards children may vary depending on the child s age group, how much television they watch each day and their reactions to what they have been watching. What children see, they tend to imitate. And what they see on both broadcast and cable television is violence, real and stimulated (Arnow, 1995:12). There is a strong correlation between the viewing of violent images and aggressive behaviour among children. The more a child is exposed to violence on television, there is a greater chance it will have a long lasting effect on their behaviour (Arnow, 1995:12).

The impact of television on children is easily understood because most infants have the desire and capacity to imitate adult behaviour (Arnow, 1995:14). Young children tend to mirror adult facial expressions and behaviours. As the child becomes a toddler, they are incapable of distinguishing reality from fantasy on television. Parents should continually remind their children that television is not real life (Luke, 1988:124). Violent television shows; such as wrestling are making kids fight more on the playgrounds and making society generally a more violent place to live(Easterbrook,1999: 1). The more violence is watched by children, the more they may become less sensitive to the pain and sufferings of others and may be more likely to behave too aggressively or harmful towards others (Luke, 1988:125).

Various violent television shows being viewed by children today are beginning to poison the developing minds of the young. These shows provoke young children to imitate what they have seen on television and re-enact what they just saw to their fellow classmates. Even cartoons are beginning to be an influence on young children. For example; there was the fear that all terrible things that fell on Wile E Coyote (mainly large rocks and anvils) were encouraging children to drop heavy things on their friends and schoolmates (Easterbrook, 1999:1). It seems that television is the root of what is wrong in our world and always has been.

Violence in the media has increased since the 1980 s and continues to increase (Smith, 1996:34). By the time the average child (i.e. one who watches two to four hours of television daily) leaves elementary school, he or she will have witnessed at least 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other assorted acts of violence on television (Smith, 1996:34). Television violence increases violent and aggressive tendencies in young people and contributes to the growth of violent crime in society. Essentially, television violence is one of the things that may lead to aggressive, antisocial, or criminal behaviour. However, it usually works in conjunction with other factors such as age, amount of television being watched, identification of television personalities, belief that television violence is realistic, intellectual achievement and portrayal of violence among children (Smith, 1996:2:35).

Certain topics that will arise are: Does watching too much violence on television lead to teen violence? How does television violence affect a child as the child matures? And lastly, What are some solutions that parents could do to prevent children from being affected by television violence? These topics will be further examined so that one may fully understand the effects and impact television violence can have on children of different ages.

2.1 Does watching too much violence o television lead to teen violence?

In 1982, airtime for violence increased from 1.5 hours per week to 43 hours per week in 1986 (Smith, 1996:35). And in 1980, most of the children s programs featured 18.6 violent acts per hour and now have 26.5 violent acts per hour (Smith, 1996:35). It is evident that the airing of violent programs has increased throughout the years. 57 percent of television programs contain psychologically harmful violence that can lead to aggressive behaviour in a child (Spock, 1992:63). When children are placed in front of the television for a long period of time, their focus cannot be diverted and their gaze cannot be broken as quickly. The bright colours, quick movements and sudden flashes capture the child s attention. Most children find these images captivating which mesmerizes them and draws their attention to the television screen and only the television screen. If a child is unsupervised, he could watch television constantly or even endlessly.

Watching television is a passive event for both children and adults because they remain completely immobile while watching television (Spock, 1992:64). Looking at a television screen does not magically remove a child s energy from within. Both mind and body become passive allowing the child to concentrate on the vast array of bright and fast moving pictures (Spock, 1992:64). Children absorb millions of images from the television. If the child s television set has cable, their choices can range from between fifty to seventy different channels: all of which show different programs. The odds are that what the children are watching is most likely violent. (Spock, 1992:65).

Viewing large amount of television violence does not necessarily cause a child to act more violently, although it can contribute to promoting a view that violence is common in everyday life. Television violence can also create a heightened fear of being assaulted on the street. Perpetrators of violent acts go unpunished 73 percent of the time and only 9 percent of violent programs show non-violent solutions (Spock, 1992:66). As children watch violence more often, they become more fearful of the world around them.

