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Violent media and aggressive behavior in children

Published on Psychology Today

With recent worry about mass shootings and gun violence in the United States, one of the questions that always comes up is whether violent media promotes violent or aggressive behavior. This is something that is especially important to think about for parents, as violent content is common on television and in movies, on the internet, and in some of the most popular children’s video games.

Although the issue is often presented as controversial in the media, we have pretty good evidence that exposure to violent media does make children more aggressive. And we’ve known it for decades. In one of the most well-known studies on this topic (published all the way back in the 1960’s), researchers showed preschoolers a video of an adult playing with an inflatable doll. In the video, the children watched as the adult sat on the doll, punched it in the nose, hit the doll on the head with a mallet, and kicked it repeatedly. After watching the video, the children were brought into a playroom with the same doll and lots of other toys. As predicted, the kids who watched the aggressive video imitated what they saw—they beat the doll with a mallet, and they punched and kicked it. What was most surprising was that the children found new and creative ways to beat up the doll, and they played more aggressively with the other toys in the room as well. In other words, children didn’t just imitate the aggressive behaviors they saw; seeing aggressive behaviors caused these kids to play more aggressively in general (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1963).

Very recent research suggests that these effects can become particularly problematic when guns are involved. Researchers from Ohio State University brought pairs of 8- to 12-year-old children into a lab and showed them a 20-minute version of a popular PG-rated movie—either the Rocketeer (1991) or National Treasure (2004). In the edited movie, the children either saw that actual movie footage, which contained characters using guns, or they watched a version where the guns were edited out. They were then presented with a large room that contained various toys including Legos, nerf guns, and games. Not surprisingly, the children who watched the movie with the guns played more aggressively than children who watched the movie with the guns edited out, consistent with previous research.

But that wasn’t all; the study had a bit of a twist. The playroom also contained a closed cabinet, where in one of the drawers was a real 0.38-caliber handgun. The gun was not loaded, and it was modified so that it couldn’t fire bullets. It was also modified so that it kept track of the number of times the trigger was pulled hard enough that the gun would have gone off. The children weren’t told that there was a gun in the room, the researchers were simply interested in whether the children would find the gun on their own, and if they did, what they’d do with it.

About 83% of the kids in the study found the gun, and most of them played with it. Of the kids who found it, 27% immediately gave it to the experimenter and the experimenter took it out of the room. Of the remaining 58% of kids who found the gun, 42% played with it in various ways. Importantly, almost none of the kids who watched the movie clip without guns ever pulled the trigger. The kids who watched the movie that contained gun footage were more likely to pull the trigger of the real gun: On average, they pulled it about 2-3 times, and spent 4-5 times longer holding it when compared to kids who watched the movie with no gun footage. What’s scarier is that some of these kids pulled the trigger more than a few times; in fact, they pulled it quite a lot. Some pulled the trigger over 20 times; one child pointed the gun out the window at people walking down the street; and another child pressed the gun to another child’s temple and pulled the trigger (Dillon, & Bushman, 2017).

This research suggests that violent media can cause aggressive behavior in children, and that this behavior can be incredibly problematic if the violent media includes guns. Indeed, children are incredibly curious about guns, and they can have difficulty understanding the difference between real and toy guns (Benjamin, Kepes, & Bushman, 2017). In fact, there is research suggesting that guns don’t need to be featured in the media to cause aggression: The mere presence of a gun is enough to elicit aggressive behavior. For example, having a gun sitting on a table makes people behave more aggressively (Berkowitz & LePage, 1967), and recent work shows that having a gun in the car makes people (even non-gun owners) more aggressive drivers (Bushman, Kerwin, Whitlock, & Weisenberger, 2017). These effects even exist in children, whether or not the gun is real or is just a toy (Benjamin Kepes, & Bushman, 2017).

So can viewing violent media cause more aggression in children? The answer based on this research is a very clear yes. And it’s worth pointing out that the videos children saw in the studies I described were pretty mild; they either saw a homemade video of someone playing roughly with a doll, or 20-minute clips of movies that were rated PG. The violence in these videos pales in comparison to the violence in other full-length movies and in video games, which have also been linked to increases in aggressive behavior (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). The clear implication from here is that if you don’t want your children to be aggressive or violent, keep them away from violent media, and even away from toy weapons that might encourage aggressive behavior all on their own. That doesn’t mean you won’t end up with an aggressive child—some children are just naturally more aggressive than others—but it’s certainly a start.

Photo by jarmoluk/Pixabay


Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12, 353-359.

Bandura, A., Ross, D., & Ross, S. A. (1963). Imitation of film-mediated aggressive models. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 3-11.

Berkowitz, L., & LePage, A. (1967). Weapons as aggression-eliciting stimuli. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 7(2p1), 202-207.

Dillon, K. P., & Bushman, B. J. (2017, in press). Effects of Exposure to Gun Violence in Movies on Children’s Interest in Real Guns. JAMA pediatrics.

Bushman, B. J., Kerwin, T., Whitlock, T., & Weisenberger, J. M. (2017). The weapons effect on wheels: Motorists drive more aggressively when there is a gun in the vehicle. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 73, 82-85.

Benjamin Jr, A. J., Kepes, S., & Bushman, B. J. (2017, in press). Effects of weapons on aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, hostile appraisals, and aggressive behavior: a meta-analytic review of the weapons effect literature. Personality and social psychology review.

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