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Media Effects on Children’s Social and Moral Development

By: , Posted on: October 20, 2015

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For the past 60 years, the primary focus of concern about children’s media use has been whether it makes them more hostile and aggressive and increases their chances of becoming violent adults. A parallel but much smaller body of research has focused on whether, and under what conditions, there may be prosocial outcomes of media use.

Over the years, various theories have sought to explain short- and long-term effects of exposure on viewers’ attitudes and behaviors. Although most were developed within the context of media violence research, they also help explain effects of other types of content and predict other outcomes besides physical violence. See the article Media Effects for a review of these theories.

Theorizing How Effects May Occur

The General Learning Model (Buckley and Anderson, 2006) proposes that media-based experiences contribute to users’ knowledge structures, including their person schemata (i.e., typical characteristics of people or groups of people) and their behavioral scripts (expectations of how people behave in particular situations). Furthermore, the theory proposes that these knowledge structures can contain links to affective states evoked by the initial experience (e.g., anger, fear, warmth) and information about what emotions are typical or appropriate in a given situation. When activated, these interconnected components (person schemata, behavioral scripts, affect, and affective knowledge) may then interact with other factors (personality, values, long-term goals, etc.) to influence people’s appraisals and reactions.

How does this apply to young viewers’ responses to violent or aggressive content? In the short term, exposure to violent, hostile content (whether in TV programing, in films, in music, or in video games) increases the probability that aggressive thoughts and feelings are activated and tends to increase arousal. These thoughts and feelings, combined with arousal, increase the probability that young viewers will behave aggressively. In the long term, repeated exposure to violence appears to alter viewers’ beliefs and attitudes about aggression, decreasing their tendency to notice and respond to real-world pain and suffering and increasing their tendency to interpret social situations in hostile ways. These in turn appear to increase the probability that heavy consumers of media violence will act in hostile or aggressive ways.

Effects of Media Violence on Children’s Physical Aggression

Bushman and Huesmann (2006) conducted a meta-analysis of 431 studies related to the effects of media violence, of which 264 focused specifically on children (for a total sample of 50 312 children aged 18 or younger). Studies were included if they assessed the impact of violent content in TV programs, films, video games, music, or comic books. Across this sizable body of research, both experimental and self-selected exposure to media violence were associated with negative outcomes: more aggressive behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, as well reduced helping behavior. The authors also noted that although short-term effects (measured experimentally) were somewhat stronger for adults than for children, long-term relationships between self-selected exposure and subsequent aggression (in some studies, measured years later) were stronger for exposure during childhood than during adulthood.

In one major study (Huesmann et al., 2003), over 400 US 6- to 9-year-olds were surveyed about their exposure to and interpretations of TV violence. Fifteen years later (i.e., when the participants were aged 21–23), their levels of aggression were assessed through several means: (1) interviews with the participant, (2) interviews with a spouse, close friend, or significant other, and (3) by examining criminal records. Childhood exposure to TV violence predicted individuals’ physical aggression as adults. These relationships between childhood exposure and adult aggression were stronger for those who, as children, had perceived TV violence to be realistic and who had identified with same-sex aggressive TV heroes and heroines.

Effects of TV Content on Children’s Non-Physical Aggression

The Huesman et al. (2003) longitudinal study of media violence also found that among women in the sample childhood exposure to TV violence predicted nonphysical aggressive acts in adulthood (e.g., trying to get someone into trouble). Other studies conducted in England and the United States have also found relationships between children’s media use and their tendency to engage in various forms of nonphysical aggression (often referred to as indirect, relational, or social aggression). These types of aggression involve intentionally harming someone’s social standing, often by manipulative acts such as gossiping, spreading rumors, or exclusion. In various studies, including a recent longitudinal study by Gentile et al. (2011), preteens or young teens who watched more programs featuring these forms of interpersonal hostility were more likely to engage in those behaviors themselves. There is some indication that such relationships are more likely to be observed for females than for males.

Effects of Media Racial and Gender Stereotyping

Researchers who have documented racial and gender biases in media depictions of reality have long speculated about the implications for children’s feelings, beliefs, and attitudes. Content analyses of TV and magazine content in the United States continue to document underrepresentation and stereotyped representations of females and non-Anglo ethnic/racial groups. At the same time, surveys of non-Anglo children in the United States indicate a strong desire to see representations of their own group and an awareness of racial bias in news and entertainment depictions (Children Now, 1999).

Taken together, these patterns may help explain the findings of a longitudinal study conducted by Martins and Harrison (2012) with over 400 children aged 7–12 in the United States. They found that television exposure in second to fourth grade was associated with decreased self-esteem 1 year later among Anglo and African American girls and African American boys (i.e., those groups that tend to be underrepresented and misrepresented on US TV programing). In contrast, television viewing was associated with an increase in self-esteem among Anglo-American boys. These relationships were significant even after controlling for age, body satisfaction, and baseline self-esteem.

Media content may also shape children’s broader beliefs about social roles, such as gender roles. Oppliger (2007) conducted a meta-analysis of 31 studies conducted in a variety of countries, examining the relationship between media use (including TV, magazine, and film use) and gender role stereotyping. Measures of stereotyping included judgments about the appropriateness of various occupations for men and women, the appropriateness of playing with sex-typed toys, estimates of the number of men and women in various occupations, and behavioral measures such as the child’s own play behaviors, reported performance of gender-normative chores, and imitation of counter-stereotypical role models. Across the subset of studies dealing specifically with children, there was a small but significant relationship between exposure and stereotype-consistent beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.


This excerpt was taken from the article Media Effects on Children which examines cognitive effects, emotional impacts and health issues from media exposure. The article is included in the recently published International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Second Edition which offers a source of social and behavioral science reference material that is broader and deeper than any other. Covering topics from Cognitive Psychology to Artificial Intelligence to Neuroscience to Urban Studies to Evolution and all that is in between, it is the definitive resource for undergraduates, graduate students and researchers. Check it out here.

Take a look at some of the related articles:

Media and Child Development

Media Effects

Media Effects on Children

Educational Media: Potentials for Learning

Violence and Media

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