Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Whamo! Media Affects Kids Big Time

October 2, 1995

At a recent convention of the American Psychological Association, Psychologist Leonard Eron told how he and his colleages discovered a relationship between violence in media and aggression in children.

More than 35 years ago, Eron set out to study the influence of family child rearing practices on aggressive behavior in school. His study involved 850 third grade children in Columbia County, New York and 80 percent of their mothers and fathers. Since many questions might be asking parents to say nasty things about themselves, he threw in some filler questions among which was, "How many hours during the week does he watch TV?" and "What are his three favorite TV programs?"

To his surprise, he found that there seemed to be a direct positive relation between the amount of violence in preferred TV programs and how aggressive boys were in school. Eron defines media violence as graphic visual portrayals of acts of physical aggression by one or more persons against others. Aggressive behavior is an act which is intended to injure or irritate another person.

It was an interesting finding, but researchers couldn't tell what caused what or if there was a third factor involved. Eron published his research and went about studying other factors he felt were more important causes of aggression in children.

Ten years later the Surgeon General's Committee on Television and Violence asked him to do a follow up study on the children from the original study. He and his colleagues weren't really interested because they didn't have much confidence in the original findings. He agreed to do it if they gave him enough money to research other issues along with the TV data they wanted.

Eron and his colleagues re-interviewed 427 young adults from the original study. Those studied averaged 19 years old and had an average of 12.5 years of schooling. The most striking finding was that there was a relationship between watching violent television at age eight and aggression at age 19. If the child was aggressive at age eight, the finding was even stronger. The amount of aggressive programming the young men watched at age 19 wasn't related to their aggressive actions. The influence of TV had already taken place.

Boys who were low in aggressive at age eight but watched violent television were more aggressive ten years later than the boys who were originally high in aggression but watched nonviolent programs. No other variable could account for the data.

When the subjects were 30 years old, they interviewed them again and criminal justice records were consulted. Eron found that the more often boys watched violent television at age eight: 

  • the more serious were the crimes for which they had been convicted at age 30,
  • the more aggressive behavior they showed under the influence of alcohol,
  • the harsher the punishment they administered to their own children.

These findings held up when initial aggressiveness, IQ and social class were taken into account.

Further, the 30 year olds who were more aggressive and watched more violent TV at age eight had children who were more aggressive and watched more violent TV 22 years later. Eron states, "What one learns about life from the television screen seems to be transmitted even to the next generation!" It wasn't specific programs that led to violence but the development of norms of behavior for solving interpersonal problems that remained with them over the years.

Another large group of youngsters was studied in a suburb of Chicago and followed up three years later. They got essentially the same results. This study was replicated in Australia, Finland, Israel and Poland. Data shows that more aggressive children watch more TV, prefer more violent programs, identify more with TV characters and perceive violence as more like real life than do less aggressive children. Studies have shown that girls are affected too. There is a consistent finding that more aggressive children watch more violent TV and that violent television makes children more aggressive.

How big is this effect? It is the size of the relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer and not everyone who has lung cancer ever smoked. Similarly, not everyone who watched violent TV became more aggressive and not everyone who is aggressive watched television.

Like secondary smoke damaging the lungs of bystanders, a child who is protected from violent TV may be a victim of violence perpetrated by someone who as a youngster learned motivation and techniques of violence from television.

Violent television isn't the only cause of aggression and violence in society. There are many factors. No one factor is necessary or sufficient to produce long term anti-social behavior. Best estimates from the results of laboratory and field studies shows that ten percent of youth violence can be attributed to TV violence. Ninety percent comes from other factors. Eron concluded his address by asking, "But wouldn't it be great if we could reduce the occurrence of violence in this nation by ten percent?"