Media violence and children

2008 June 14 – presented at a caucus of the European parliamentarians

For more than six decades Influence of violence in media content has been a subject of academic research. For a number of years the UNESCO supported International Clearing House on Children Youth and media, located at the University of Gothenburg in Norway, has produced a number of research publications related to media youth and children which include collections of research from different regions. The subject of media and violence has been treated in some of them. More recently the clearing house published a research summary on mediated violence edited by Dr. Cecilia Von Feilitzen, and my intervention today is based largely on her excellent summary[1] on the subject.

Violence in media content, are usually depicted in two different TV programme types. One is the depictions of violence in entertainment, fiction and drama content in the TV programmes. The other is the representation of violence in the TV news and other factual contents. But the research on violence in media content focuses largely on fictional content.  Most researchers consider violence as physical violence such as fights, mutilation and murders in films and dramas shown in the TV screen, thus leaving out verbal and psychological aggression from the research questions.

Traditional studies on the effects of TV violence on children and young people ask: ‘What is media violence doing to the individual?’. In brief, this line of research has generated the following results:’


Firstly, there is considerable empirical research showing that portrayals of violent actions in film and television can lead to imitation, particularly among younger children.  Adults have noticed that children often do copy what they see on the television or in the films, depending on their own perception of the characters and events they want to engage in, particularly when they play with each other. But these impulses are generally short term and diminish as the child gets older. And even if imitation often has a modeling function, that is, is a process by which children learn things (imitation and play are fundamental factors in the socialization process, i.e. children imitate adults to learn how to behave), But imitation does not necessarily mean that children have already internalized or incorporated ideas, values and norms from the media that have led to an intentional aggressive action.

Young people, too, can copy ‘tips’ and instructions concerning how violence can be committed – they can use these tips in a crisis situation if they feel they need that knowledge. These tips or instructions need not be of use immediately, but can be stored as Ideas, for how to act in violent situations later on. However, the research does not show that the media are the sole cause of the need for such knowledge, nor of the crisis situation in which the need is felt.

Many studies focused on aggression as a consequence of viewing film and TV do not support the notion that media violence is the decisive cause of violence (and violent crimes) in a society. On the other hand, most studies do not indicate that media violence is of no importance at all.

Media contents seldom have a direct or sole influence on our actions. Studies have shown that we definitely get mental impressions -conceptions, feelings, etc. -from the media. But these are mixed with all the other conceptions, norms, values, feelings and experiences we have already acquired and are acquiring from our own practice and from our family, school, peers, etc. Our own experiences, as well as impressions from other persons, are generally of greater importance than impressions from the media. It is this melting pot of collected impressions that increases or decreases our propensity to act in a certain way.

The majority of studies on media violence and aggression in the U.S as well as some studies in other countries, show that media violence – in an indirect and most often reinforcing way, in interaction with more significant impressions, both in the short and in the long run – contributes to increased aggression for certain individuals under certain circumstances. The longitudinal studies carried out during recent decades, in which the same individuals have been followed for several years, indicate, in sum, that viewing media violence seems to statistically explain 5-10 per cent  of children’s and young people’s increased aggression over time, whereas 90-95 per cent of that aggression is due to other factors. These ‘other’ factors include the child’s personality and earlier aggression; insecure, tangled or oppressive circumstances in the family, school and peer groups; socio-cultural background; unfavorable societal conditions, etc. Included here are also factors such as youth unemployment, alcohol and drugs, access to weapons, ethnic segregation, adults’ diminished control, and a consumer-oriented society that stimulates theft and other economic crimes for which violence can be a means.

Some studies also point to a reciprocal relation between viewing film and TV violence and aggression, that is, a circle or spiral effect. This implies both that children and young people who already have aggressive traits are attracted by media violence and that viewing media violence reinforces their aggression.

At the same time, research supports the notion that children who have good relations with their parents, peers, etc., who do not live in a violent environment or a violent society, who have secure social conditions, who like school, and are not frustrated or aggressive for some other reason, will most likely not become more aggressive through exposure to media violence.

But these findings cannot be generalized too hastily therefore it is essential that each country perform its own research on media violence and children’s behaviour as experience can be different from country to country. For example, previous Japanese research has not found that TV violence contributes to aggression, despite the fact that such violent representations are extensive in Japan, as well. One reason for this discrepancy may be the different culture in society at large, another fact that TV violence in Japan is often depicted in different ways when compared to how it is depicted in western media.”

