There have been increasing cases of violence amongst the youth, which has become a pressing issue in many countries, particularly the United States. Given this situation, researchers have sought to come up with explanations for this violent behavior. Obaid et al. (2018) and Şengönül (2017), for example, suggested that children learn violent behaviors when they watch violent television programs. Many other researchers have identified television as a common pastime amongst children since it was first introduced in 1939 (Twenge & Campbell, 2018). In the current society, children grow up with television viewing being part of their daily routine. Sliwa (2018) found that homes with teenagers had an average of 35 or more hours of weekly viewing time, which translates to over 5 hours each day. This may surpass the period the children spend in school. It can therefore be assumed that by the time the students graduate from high school, they are likely to have spent less time in school than watching television. The increased television viewing by children has resulted in a rise in violent behavior in this population, which is evident in the literature.
The most intriguing issue is even not about the amount of time spent on television, but rather the content that is being viewed during these hours. Studies have been conducted in various settings on the content of television programs (Şengönül, 2017; Signorielli, et al., 2019). One outstanding finding made by Signorielli et al. (2019) is that 38% of prime-time programs have hostile acts every hour. On the other hand, children’s shows portray violent scenes about four times as much. These findings, therefore, suggest that before children attain the age of 18, they will have witnessed thousands of acts of violence on television. The continued viewing of televised violence by children motivates them to consider aggressive, antisocial, or criminal behaviors as the art of everyday usual behaviors. Obaid et al. (2018) observed this in their peer-to-peer interactions within the school environment. This paper, therefore, critically analyses various research that demonstrates the relationship between television programs and violent behavior in children. In this regard, it seeks to ascertain the premise that watching violent television media influences children to become more aggressive in their interactions.
The Popularity of Television amongst Children
Today, society has begun looking at television as a source of introducing children to violent acts. Anderson et al. (2017) conducted a review of laboratory-based experimental studies into how television programs influence violence and concluded that the problem has existed since the introduction of television technology. Even though this research lacked a clear picture of the relationship between the two phenomena, it provides an understanding of the infiltration of television sets into American children’s bedrooms. In this regard, 40% of children between 8 and 18 years old had access to television sets in their bedrooms (Ravichandran, et al., 2017). More fascinating results were found by Twenge and Campbell (2018) showing that approximately half of the parents in America did not consider setting any limits to what their children watched. The two types of research, despite having methodological differences, explain the extent to which the availability of television without parameters of use, has made television watching the most popular past-time activity.
Surprisingly, children-specific programs such as cartoons have been found to contain the most violent scenes compared to another programming. Lochman et al. (2017), for example, conducted an analysis of children’s programs for three months. During this time, they observed and recorded the number of violent acts on television during Saturday morning and evening primetime programs. They found an average of five violent acts during every hour of prime time programming and at least 20 violent acts in every hour of children’s programs on Saturday mornings. In another study by Zafar and Chaudhary (2018), war cartoons were found to make these statistics even higher. Mahmood et al. (2020) carried out a similar study and concluded that typical war cartoon shows had an average of 40 violent acts every hour, and a scene of attempted murder every five minutes. In a literature review, Şengönül (2017) explored the importance of these figures in determining the relationship between television programs and violent behavior. This shows that children may find it difficult to distinguish between television’s portrayal of violence and what ought to be done in the real world.
Desensitization to Violence
Theoretically, desensitization tends to be a form of habituation, which is discussed in the literature as a non-associative learning process whose outcome is reduced response to a stimulus due to multiple exposures. Allan (2017) uses the example of Bandura’s doll experiment where a child witnesses violence to a point of eliciting strong negative emotional reactions. However, upon being subjected to repeated exposure, the child’s emotional reactions dampen, hence less emotional distress. Baji (2020) explains habituation in the context of television watching and violence and states that frequent exposure results in children generalizing violence as a normal part of life. Thus, for example, watching scenes of fighting in television programs desensitizes the children to other forms of violence in the home or school settings.
