The Effects of Media on Youth

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Research on media violence is often misunderstood by the general public. One reason has to do with research methodology. We can’t randomly assign children early in their lives to watch different dose of violence on television then 15 years later see which children committed violent crimes. Then again the same the same type of limitation also exist for medical research: we can’t randomly assign groups of people to smoke different amounts of cigarettes for 15 years and then count the number of people who developed cancer.

Tobacco researchers conduct co relational studies in which they look at the amount people have smoked during their lives and then chart the rate at which they have succumbed to cancer. They control statistically for other factors, of course--other healthy and unhealthy behaviors that either reduce or promote the tendency to develop cancer, over and above these other influences. Since they can’t do cancer experiments on people, they use animal studies. These are artificial, but they tell us something about short- term effects of tobacco that can’t be found from co relational studies. Putting the two types of research together, we now have powerful data about the effects of smoking on the development of cancer.

Similarly, media violence researchers do long longitudinal studies of children’s media exposure and look at the types of behaviors they engage in over time. They also control for other factors such as previous aggressiveness, family problems, and such( Johnson, J.G., Cohen, P., Smailes, E. M., Kasen, S, & Brook, J. S. (2002). Television viewing and aggressive behavior during adolescence and adulthood. Science, 295, 2468-2471). They don’t look at media violence in a vacuum; they examine whether there is a correlation between television viewing and violent behavior, even controlling for other influences. They also do experiments, such as the animal experiments for cancer, these are not natural situations, but such experiments fill the gaps they cannot fill otherwise. Experiments are designed to show short-term effects, like increases in hostility or more accepting attitudes toward violence--changes that we know increase the likelihood of violent actions, both in the short term and in the long run.

A second reason for the misunderstanding of the media-violence work is that most public discussions of the problem focus on criminal violence and ignore the other unhealthy outcomes that affect many more children. In an attempt to clarify the issues, I will first discuss the research consensus about some of the major consequences of exposure to media violence, illustrating the general trends in the data with specific studies that make the outcomes more comprehensible. I will then discuss some of the implications of these findings for parents and educators, and for society at large.

Most of the research and public attention has focused on the important question of whether viewing violence in the media makes children and adolescents more violent. The question is not, of course, whether media violence causes violence, but whether viewing violence contributes to the likelihood that some one will commit violence or increase the severity of violence when it’s committed. The most direct and obvious way in which viewing violence contributes to violent behavior is through imitation or social learning. There is a wealth of psychological research demonstrating that learning often occurs through imitation, and of course, most parents know that children imitate televised words and actions from an early age. Media apologist, who cannot deny that imitation sometimes happens, try to argue that the effects are trivial because children know better than to imitate anything that’s really harmful. We are all familiar with incidents in which criminal and lethal violence has had and uncanny resemblance to a scene in a movie . However, any crime is the result of many influences acting together, skeptics and even...
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