Previous comparative content analyses in the US and Japan have shown that in Japanese violence the heroes are often subjected to more violence than the villains, reason why the viewer is less likely to perceive this media violence as justified. Likewise, violence on Japanese television does not as often go unpunished, and the victim’s suffering – the consequences of the violence – is more often depicted, in fact, it may even be glorified.

One British study reveals that some of the above-mentioned kinds of violence in Western media, e.g,, violence that stands out as justified, are not experienced as violence by adult viewers; they do not find such scenes violent because they are within the scope of what is customary, What normally constitutes violence for the adult audience is an act that breaks a recognized code of behaviour, for instance, that stands out as ‘unfair’ or ‘undeserved’.’

Fear and uneasiness

Although with most children, young people and adults, media violence does not contribute to aggression or convey useful tips about how violence can be committed, there are several other important types of influences of media violence that we should be aware of.

One such influence is fear (or uneasiness, discomfort, becoming upset). Many children and young people are likely to be a little afraid, in a way that is exciting, when they watch fictive films and programmes. And some young people consciously seek out horror films in order to feel the horror. However, several studies have shown that entertainment violence can also give rise to fear that is stronger than what one was seeking.

Murders, shooting, fights, knives, mysterious environments, monsters, masks, darkness, horrid sounds, etc., can have an unexpectedly frightening effect. Children also often feel deep displeasure or horror when children or animals are hurt on the screen. The fear can, namely, be reinforced if, among other things, one identifies with the victim of the violence, if one feels that the violence is not justified, if the violence is graphic, or if it is experienced as realistic (both in fiction and factual films/programmes). Most children and young people say that they at some time, or several times, have been frightened or horrorstruck by entertainment violence, not seldom for an extended period.

It is essential to stress in this context that many parents/adults take this kind of fear lightly – but all fear must be worked through. Repeated fear that is not treated but hidden away inside will sooner or later manifest itself in some way, for instance, as uncertainty, anxiety, depression – or aggression.

Violence in news and factual programmes can also be frightening. We are all scared now and then by depictions of real violence. This is necessary; we have to be shocked sometimes by such representations of violence.

Fear is a biological gift, something positive, a means of survival, of protecting ourselves and counteracting dangers and societal evils, But it is obviously undesirable if our anxiety becomes so strong that our inclination to act against fear is blocked.

Research from some countries shows that children, when asked about what has frightened them in the media, more often tend to mention violence in fictive films and programmes. This is related, among other things, to the fact that we become more frightened if the violence is associated with our own experience and if it offers possibilities for identification. For children, the news does not offer possibilities of identification as often as fiction does.

Much of what is shown on the news and other factual material is at a geographical, cultural and psychological distance from the child’s everyday life. But when children identify with or experience a violent situation in news/ factual programmes, when they feel that this can happen here or to me -then media violence about reality is more frightening. So even if entertainment violence more often gives rise to fear, depictions of real violence, when they are frightening, frighten more intensively This is because you cannot brush away (portrayals of) actual violence, persuade yourself that it is only make-believe, as you can do with entertainment violence.

Conceptions of violence in reality

There are also indications that media violence provides erroneous conceptions of real violence. However, there is less research on this kind of influence of media violence.

For example, certain practical experience within school health services indicates that children may believe bodies are stronger than they actually are and that this understanding is based on what they have seen in action films. For this reason, children cannot foresee or understand how serious the consequences of kicks and blows can be.

Furthermore, research results indicate that too much viewing can give audiences exaggerated ideas about the amount and type of violence in society. Thus, media violence can convey or reinforce ideas that there are more violent persons and more violence out there than is actually the case. Such erroneous conceptions, in turn, can give rise to fear within the viewer of personal encounters with violence – when riding the underground, walking in parks, and so on – as well as to adopt a pessimistic view that one cannot trust other persons.

Not only fictive violence but also news violence can influence people’s conceptions of violence in reality. Press and TV news often exaggerate how violent the violence is. There are also examples in the research of how erroneous ideas about violence in society – underpinned by the media –have led to moral panic in the audience and calls for more law and order.

The user perspective – different uses of film and TV violence

Some research does not proceed from the perspective of media influence -as does most research hitherto mentioned – by asking ‘what media violence is doing to the individual’ (the media perspective), but has instead the child’s, the young person’s or the adult’s perspective as a user or agent as its starting point (the user perspective).The question is then, simply stated: ‘What are children, young people, etc., doing with the media violence?’

Such research builds on the fact that different individuals generally experience excitement, violence, horror and power – and other media contents -very differently, need it to different extents and give it different meanings depending on their experience and context. It is important to understand the fascination that many persons (but by no means everyone) feel for media violence. Some violent portrayals of today also have their roots in historical myths, folk tales and ancient drama.