Most children s television shows contain about 20 violent acts each hour. These children that watch a lot of violent television are more likely to think the world around them is a mean and dangerous place (Sisk, 1997:259). This may be caused because they are not used to being surrounded by violence in their household or neighbourhood. After watching violent television, most children often behave differently because young children are often influenced by television.

Children who watch violent programs are more likely to hit, argue, disobey class rules, leave tasks unfinished and are less willing to wait for things than children who watch non-violent programs (Sisk, 1997:259). Also, children who watched many hours of violent programs who were in elementary school also showed a high level of aggressive behaviour when they became teenagers (Sisk, 1997:259). Studies show that observing youngsters until they are thirty years of age, it is found that the ones who watched a lot of television when they were eight years of age were more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for criminal acts as adults (House of Commons, 1993:15).

The child crying to stay up and watch television, the parents getting angry, defensive or defeatist, this has been a typical scene in North America family life since the 1950 s. But in the 1990s, the mood of the television debate has taken on a dark new tone. Increasingly, Canadian parents and educators are worried about the effects of television on young children. Much of their concern–fuelled by a recent confusion of gruesome, lethal crimes committed by mere children–revolves around television violence (Chindley, 1996:36). There is an ongoing and controversial debate over whether youth crime is really on the rise. But whatever the reality is, the perception persists: most parents and educators ask, what is happening to our children? In the search for answers, many point to television as, if not the culprit, then at least an accomplice to the situation. Television violence is corrupting and desensitizing children not to have any values and morals. As children watch more violence and imitate what they see, they do not appreciate what their parents or elders have taught them about having good morals and being polite to others.

Violence on television has been a substantial element of the television landscape and of children s programs (Chindley, 1996:37). Television violence can lead to a heightened aggression in a short-term period and children who watch a lot of violent programming will become desensitized to harm and violence in the real world. Male children are more likely to be affected by violence on television than most girls, and that children who have been abused are more sensitive to televised aggression, and tend to watch more of it (Josephson, 1995:27). Elementary children and adolescents mainly imitate these violent acts because they are capable of doing a lot more than an average three year old. They know what is right from wrong but they often imitate what is seen on television without thinking that younger children may be around and copy what they have been doing.

2.2 How does television violence affect a child as the child matures?

At different ages, many children watch and understand television in different ways, depending on the length of the child s attention span. There are various variables pertaining to the different ages of a child and how they watch and understand television, such as: the way in which the process information, the amount of mental effort they invest, and from their own life experiences (Josephson, 1995:9).

Infants (children up to 18 months of age) can pay attention to an operating television set for a short period of time. Most infants are more interested in their daily activities and want to explore the world around them for it is all very new to them. Infants are capable of learning verbal and non-verbal behaviours from children who are older than they are and may try to imitate them. But infants who looked at a television set for at least a half of a six minute cartoon, showed signs of tiredness, crying, fussiness, and yawning (Josephson, 1995:11).

However, infants do imitate television characters as soon as they are able to distinguish these characters from the surrounding backgrounds (Josephson, 1995:12). And since infants can imitate simple behaviours from television, parents should limit their exposure to television violence or other portrayals of actions that would be dangerous for an infant to imitate (Josephson, 1995:12). Most infants show little, if not at all, interest in what adults would consider being violent and it is irrelevant to them.

Toddlers (children 18 months to 3 years of age) are capable of imitating both what they see and hear on television. At the age of about two, children mat spend the same amount of time near an operating television as a younger child, they pay more attention three of four times as much, to the point where they are practically paying attention for almost half the time the set is on (Josephson, 1995:15).

Toddlers who watch televised violence are capable of learning verbal and non-verbal behaviours from the television. They establish viewing patterns that will expose them to high levels of violent content throughout childhood. And these patterns can persist into and through elementary (Josephson, 1995:15).

