Early Exposure to TV Violence Predicts Aggression in Adulthood

Huesmann, L. R., Moise-Titus, J., Podolski, C., & Eron, L. D. (2003). Longitudinal relations between children’s exposure to TV violence and their aggressive and violent behavior in young adulthood: 1977-1992. Developmental Psychology, 39, 201-221.

What is this study about?

There is increasing evidence that early exposure to media violence is a contributing factor to the development of aggression. However, much of the past research on media violence has focused on short-term effects and reported significant relations only for boys. This study draws on social-cognitive observational-learning theory, desensitization theory, and social comparison theory to examine the longitudinal relationship between early exposure to TV violence and adult aggressive behavior for both males and females.

This study is a follow-up of the 3-year longitudinal study conducted by Huesmann and his colleagues in 1977. In the original study, which included 557 children from five countries (aged 6-10 years), researchers gathered information on childhood TV-violence viewing, identification with aggressive TV characters, judgments of realism of TV violence, aggressive behavior, and intellectual ability, as well as parents’ socioeconomic status (measured by educational level), aggressiveness, parenting practices and attitudes, and parent’s TV usage (i.e., TV-viewing frequency and TV-violence viewing).

In this follow-up study, researchers interviewed and gathered collateral data (i.e., archival records and interviews of spouses and friends) on 329 participants from the original sample. At the time of the follow-up, the participants ranged in age from 20 to 25 years. Researchers administered measures of adult TV-violence viewing and adult aggressive behavior, and obtained archival data on criminal conviction and moving violation records from state records.

What did the study find?

The results of this study revealed that early childhood exposure to TV violence predicted aggressive behavior for both males and females in adulthood. Additionally, identification with same sex aggressive TV characters, as well as participants’ ratings of perceived realism of TV violence, also predicted adult aggression in both males and females. Furthermore, while a positive relationship was found between early aggression and subsequent TV violence viewing, the effect was not significant. These findings suggest that, while aggressive children may choose to watch more violent TV programming, it is more plausible that early childhood exposure to TV violence stimulates increases in aggression later in adulthood.

Gender differences were also observed in the expression of aggression. Specifically, men were more likely to engage in serious physical aggression and criminality, whereas women were more likely to engage in forms of indirect aggression. Men and women reported similar frequencies of engaging in verbal aggression, general aggression, and aggression toward spouses. For men, the effects were exacerbated by their identification with same sex characters and perceptions of realism in TV violence.

The longitudinal relationships observed in this study held true, even after controlling for the effects of early aggressive behavior in childhood, socioeconomic status, intellectual ability, and various parenting factors. These findings support the hypothesis that the causal effects of media violence exposure found in laboratory settings can be generalized to real life from childhood to adulthood.

How does this relate to the ACT Against Violence program?

Children are increasingly becoming heavy media consumers. Research indicates that much of the media directed at children contains violent content. While media violence exposure may have short-term effects on adults, its negative impact on children is enduring. As this study suggests, early exposure to TV violence places both male and female children at risk for the development of aggressive and violent behavior in adulthood. The ACT program addresses the impact of media violence on the development of young children, and teaches parents strategies for reducing their children’s exposure to media violence.