Let us give some examples of what empirical research on media violence from a user perspective has arrived at.


Several studies show that, for some people, media violence means excitement (or a little fear or ‘wishful fear’ – excitement and fear are extremes along the same continuum). Violence, hatred and death – and power, glory and money – are, just as love is, phenomena essential to human beings and therefore exciting. They often have a dramatic value in themselves, something that appeals to different audiences’ preferences and needs. The reason for watching violent action films or horror films can be as simple as, for instance, feeling that everyday life is boring and wanting a kick or stimulation. Some people are also more excitement seeking than others. For certain persons, excitement can instead serve to divert or calm their own uneasiness and somewhat relieve feelings of dissatisfaction or powerlessness. As mentioned, however, not everyone is attracted by film and TV violence.

Identity seeking, group belonging

The signs and symbols of popular culture are also important constituents of children’s and young people’s everyday practice and learning processes – in play and identity work, development of lifestyles, group belonging and social action. Media violence, as well, can sometimes and in different ways play a role for identity seeking and the feeling of group belonging.

Among other things, interviews with 15- to 16-year-olds show that watching certain selected violence and horror genres can be a way of measuring toughness, a test of manliness in the gang, as well as one of several expressions of a lifestyle that unites the group and a counter-cultural protest action against an adult world that, from the young people’s viewpoint, is oppressing or indifferent. This is more likely to be true of young people whose identity is not strengthened in school and whose low marks are a sign of competence and creativity that are being wasted.

Other examples of the meanings of media violence for identity seeking and group belonging are the following: Viewing horror films has been shown to fit into the socialization of gender roles. Young men have an opportunity to show that they are not scared – something expected of men –whereas girls can express their fear, lean against the boys to get protection, and admire them for their bravery – something expected of women. And among teenage boys, the competent interpreters of action films – those who are acquainted with the conventions and narrative structures of the films – maintain or create, through continuous commentary while viewing, their positions and relations in the group.

Working through problems, understanding, knowledge

As previously mentioned, many studies show that people who are already aggressive have a tendency to be attracted to media violence. This may also be true of certain children who, eg., have experienced violence at home, in war, or in other contexts. One of several possible explanations is that some persons use media portrayals in an attempt to work through and understand their situation, as well as factors that have contributed to the aggressive environment, or the fact that they feel anxiety, are oppressed, frustrated or aggressive.

The motives for using media violence can be more or less unconscious. Research from Argentina suggests, for instance, that children, who experience family conflict, or other social or individual conflicts, seek out and integrate violent elements from television to compensate for these conflicts and for their subjectively felt insufficiency. This may mean that these children feel a kind of temporary relief – even though the relief does not solve their conflicts in the long run, It is equally likely that viewing media violence also reinforces their aggression.'”

The motives for watching media violence can be more conscious and intentional, as well. Two Scandinavian studies with juvenile delinquents show that these young people, depending on their group belonging and lifestyle, seek out particular violent genres and view these specific programmes or films repeatedly.” It is not the case that chiefly the films or programmes make these young people violent – as mentioned previously, other factors are more decisive for aggression and crime -but their life situations imply the desire to learn special actions in order to master a possible violent situation in the future, for example, if they are threatened by another gang. Thus, for them, this is a question of competence development and survival, just as when other people, e.g, read books for their work or relax to soft music after a stressful day. These two studies also give examples of how people can copy instructions from violent depictions in the media.

A summary of research findings on influences and uses of film and TV violence

Looking beyond direct and simple causal relations between media violence and aggression among viewers, it is clear that we all get impressions from and are influenced by film and TV violence – but in different ways based on our varying motives, intentions, wishes and life conditions. From the abovementioned examples of undesired influences – imitation, aggression, fear, erroneous conceptions – it is also evident that we all, in one way or another, are negatively influenced by media violence.

Clearly, research on media violence has not only dealt with different kinds of influences – as mentioned, it also starts from different theoretical perspectives.

Like other research within the social sciences and the humanities, the perspectives have their origin in, among other things, the basic philosophical question of a human being’s free will. To what extent are we products of the environment – of parents, school, peers, media, religion, culture and social structure – and to what extent do we choose and act independently? Although most people agree that the truth lies somewhere in between, some put more emphasis on the structural perspective and others on the agency perspective. The same applies to researchers. As mentioned, some choose to study how we are influenced by media violence in interaction with the rest of the environment (the media perspective).

Others focus instead on how we – based on our different motives and interests in different contexts – choose, use and interpret media violence in order to orient ourselves in our surroundings and try to improve our situation (the user perspective).