Pre-schoolers (children 3 to 5 years of age) have relatively strong effects of television violence for both girls and boys in this age group because pre-schoolers demonstrate a strong tendency to focus on the most physically obvious features of their environment (Josephson, 1995:17). Although they only watch television, about half the time the set is on to watch the important attention getters on screen. During the time they are not watching, they appear to be listening and will frequently turn their visual attention back to the screen in response to an obvious feature, such as loud music or sound affects (Josephson, 1995:18).

A pre-schoolers attraction to television violence are predisposed to seek out and pay attention to televised violence because such violence is accompanied by formal features, such as loud music, rapid movement, rapid scene changes and sound effects that may attract their attention (Josephson, 1995:18). The child easily learns this type of violent attraction with loud music and bright and rapid movements. In addition the child is less likely to pick up on more subtle information like negative motivations, punishing consequences that occur at another point in time, and the sufferings of the victims which makes it unlikely that they will put the violence in context (Josephson, 1995:19). This means that the children are only attracted to the rapid movements that are easily learned than the images and morals being taught throughout the program.

Since the programs that are being viewed by pre-schoolers are mostly cartoons, it can be argued that television violence is relatively harmless because they know that is just fantasy (Josephson, 1995:20). Knowing that television content is fantasy does make a difference in the behaviour and emotions of children. Studies show that when the effects of live-action violence and cartoon violence are compared, it was evident that the live-action violence had a substantially larger effect on aggressive behaviour than the carton violence (Josephson, 1995:21).

Elementary school age (children 6 to 11 years of age) children watch less television because they have started school and have less time available for their regular daytime viewing. This stage in life is considered to be and especially important period for understanding the effects of television on aggression (Josephson, 1995:27). But the age of eight is critical in the relationship between television violence and the development of aggression. This is because of the cognitive and emotional developments that occur at this age (Josephson, 1995:28).

At this age, most children develop the ability to recognize unchanging properties of apparently changing objects and become capable of using more complex systems of classifying objects and events (Josephson, 1995:28). This allows them to understand more subtle formal features and content and also to make reliable inferences in the absence of concrete events. Therefore, they can understand story plots more fully and interpret them in light emotions and motivations of television characters.

The age of eight has been identified as the watershed period because of the effects of television violence on children. There are various reasons for this. One of them is the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy (Josephson, 1995:29). Children are most likely to become more aggressive after watching violent programs if they believe the violence is relevant to real life. By the age of ten, real is more likely to mean possible in real life (Josephson, 1995:29). For children who associate violence with reality, all violent content is considered to be real and therefore a potential guide on how to behave in real life.

Second, they have a tendency to identify with aggressive heroes and engage in aggressive fantasies. When asked who a child most wants to be like, they name unrealistic characters from television (Josephson, 1995:29). These children choose the unrealistic heroes because they were more powerful, brave, strong and had super powers.

Watching violence on television makes it more likely that a child will later create violent fantasies and try to emulate those fantasies and actions seen on television. Children that imitate what is seen on television struggle to achieve competence and independence in their own personal and social development (Josephson, 1995:30).

Lastly, expectations about gender-related reactions to violence. At an elementary school age, it appears that there is a growing recognition by girls that aggression is not appropriate for them, which may account for both lesser interest in viewing violence on television and less likelihood of using violent aggression in real life situations (Josephson, 1995:30). It is apparent that television violence has a greater effect on boys than on girls, from the ages of eight to ten and onwards.

Adolescents (12 to 17 years of age) in middle and high school watch less television than they did when they were younger, because they begin to spend less time at home and do more things with their peers and listen to the radio more often (Josephson, 1995:39). The also watch different programs than they did when they were younger. Fewer cartoons are watched but comedies are still greatly appreciated. Dramas tend to become more popular, especially those that feature adolescent characters that they can relate to or find attractive (Josephson, 1995:39). Such shows may include: Beverly Hill 90210, and Dawson s Creek.

