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In Wired World, TV Still Has Grip on Kids

Research * The effect of small-screen violence on children is tough to measure,though.


What does media violence do to kids?

The answer may seem like a no-brainer. Kids, after all, are little learning machines. If they're raised on a diet of graphically bloody video games where killing is rewarded, on movies and TV shows where violence and aggression are made glam, and where "if it bleeds, it leads" is the law of the nightly news--won't they somehow be imprinted with what they've witnessed?

Many social scientists and parent activists point to studies conducted over more than three decades supporting their contention that media violence is a blight on society. But some scientists question the link, arguing that the studies are flawed and that other factors--poverty, for example--weigh more heavily in the violence equation..

The issue has taken center stage once again because of last week's Federal Trade Commission report that found entertainment companies systematically target minors with ads for violent movies, music and video games.

The concern has been around since the 1950s, when televisions started moving into American homes with a vengeance.

Professional groups, including the American Psychological Assn., the American Psychiatric Assn., the American Medical Assn. and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, feel that enough evidence exists to sustain a belief that exposure to media violence colors kids' psyches. The impact, in turn, helps make the world more mean, fearful, apathetic and bloody, they say.

The critics, however, question the strength and relevance of the studies. Youth violence, they point out, has fallen in recent years, even while access to violent video games and round-the-clock movie and TV entertainment has increased.

"People have, in my view, just totally distorted the state of the scientific evidence," says Jonathan Freedman, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. "Fewer than half the studies get significant effects at all, and when they do there are other explanations."

No researchers argue that media violence is responsible for all society's violence. Nor do they say that exposure to violent films or music will turn children en masse into Columbine-style killers.

Instead, the contention is that exposure to media violence could push especially high-risk children over the edge.

The studies point to a spectrum of effects. Nightmares. Fear. A warped perception of the world as more dangerous than it truly is. Lack of empathy. Greater apathy about violence in society. And brains more primed to be hostile, aggressive, even violent, raising the risk that a hostile encounter will escalate.

Studies on the effects of violent video games or music are few, but TV and movie violence research stretches back decades. Two classic experiments in the 1960s set the ball rolling.

In one, Stanford University psychologist Albert Bandura and colleagues showed nursery school children television clips of adults abusing a toy clown called a Bobo doll. Then they watched how the children played in a room with the doll and other "nonaggressive" toys.

Kids who'd seen the aggressive videos were much more likely to kick and beat the clown, especially if they'd seen the adult being rewarded for the behavior. They did so even if the abuser had been dressed as a cartoon-like cat.

A 1963 magazine article about the experiment, complete with pictures of kids assaulting Bobo dolls with evident glee, "really shocked people--it started a national debate," says John P. Murray, professor of developmental psychology in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.

Second Experiment at College Level

The same year, an experiment with college students also showed that violent images can heighten aggression. Students who had watched a movie clip of a brutal beating reacted with extra hostility when an assistant later insulted them.

Since that time, scientists have done many short-term experiments on children and young people using various settings and measures of aggression. Sometimes, aggression is rated through watching kids play, other times via special aggression and hostility questionnaires.

Sometimes, participants get to "punish" others by setting the intensity of so-called aggression machines, which administer (or so the participants are told) nasty zaps of electricity or blasts of white noise.

The combination of those laboratory studies with other research on the actual viewing habits of young people leads researchers to say the evidence for a damaging effect is strong--and that the influence is growing.

"Media violence is a tremendous problem," says Joanne Cantor, professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a specialist in the effects of mass media on children. "It is so pervasive. Kids are spending so many hours watching TV or movies, or playing video games, and it's having a strong effect on their attitude toward violence and their level of fear."

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