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Essay/Term paper: The effect of viewing television violence on childhood aggression

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The Effect of Viewing Television Violence on Childhood Aggression


There is a great deal of speculation on the effect television plays in childhood
aggression. Two contrasting views regarding this issue are violent television
increases aggressive behavior and violent television does not increase
aggressive behavior. Later research demonstrates there may be other intervening
variables causing aggression. These include IQ, social class, parental
punishment, parental aggression, hereditary, environmental, and modeling. With
all of these factors to take into consideration it is difficult to determine a
causal relationship between violent television and aggression. It is my
hypothesis this relationship is bi-directional. I feel violent television
causes aggressive behavior and aggressive people tend to watch more violent

Over the years there has been a large amount of research published, many with
conflicting results, to the question of a causal link existing between the
viewing of televised violence and childhood aggression. It is an important
question because if violent television is linked to childhood aggression we need
to adapt our television shows accordingly.

Early 1960's Research

There is earlier research, but the first association between violent television
and aggression was in the early 1960's when Albert Bandura began researching his
modeling theory. His series of experiments first set the precedent for a
relationship between violent television viewing and aggression. He felt
children would model or imitate adult behavior. In one study he subjected
children to both aggressive and non- aggressive adult models and then tested
them for imitative behavior in the presence of the model. His theory was
demonstrated when children readily imitated behavior exhibited by an adult model
in the presence of the model (Bandura, Ross & Ross, 1961). In a similar
experiment children were exposed to aggressive and non-aggressive adult models,
but then tested for amount of imitative learning in the absence of the model.
Subjects in the aggression condition reproduced a good deal of physical and
verbal aggressive behavior resembling that of the models. The data clearly
confirmed the prediction that exposure of subjects to aggressive models
increases the probability of aggressive behavior (Bandura et al. 1961). Another
study sought to determine the extent to which film- mediated aggressive models
may serve as an important source of imitative behavior. Children were divided
and then exposed to four different aggression models. A real-life aggression
condition, a human film- aggression condition, a cartoon film-aggression
condition, and a control group. The results showed that exposure to humans on
film portraying aggression was the most influential in eliciting aggressive
behavior. Subjects in this condition, in comparison to
Aggression the control subjects,
exhibited more aggression and more imitative aggression. Subjects who viewed
the aggressive human and cartoon models on film exhibited almost twice as much
aggression as subjects in the control group. These results provide strong
evidence that exposure to filmed aggression heightens aggressive reactions in
children (Bandura et al. 1963a). These results add to the conclusion that
viewing violent television produces aggressive behavior.
But, in Banduras next experiment he begins to question if other factors are
involved in the relationship between televised violence and aggression. His
subjects are divided into three groups, model-reward, model-punished, and
control. All view an aggressive filmed model with a task appropriate ending.
The results show mere exposure to modeling stimuli does not provide sufficient
conditions for imitative learning. The fact that most of the children in the
experiment failed to reproduce the entire repertoire of behavior exhibited by
the model, even under positive-incentive conditions indicates other factors are
influencing the imitative response acquisition (Bandura 1965).
At the time Banduras work seemed on target and with no one challenging his
theory many were soon quick to follow in agreement. His modeling theory seems
plausible, but the fact that he only completed experiments in a laboratory
setting leaves one skeptical. Many times results from a laboratory setting will
not correlate to real life or in vivo results. Another problem was he only had
acts of aggression toward blown up dolls and not real people. It would have
been interesting to see how children reacted to a real life person receiving an
act of aggression. Another problem is he only used adults as models. He should
have also used children. With only adults as models he can't explain how
viewing an aggressive child in vivo or on television increases aggression. I
feel Bandura was on the right track in his last experiment when he determined
other factors were involved, but he failed to follow up on this question. This
is an area in need of additional investigation.

