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Journal Issue: Children and Electronic Media Volume 18 Number 1 Spring 2008

Media and Children's Aggression, Fear, and Altruism
Barbara J. Wilson

Media Choices and Children's Well-Being

American children spend a large part of their lives with television and other screen-based technologies, and there can be little doubt that they learn from these mediated experiences. Parents and educators often worry about the harmful effects of media, but the evidence is clear that time spent with media can also be beneficial for children. The point I have emphasized throughout this article is that content matters. Watching two hours of Sesame Street will provide a young child with a rich set of academic and social-emotional lessons; watching two hours of a superhero cartoon will recommend aggression as a way of solving problems.

Figure 1 charts the effect that exposure to different types of media content has on various social and emotional outcomes, based on the meta-analyses already noted. The good news is that prosocial television has a larger effect on altruism than any other content has on any other outcome. Close behind, however, is the effect that violent television has on aggressive behavior. Slightly smaller effects have been found for violent video games on aggressive behavior, for prosocial content on positive social interaction, and for prosocial content on teaching tolerance for others. The smaller effect for video game violence should be interpreted with caution, however, because studies in this area are few, and most involve adults. Some of the more recent research comparing television with video games suggests that the violent games may be a more potent stimulator of aggression. The smallest effect of all is that of television in cultivating a fear of victimization. One reason for the latter finding may be that research on cultivation has tended to ignore content and instead simply measured hours of television viewing. As noted, cultivation effects tend to be stronger among heavy viewers of news programming and other authentic portrayals of violence such as those sometimes found in reality shows.

The important conclusion to draw is that all the effects displayed in figure 1 are positive, statistically significant, and established across large numbers of participants and settings. One way to interpret these effects is to treat them like correlations that can be used to estimate how much variance is explained in a given behavior or outcome. For example, television violence accounts for about 10 percent (.312) of the variance in children's aggression. Although that share does not seem large, it is larger than any other single factor that accounts for violent behavior in youth. The truth is that, taken separately, most risk factors do not account for much of the variance in children's aggression. Being male accounts for about 3.6 percent of the variance, poverty accounts for about 1 percent, and abusive parenting accounts for about 0.8 percent.118 The only factor that comes close to media violence is gang membership (9.6 percent). Thus, reducing children's exposure to media messages that condone violence in our culture could reduce a small but crucial portion of youth aggression in society.