Behavioral problems experienced in later stages of life are perceived to root in experiences of aggressive behaviors during childhood. Several studies have discussed various interactive factors contributing to children’s aggressive behaviors from the perspective of television exposure (Obaid, et al., 2018; Velki & Jagodic, 2017). A recent study by Obaid et al. (2018) found that most children and adolescents use visual and auditory devices for a greater part of their free time, including television. Related to these findings, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggested that parents should limit the daily program viewership of children less than 2 years to 1-2 hours a day to minimize desensitization to violence (Gentile, et al., 2017). Ravichandran et al. (2017) also recommended against having television sets in children’s bedrooms. Despite the frequent recommendations by various researchers, Signorielli et al. (2019) argue that there are yet to be changes in the time spent on television viewing by children. Children continue to watch programs for more than two hours with many others having televisions in their bedrooms.
The Mechanism of Television Exposure and Aggression
Researchers have revealed the effect of television exposure in children through independent experimental studies. One major experimental study was conducted by Bandura (1969) on young children, where they were made to view a film of an adult kicking and punishing a doll (Allan, 2017). The children were then allowed to play and any incidences of aggressive behavior were recorded. The findings of this experiment as referenced in Allan (2017) indicated that children became more violent when they viewed the aggressive film compared to if they had not observed the film. This study has been replicated by many researchers such as Yılmaz et al. (2019), who used adolescent participants and found similar results. However, Anderson et al. (2017) criticized the application of these experimental studies in the context of television viewing because violent behavior has no meaning within the social context. Additionally, Anderson et al. (2017) argue that the stimulus materials used in experimental research are not representative of actual television programs. Even though there have been subsequent studies using more typical programs and advanced measures of aggression, the results of Bandura’s early research still stand.
Despite experimental studies finding a causal relationship between television programs and violent behavior, it may be argued that exposure to programs is not a sufficient reason for aggression. Elson et al. (2019) analyzed the literature and concluded that the media effects explored in the research only account for mild forms of aggression, but not for criminal behavior. However, Signorielli et al. (2019) conducted a review to differentiate between immediate and long-term effects of exposure to television violence. Based on this review, additional factors presented in the television programs were found to elevate violent behaviors in children. These include lack of punishment for the violent acts, justification of violence; violence amongst friends; violence with mild consequences; and display of strength and power to outdo weak victims by protagonists. These factors tend to give children a reason to imitate violent behavior when subjected to similar situations.
In the case of immediate and short-term impacts, television viewing produces physiological arousal and aggressive cognitions. In this regard, Lochman et al. (2017) state that violent scripts used in the various programs are likely to trigger an automatic imitation of behaviors. Teng et al. (2019) also initiated a similar argument for longitudinal studies, where heavy exposure to television programs in children was linked to a higher probability of physical, verbal, and relational violence. On the contrary, even though violence portrayed in television shows has been researched extensively, Gentile et al. (2017) relate these effects in children and youth partly to violence in video games. Furthermore, longitudinal research has continued to link exposure to video game violence to television programs as the main drivers of physical aggression amongst school-going children. However, television violence is solely responsible for aggravating verbal aggression.
Both experimental and longitudinal research offer explanatory schemes which include dynamic processes involving developmental failures affected by the exposure to televised programs. However, the labeling theory can also be used to explain the relationship between television programs and violent behavior. In this case, Barmaki (2019) states that any attempt to imitate aggressive acts leads to hostile relationships, failure in school, and rejection by peers. These events further have reverberations that are felt in the child’s life course. Yılmaz et al. (2019) support this line of thought that children getting into trouble with parents are likely to replicate the same in school with their teachers and peers, with employers in the future, and most likely with the criminal justice system. Barmaki’s (2019) argument portrays a strong labeling component linking antisocial behavior in childhood to the intervention of the formal criminal justice system. The repeated imitation of violence in television programs, therefore, can limit children’s access to normal lives; to the extent of only managing to secure criminal capital. This explains the long-term effects of television viewing on children.
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