1970's Research

Up until now the relation between television viewing habits and
aggression had been shown in several experiments, but what was lacking was the
ability to determine cause and effect. One possible way to demonstrate cause
and effect is to use a longitudinal context (Eron, Huesmann, Lefkowitz & Walder,
1972). In Eron et al. (1972) subjects were tested over a ten year time period
for measures of aggression and predictors of aggression. Several other factors
were taken into consideration in this study. They included IQ, social status,
mobility aspirations, religious practice, ethnicity, and parental disharmony.
The results support the hypothesis that a preference for watching violent
television in the third-grade time period is a cause of aggressive habits later
in life independent of the other causal contributors studied. It is not claimed
that television violence is the only cause of aggressive behavior since a number
of other variables are also related to aggression. However, the effect
oftelevision violence on aggression is relatively independent of these other
factors and explains a larger portion of the variance than does any other single
factor which we studied (Eron et al 1972). Although a longitudinal study was
used to try to apply causation no such correlation could be found. The safest
conclusion was the study does not establish a causal link between television
violence and aggression in one direction or another (Kaplan & Singer 1976).
In another study Kaplan and Singer (1976) propose another view toward
televised violence increasing aggressive behavior. They suggest three different
positions on the subject. An activation view that watching televised fantasy
violence causes aggressive behavior. A catharsis view that aggression in some
groups may be decreased following the observation of such violence. And a null
view that such violence on television has not been demonstrated to have
significant effects on aggressive behavior. The evidence in this study is in
support of the null view (Kaplan & Singer, 1976). They have built their case
around several valid arguments. The first being that the evidence that
television causes aggression is not strong enough to justify restrictions in
programming. Most of the research on television and aggression has been done in
the laboratory and we really just don't know how this correlates with in vivo
settings. Secondly, we must look at the sample from which the subjects for
these studies are drawn. Are they representative samples from a variety of
social classes? If not then we cannot speak of overall effects, but only for
that limited sample. Third is method of viewing. In several studies children
are gathered together to view a film. If some of the children begin to get more
active they may stimulate the other children to act accordingly (Kaplan & Singer
Kaplan and Singer cite several studies in which viewing violence did not
cause an increase in aggression. Feshbach and Singer (1971) conducted an
experimental field study controlling the television viewing of nine to fifteen-
year-old boys. For six
Aggression weeks they were required to watch two hours of
television per day. Half watched aggressive shows and half watched non-
aggressive shows. Feshbach and Singer found no evidence that violence on
television leads to increases in aggressive behavior. Certainly the study shows
no support for the theory that viewing of aggressive television increases real
life aggression (Kaplan & Singer, 1976).
In a study by Carlisle and Howell (1974), angered and nonangered college
students were exposed to either violent or nonviolent movie scenes. Results
revealed that the violent film was more likely than the nonviolent film to
disinhibit aggression among either angry or nonangry subjects (Kaplan & Singer,
1976). With the above data it is certainly possible to see why Kaplan
and Singer feel the null-effect view to be the most plausible one. Still as our
research moves into the 80's the question of intervening variables has yet to be
well addressed.
1980's Research
It is the research of Leonard Eron (1982) that first suggests the relation
between violent television and aggression does not go just one way. It is a bi-
directional relationship. He demonstrates that television violence is one cause
of aggressive behavior, it is also probable that aggressive children prefer to
watch more violent television (Eron, 1982). This seems to be a more plausible
alternative because it allows for a more circular theory. It means that violent
television may or may not be causing an increase in aggression. I feel it means
more aggressive children tend to watch more violent television shows. These
children are aggressive to begin with and the violence they witness on
television does not have a great deal to do with their aggressive tendencies. I
agree televised violence may be an intervening factor, but I don't think it is
the sole contributor to aggression in children.
Johnathan L. Freedman (1984) reviewed the available field and correlational
research on televised violence and increases in aggressiveness. He only
reviewed studies concerning long-term effects or natural settings. He found no
reason to support the conclusion that violence on television increases
aggressive behavior in a natural setting. It remains a plausible hypothesis,
but one for which there is little supporting evidence (Freedman, 1984).
In another review by Friedrich-Cofer and Huston (1986) their data reveal
there is in fact a bi-directional causal relation between viewing television
violence and aggression. They support their findings with several longitudinal
studies including Eron et al. (1972), Freedman (1984) and Cook et al. (1983).
They also measured for several perceived intervening variables and found none of
these variables accounted for the relation between viewing and aggression
(Friedrich-Cofer & Huston, (1986). Still even through the 80's no one has
really addressed the question of whether there may be an intervening variable in
this great debate.


As one can see from reading the above studies the question of whether
televised violence increases aggression is still unanswered. There is as much
data for as for against so it is hard to distinguish an answer. There is no
concrete evidence to argue for one way or the other. It is a debate that
continues today. The best possible answer I can come up with is that the
causation is bi- directional. Also, it is pertinent to many intervening factors.
Aggression levels of the child to begin with and their home environment play a
big role in determining aggressive tendencies. I think the best way to test for
a causal relationship is a well documented longitudinal study. The subjects
must be able to be contacted in five year increments to answer questions. With
this method of testing and by controlling for all possible intervening variables
one can get the best results. It was interesting to see over the years how
thoughts and ideas had changed about viewing televised violence and aggression.
But, even today there are still many unanswered questions. Maybe sometime in
the future we will have a definite answer to this relevant question.


Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models' reinforcement contingencies on
the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 1, 589-595. Bandura, A., Ross, D. & Ross, S.A. (1961).
Transmission of aggression through imitation of aggressive models.
Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 63, 575-582. Bandura, A.,
Ross, D. & Ross, S.A. (1963a). Imitation of film mediated aggressive
models. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 3-11. Bandura, A.,
Ross, D. & Ross, S.A. (1963b). Vicarious reinforcement and imitative
learning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 601-607. Eron, L.D.
(1963). Relationship of television viewing habits and aggressive behavior
in children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 193-
196. Eron, L.D. (1982). Parent-child interaction, television, violence and
aggression of children. American Psychologist, 37, 197-211. Eron, L.D.,
Huesmann, L.R., Lefkowitz, M.M. & Walder, L.O. (1972). Does television
violence cause aggression? American Psychologist, 27, 253-263. Freeman,
J.L. (1984). Effect of television violence on aggressiveness.
Psychological Bulletin, 96, 227- 246. Friedrich-Cofer, L. & Huston, A.C.
(1986). Television violence and aggression: The debate continues.
Psychological Bulletin, 100, 364- 371. Kaplan, R.M. & Singer, R.D. (1976). TV
violence and viewer aggression: A reexamination of the evidence.
Journal of Social Issues, 32, 33-70.


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