Both these perspectives, however, are not contradictory. They simply have different locations on the theoretical map. Nor are the findings from the studies contradictory. The same individual can appreciate and construct meaning from media violence while also getting less desirable impressions from it. The fact that we both are influenced by and seek to influence the environment is true of most contexts.

Research on film and television violence has been conducted for a long time using different theoretical perspectives, but often one could feel research findings on media violence are contradictory or inconclusive. This may be because we are looking for simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers and no single study can cover whole reality of media violence, particularly when different viewers have different impressions on violence in media, depending on their life experiences and the specific context in which they live. This is perhaps why media violence can influence differently for different people.

lastly,  I wish to draw your attention to the conclusion  of one particular global study conducted by UNESCO between 1996 -1997 in collaboration with the World organisation of the scout movement and Utrecht university under the scientific supervision of Dr. Jo Gobrel[2]. I quote this particular study not only because of its global nature but also because it argues that impact of violent media representations should not be disregarded.  5000 children in the age group of 12, from 23 countries[3] representing all the regions participated in this survey which was based on standardized 60 item questionnaire. 93% of the children in this study had accessed to a TV set and it was found that on average children spend 3 hours daily in front of the TV screen. That is at least 50% more time spent than with any other out of school activity including home work, being with family or friends, or reading.

Thus the TV has become a major socialization factor in the life of children in urban and electrified rural areas all over the world.  According to the survey findings boys are fascinated with aggressive media heroes.  For them Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator has become a global icon, and in fact 88% of the children knew him as an icon. 51% of the children in high aggression environments such as war and crime would like to be like him compared to 37% in the low aggression neighborhoods.

This particular research concluded that :

  • Media violence is universal and it is primarily presented in a rewarding context.
  • Depending on the personality characteristics of the children, and depending on their everyday life experience, media violence satisfy different needs; it “compensate” ones own frustration and deficits in problem areas. It offers thrills for children in less problematic environments. For boys it creates a frame of reference for attractive role models.
  • There are many cultural differences, and yet the basic patterns of media violence implications are similar around the world.
  • Individual movies are not the problem. However the extent and omnipresence of media violence ( for example with an average of 5-10 aggressive acts per TV programme hour in many countries) could contribute to the development of a global aggressive culture.
  • The normality and the reward characteristics of aggression are more systematically promoted than non aggressive ways of coping with one’s life. Therefore, the risk of media violence prevails on a global level.

Now what are the possible solutions – if we have to contain the potential influence of  violence depicted in media more important than the media are the social and economic conditions in which children grow up. However media as a mean by which young people learn about the world and which shape the understanding of values and orientations also deserve some attention. Here the centralized regulatory control and censorship is not the answer, because beside the fact that they contravene criteria of democratic societies in which solutions should be found on the basis of inculcating critical thinking and self-confidence.

Therefore, the study recommended three interlocking strategies to mitigate potential harmful effects of media violence.

  • Public debate and “an engaged discourse” between politicians, TV producers, teachers and parents.
  • Adherence to professional code of conduct and self accountability for TV content producers.
  • Innovative forms of media education to create critical media users.

The last point, media education is vital – it relates directly to educational policies.  Should media education be thought as a separate subject in schools or should it be a part of existing subjects such as civics or language  has been a protracted debate for some times. But with increasing proliferation of channels and new media types it is high time that we take a serious look at how to deploy media education at school levels. This is in fact is a separate subject, which cannot be covered in this presentaion – but suffice for me to say that UNESCO has launched a programme to integrate media literacy as an integral part of teacher training, so that teachers have the necessary competencies to teach their students as to how they could critically engage with media content, including critical evaluation of violence depicted in media. It is the first step, but an essential one, because we need competent teachers to make their students media literate.

For this purpose UNESCO defines media literacy as;

“MEDIA LITERACY refers to  (young) people’s capacity to understand and evaluate the functions of media in a democratic society, to appreciate the conditions needed for media to perform those functions, and to critically evaluate media contents against the functions attributed to media.

[1] Influence of Mediated Violence,  Cecilia Von Feilitzen, Nordicom,  University of  Gothenburg 2009

[2]  Children and Media Violence, Ulla Carlson and Cecilia von Feilitzen (eds), Gothenburg University,  1998

[3] Angola, Argentina, Armenia, Brazil, Canada. Costa Rica, Croatia, Egypt, Fiji, Germany, India, Japan, Mauritius, the Netherland, Peru, Philippines, Qatar, South Africa, Spain, Tajikistan, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, Ukraine

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