Television characters like Dirty Harry or Bugs Bunny may seem harmless, but it's such characters who appear justified and rewarded in their portrayals of violence on television that could have a long-term negative effect on children, according to a team of University of Michigan psychologists.
Their recent study in Developmental Psychology (Vol. 39, No. 2) shows that the more children view violent television programs--particularly ones in which "good" characters perpetrate violence--the more likely they are to behave violently and aggressively as young adults.
"It's not always the bloodiest or goriest violence that has the most powerful effects on children," says L. Rowell Huesmann, PhD, principal investigator and psychology professor at the University of Michigan. "It can be completely sanitized violence portrayed in a positive light--as justified or awarded." The longitudinal study was also co-authored by Jessica Moise-Titus, PhD, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski and Leonard D. Eron, PhD.
While past studies have shown that heavy media-violence viewing may contribute to aggressive behavior in the short term, this most recent study shows that effects can be seen even 15 years later.
In 1977, researchers evaluated 557 children between 6 and 10 years old about the violent television programs they watched and how they perceived the material. Fifteen years later, researchers completed interviews with and evaluated archival data on 329 of the original participants--now in their 20s.
Those who were found to be particularly prone to violent and aggressive behavior as adults had, as children, viewed large amounts of violent programs, identified with aggressive same-sex TV characters and perceived violent programs as realistic.
Of the men who were "heavy viewers" of TV violence as children, 42 percent reported they had pushed, grabbed or shoved their spouses at least once in the last year compared with 22 percent of men who did not watch violence as children. Nearly 70 percent of heavy violence viewers reported shoving another person.
The results were similar for women. Nearly 40 percent of heavy violence viewers reported throwing something at their spouses compared with 17 percent of women who did not watch violence. Women who were heavy violence viewers in childhood were also more than four times as likely to have punched, beaten or choked other adults in the past year.
The study found that even when taking into account a child's initial aggression, social status, intelligence and the parents' aggressiveness, the findings still hold true.
Also, what others say about the television violence can also have an effect. If a parent notes how unrealistic a program is, the program will have less impact on the child, Huesmann says.
"Humans are born with an innate capacity to imitate," he says. "So it doesn't seem too surprising that the violence viewed as a child can become encoded in such strength as to influence their behavior 15, 30 or maybe even 40 years down the road."