For posts on bullying, visit The Learn to be Buddies Series Blog.
All images and posts written by and copyright to Amanda Clements (nee Gray) 2009-2012 unless otherwise indicated.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Violence in the Media and aggression…

Over many years, there has been a debate raging around this issue. I don’t want to enter into that debate here, but I do want to talk about the things we need to consider when we are making decisions about what our children watch or what video games they play.

How might aggressive behaviour develop?

There are a number of theories about the development and occurrence of aggression across different stages of child and youth development. Kirsch (2006) provides a good overview if you want to read more. However, here I just want to quickly summarise these.

Some children may be more wired towards aggression
This has to do with personality characteristics and the outcomes of disorders such as Autism, Attention Deficit Disorders and Developmental Delays. These children aren’t necessarily going to act aggressively, but due to impulsivity, difficulties with problem-solving or other aspects of cognition they are at higher risk of developing aggressive behaviour depending on what they see, hear and experience.

We learn many social skills by observing

What we see and hear has a great influence on how we behave. It influences our sense of what is “normal” and acceptable. So if we are constantly seeing others act aggressively, whether in real life or in the media, we are more likely to accept this behaviour as “normal”. We may even start behaving more aggressively. This has been described as de-sensitisation.

The other effect is that we can develop a different definition of what constitutes aggression or unacceptable behaviour. This may lead to us not responding in the same way to aggressive behaviour in others. So if I am exposed to swearing and the yelling of derogatory comments regularly, I am less likely to feel that I am being treated unfairly or being bullied when someone yells and swears at me. And while it does not necessarily follow that this behaviour does not affect me emotionally, it can mean I don’t defend myself or communicate to the other person that this behaviour is unacceptable.

Our experiences reinforce what we see
What we experience in our lives, and what those who we trust and love do around us, can influence whether we take on what we see. For example, Kirsh discusses research that suggests that the effects of what children see in the media can be increased or decreased through discussions with teachers and parents. For example, what children learn from educational shows or documentaries is increased if teachers or parents explicitly discuss the content of the shows with them. On the flip side, the effects of a scary movie can be reduced by the presence of an adult if that adult makes the child feel safe. And violence in the movie can be put into perspective through discussion of social values and/or the difference between real life and what they have seen.

Aggression may not be evident immediately
In some cases, the influence of violent media can be evident immediately. For example, when I was working in a child care centre there was definitely an increase in children playfully or intentionally hurting each other with “karate” moves during the “Ninja Turtle” craze. For the most part this behaviour could be shaped and changed through discussions and behaviour modification techniques, but for some children it became a significant bar to their relationships with their peers.

However, it is the more long term effects that we can’t predict and are less likely to be able to manage. For example, the American Psychological Association (2003) reports on a 15 year study of 329 people which showed that children who watch a lot of violent media early in life are at greater risk of becoming physical in domestic arguments, or having been convicted of crimes.

There is also the concern that children who have a tendency towards aggression may enjoy watching it, which in turn could lead to a warped view of what is acceptable and what is not.

Triggers for aggression
So if a child comes to think of aggression as being part of life and an acceptable way of dealing with problems, they are more likely to have a physical response to social problems such as arguments, debates, insults, frustration and anger. It is the latter emotions that bring about aggressive behaviour.

What we need to consider for children of differing abilities

Taking things literally
We need to be especially thoughtful about what our children watch if they tend to take things literally. For example, children with intellectual disabilities may find it very difficult to understand that there can be a dual set of values – one for “real” relationships, and one for the shows they watch. They may take statements or modelled behaviour in the media literally. So watching on thing, then hearing another from their parents or teachers, can be a very confusing experience.

Children who have Autism and Aspergers may also struggle with this as they also tend to have a very literal, black and white view on the world.

Difficulties with self-management
Children who have difficulty thinking about consequences or the effects of their actions on themselves or their peers before they act can also be at greater risk of being influenced by repeated exposure to aggression in the media. For example, children with ADHD often act impulsively in response to their feelings due to the difficulty with executive function (see previous post). So they need extra support to get into the habit of controlling their behaviour. Repeated viewing of uncontrolled or inappropriate behaviour could mean that this behaviour becomes habitually seen as acceptable.

Ongoing frustrations and feelings of failure
Children with a wide range of difficulties, including physical and sensory disabilities such as cerebral palsy and vision or hearing impairments, experience many frustrations and challenges throughout the day. They may find themselves tired or unable to effectively communicate what they know, want or need to others. The way they respond to these feelings is not only shaped by their natural, impulsive response. It is shaped by what methods they have learnt to deal with this situation. So, again, if they are seeing inappropriate models in the media, it may influence their behaviour.


So while the media can’t necessarily be blamed for aggressive behaviour, it can be a contributing factor. And for children with differing abilities, we need to make sure that all our hard work teaching positive social skills isn’t being weakened by repeated exposure to media that communicates contradictory values and inappropriate approaches to problem-solving.

So when you are deciding on media use in your family or classroom, consider the content in the context of the values and skills you want your children to learn. Also consider how much/how often they view movies, videos, TV shows and play computer games. And, finally, consider whether they do it unsupervised and how much you talk to them about the content they have seen. Because, in the end, the values and social skills you model and communicate to your child will be a significant factor in helping them process the information in a balanced way.

Kirsh, S.J. (2006). Children, Adolescents, and Media Violence: A Critical Look at the Research. London: Sage Publications.

American Psychological Association. (2003). Childhood Exposure to Media Violence Predicts Young Adult Aggressive Behaviour, According to a New 15-Year Study: Children Who Identify with Aggressive TV Characters and Perceive the Violence to be Realistic are Most at Risk for Later Aggression. Retrieved 16h August from:

American Psychological Association. (2004). Psychologists Help Protect Children from Harmful Effects: Decades of psychological research confirms that media violence can increase aggression. Retrieved 16h August from:

Want to read more: This is the best article. I recommend reading this.


About This Blog

You are welcome to browse as you like... but please remember that everything here is copyrighted. To receive printable copies of articles that you can hand out to others, subscribe to the Learn to be Buddies newsletter at

Copyright Amanda Gray 2009-11

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP