Important Research on Media Violence

by Gloria DeGaetano

With a new video "game" demonstrating how to suffocate a person with a plastic bag; with Converse's recent ad ("loaded weapon") campaign for their new shoe in their "weapon series," with Tarantino's Kill Bill topping the box office (anyone under 17 in there?) and with video game stations decreasing dramatically in price to make them more readily available to more children and teens, it's a good time to revisit some important research on the deleterious effects of media violence.

In my book with Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie, and Video Game Violence, I outline the research from 1950 to 1999 that demonstrates unequivocally that media violence plays a significant role in creating aggressive behaviors and desensitizing people to real-life human suffering. Eron and Huesmann's 22-year longitudinal study released in 1984, discussed in detail in that book, showed that exposure to television violence was particularly deleterious before the age of eight. A new longitudinal study performed by Huesmann, Eron and colleagues at the University of Michigan, 1977–1992 and released in March 2003 adds evidence to previous findings that watching television violence increases aggression in the long run. This study, like its 1984 predecessor, also shows that the effects of children's viewing of TV violence last into adulthood and increase aggressive behavior for both males and females.

The study examined the relations between watching TV violence at ages 6 to 10 (557 children growing up in the Chicago area during the 1970's and the 1980's) and adult aggressive behavior about 15 years later, when the individual's were 20-25 years old. This follow-up consisted of data from the state archives (for 450 of the former children) and interview data (for 329 of the former children, and also for spouses and friends). Aggression was measured by both self-reported variables, ranging from verbal and indirect aggression over various kinds of physical aggression to arrests and criminal acts. TV Viewing variables were: TV violence viewing; perceived realism of TV violence; and identification with aggressive female and male characters, respectively.

The analyses reveal that children's TV-violence viewing, children's identification with aggressive same-sex TV characters, and children's perceptions that TV violence is realistic (tells about life "just like it is") were significantly correlated with their adult aggression. And not just correlated: more viewing, greater identification, and stronger belief also predicted more adult aggression regardless of how aggressive participants were as children.

Another conclusion of the study is that more aggressive children are more likely to watch media violence because it makes their own behavior seem normal; however, their subsequent viewing of violence then increases their aggressive scripts, schemas, and beliefs through observational learning and makes subsequent aggression more likely. Although several parenting factors also correlate with aggression, the relations between watching TV violence and later aggression persist when the effects of socio-economic status, intellectual ability, and parenting factors are controlled. And even if watching TV violence is not the only factor predicting later aggression, there were few other factors shown to have larger effects.

The type of violent scene that is most likely to contribute to aggression is one in which the child identifies with the perpetrator of the violence, the child perceives the scene as telling life like it is, and the perpetrator is rewarded. This study clearly demonstrates the need to protect young children from media violence and to teach media literacy skills to children and teens of all ages.

In other developments, on April 10, 2003, the U. S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation heard evidence from five researchers with experience of media violence research. Of these, Dr. John P. Murray, Professor at Kansas State University, has worked with neurological correlates of video violence and children. He and his colleagues used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to map the brains of eight children (5 boys, 3 girls, ages 8–13) while they watched violence and non-violent videotapes. The children viewed six 3-minute video clips of violence (Rocky IV), non-violence (National Geographic and Ghostwriter), and a control for viewing activations (a white X on a blue video screen). Besides scanning the children's brains while viewing these 18 minutes, scanning occurred for several minutes before and after viewing to establish structural/anatomical features of the brains.

The results of the scans confirmed expectations of emotional arousal to the video violence manifested in significant right hemisphere activations. The scans also confirmed expectations of involvement of an area of the brain that senses "danger" in the environment and prepares the body for "fight or flight." Also, an area of the prefrontal cortex was activated, suggesting that youngsters were "thinking about moving," indicating an attempt at imitation of the boxing movements. There was also an activation in the back of the brain, the posterior cingulated, an area that seems to be devoted to long-term memory storage for significant or traumatic events.

The results of this initial, limited study of children's brain activation while viewing violent imagery suggests that the violence is arousing, engaging, and is treated by the brain as a real event that is threatening and worthy of being stored for long-term memory in an area of the brain that makes "recall" of the events almost instantaneous. Thus, the children stored away violent images in a manner that could be used to "guide" future behavior.

If our children are suffering more mental health problems than ever before, we need only to look at the violent entertainment they engage in and remember that it plays a significant role in their understanding of who they are and who they wish to become.


  1. L. Rowell Husemann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard D. Eron, "Longitudinal Relations Between Children's Exposure to TV Violence and Their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood: 1977–1992," Developmental Psychology, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 201-221, Scientific Journal of American Psychological Association, 2003.
  2. News from The UNESCO International Clearinghouse on Children, Youth, and Media, Vol. 1, 2003.
  3. A summary of John Murray's research is available at
  4. The transcripts of the Senate hearings are available at witnesslist.cfm?id=706

Three important articles can be found at this site of the American Psychological Association, They are:

Gloria DeGaetano, Founder and CEO of The Parent Coaching Institute, presents keynotes and workshops to parents, educators, corporations, and professional organizations. She may be contacted at (425) 449-8877. Her latest book is Parenting Well in a Media Age: Saving Our Children from the Corporate-Controlled Culture, Personhood Press, January, 2004.