The Effect of Television on Preschool Children’s Aggression

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Psychological research has found that televised violence has numerous effects on the behavior of children of different ages. These include the imitation of violence and crime seen on television, reduced inhibitions against behaving aggressively, the “triggering” of impulsive acts of aggression, and the displacing of activities, such as socializing with other children and interacting with adults that would teach children non-violent ways to solve conflicts.

Television violence has also been found to have emotional effects on children. Children may become desensitized to real-life violence, they may come to see the world as a mean and scary place or they may come to expect others to resort to physical violence to resolve conflicts. Although some early research, suggested that televised violence might allow viewers to vent destructive impulses through fantasy instead of acting them out against real-life targets, later findings have not supported this so-called “catharsis” hyphothesis.

Children of different ages watch and understand television in different ways, depending on the length of their attention spans, the ways in which they process information, the amount of the mental effort they invest, and their own life experiences. These variables must all be examined to gain an understanding of how television violence affects them. At the preschool age (three to five years old), children begin watching television with an “exploration” approach.

They actively search for meaning in the content, but are still especially attracted to vivid production features, such as rapid character movement, rapid changes of scene, and intense or unexpected sights and sounds. Although there is no reason to believe that this particular reaction was typical of preschoolers who viewed Roots, it is certainly consistent with the way preschoolers watch television. This scene was highly visual, marked by the loud and repeated sounds of the lash and rapid camera cuts between the victim and the violent aggressor.

The action and background were otherwise relatively simple, and the scene focused on only two characters. These features would likely attract the preschooler’s attention and keep it. Other events in the plot, of course revealed to adult and older child viewers that this whipping was undeserved, excessively cruel, and carried out by a character whose motivations and past behaviours were immoral, against a character whose motivations and past behaviour were admirable.

The preschooler likely missed all of this, since the information was presented in earlier scenes that she ikely did not realize were connected to the whipping scene, and since the information was largely conveyed in adult dialogue, which she wouldn’t understand. She may not even have recognized that the people in those earlier scenes were the same people who were in the whipping scene, since in the earlier scenes the characters had different clothes on and different expressions on their faces, were in different settings, and behaved differently. She therefore would not have understood this scene in the same way that adults and older children would, as one eliciting great empathy for the victim of the beating.

She would have judged him entirely by the immediate and most obvious physical information in the scene, making his dark skin and pain-contorted face appear both evil and scary. Her lack of recognition of and empathy with his pain are also quite consistent with a preschooler’s lack of response to emotional reactions of television characters. This scary character would seem especially threatening to her in light of her view of television as a “window on the world”. The fact that the series was performed by actors, portraying events that happened in the distant past, would have no meaning for her.

Because the programs preschool children watch are mostly cartoons, it might be argued that the violence they see is relatively harmless because they know it just fantasy. Knowing that television content is fantasy does make a difference in the behaviour and emotions of older children and adults. In studies that specifically compared the effects of live-action violence with those of cartoon violence, the live-action violence was found to have a substantially larger effect on aggressive behaviour than the cartoon violence.

Because television violence is accompanied by vivid production features, preschoolers are predisposed to seek out and pay attention to violence—particularly cartoon violence. It is not the violence itself that makes the cartoons attractive to preschoolers, but the accompanying vivid production features. With this preference for cartoons, preschoolers are being exposed to a large number of violent acts in their viewing day. Moreover, they are unlikely to be able to put the violence in context, since they are likely to miss any subtlety conveyed mitigating information concerning motivation and consequences.

Preschoolers behave more aggressively than usual in their play after watching any high-action exciting television content, but especially after watching violent television. There are a number of ways parents can limit their children’s exposure to violence. Restricting the amount and types of programs children watch is probably the most effective and common means of mediation for children of all ages. However, there are also strategies that are specifically appropriate for children at different ages.

Parental mediation to reduce a preschooler’s aggression can include viewing with the child, commenting on content, providing distraction or comfort if the child is frightened, and encouraging or discouraging behaviour they see preschoolers imitating from television. For preschoolers, effective programming would include the use of vivid production features and “child-directed speech”. These features will improve their attention and understanding and can be used to highlight important features of program content, such as critical plot events.

It is certainly true that television violence does not account for all the causes of children’s aggression, and it is also true that some children are a great deal more likely to be affected by television violence than others, and that it is these children who are likely to be potentially more aggressive anyway. But the effect of television violence leads these “at-risk” children to be even more aggressive than they would otherwise be. And although the group especially at risk might be a minority of viewers, they are likely to be the majority of aggressors. This fact makes them, and the violent content of television, worthy of our attention.

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