By early adolescence, children are often adopting multiple meanings of the word real. They can fully articulate what they mean by the word real, for instance; it could mean plausible or probable. For an adolescent, watching television is a passive event in which they are relaxing.

Adolescents are more likely to doubt the reality of the television content and much less likely to identify with the television characters that younger children (Josephson, 1995:40). Although concerns about imitative violence most often focus on the preschoolers because of their lack of experience and their belief in television s reality, it is actually copycat crimes or other acts of violence committed by adolescents that most often come to public attention (Josephson, 1995:41). Adolescents are capable of imaginig and planning a real-life crime re-enactment, including detecting and correctin the gaps or flaws that may have caused the television crime to fail.

The steps that appear to be necessary for imitation of violent crimes from television films are:

1. Strong identification with the movie/program or its hero.

2. Perseverance through extensive and elaborate fantasy about the program

3. The capacity to commit the physical act (Josephson, 1995:41).

2.1 What are some solutions that parents can do to prevent children from being affected by violence on television?

There are many various ways a parent can help prevent a child from being affected by television violence. Parents still have more influence that the television in shaping their children s attitude about violence and conflict. Parents should watch with their children a least one episode of the program their children watch and thoroughly discuss what they have just seen and ask a few questions to help clarify what had just happened in the scene. Such as, what do they think is going on? What do they like about what they are watching? What makes them uneasy or scared? And why? (Hough, Erwin, 1999:411).

As the parents are watching with the child or children, they can suggest playing a game of Count the acts of violence and compare the totals at the end of the program. Total the answers and compare the differences between parents and children (Hough, Erwin, 1999:411). The parents could point out why they had these differences and figure a reason how to solve them without using an act of violence.

When a violent incident has just happened, it is best to point out that was no way to solve a problem and violence should never be used to solve any kind of problem. Ask the child if there are any other ways the characters could have solved the problem and reacted. Also ask the child to re-enact the situation without the use of violence (Hough, Erwin. 1999:411).

Dealing with the violent scenes as they appear on the screen is another way to help the child better understand the situation. It is important that it is very clear to the child that people in real life very rarely solve their problems by shooting or killing one another.

Some ideas and questions to introduce the child to help re-establish a sense of reality about violence on television are as follows:

+ How does it feels when someone is getting hurt or killed on television is being watched?

+ If violence is not fun to see, why should it be watched on television?

+ Are there any consequences to the actions shown?

+ Can the child think of other ways to catch the enemies than what they had just seen on television? And it cannot involve hurting other people (Luke, 1988:125).

Parents can outright ban any programs they feel are too offensive and restrict their children s viewing to shows that they feel are more beneficial. Also limiting the amount of time the children spend watching television and encouraging them to spend more time on their hobbies, playing sports, or wit friends (Luke, 1988:125).

If parents can encourage their children to watch programs that demonstrate helping and caring for others and cooperation, these types of programs can help to influence children to become more kind and considerate to the people around them.


Most children of young ages tend to take violent television shows seriously and imitate what they have seen. There are certainly many things that parents can do to influence the effect that television content has on a child. Children whose parents have the motivation and resources to be vigilant and active mediators will likely avoid most of the negative effects of violent content. Unfortunately, not all parents are capable of doing that, and the children who are otherwise most vulnerable to the effects of television violence may be the ones whose parents are least likely to be vigilant mediators in their child s life.

Parents should also try to limit the amount of excessive violence shown on television being viewed and start at a young age. Although watching too much violence on television may be related to teen violence, it starts in the home and what the parents are doing to prevent any form of violence, whether it is teen violence or abuse, from happening.

Televised violence can have numerous effects on the behaviours of children of different age groups. However television violence may not account for all the causes of children s aggression, and it is also true that some children are more likely to be potentially aggressive anyway.

The effect of television violence leads at-risk children to be even more aggressive than they would otherwise be, and although the group at risk might be a minority of viewers, they are more likely to be the majority of aggressors.

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