Home > Criminology, Juvenile Delinquency, Media Violence, Sociology > Influence of the Media on Juveniles: Increased Aggression or Catharsis?

Influence of the Media on Juveniles: Increased Aggression or Catharsis?

Influence of the Media on Juveniles: Increased Aggression or Catharsis?

From television and movies to video games and the Internet, no other agent of socialization has had more influence and dealt with more criticism than the media when it comes to the effects it has on children. From teaching gender roles and reinforcing stereotypes to vivid displays of aggression and sexual content, the media has been charged as being one of the primary reasons America is so violent today. Are these charges against the media justified? On one side of the argument critics claim that excessive violence in the media has increased violent tendencies in children through desensitization, observational learning, and imitation. In contrast, others argue that we are attracted to violent media content because it defuses our aggression. Which of these two theories does the overwhelming evidence support?

In modern society books, magazines, and self-proclaimed experts routinely advise that it is healthy to “blow off steam” and that watching violent television or playing violent video games is a way of releasing anger and hostility in a health and safe manner. As Drew Markham, former CEO of Xatrix Entertainment stated, “The most violent games sell the best because people are violent by nature [and] need release valves.” It was Sigmund Freud who first theorized that behaving aggressively was a way of releasing pent-up emotion from one’s system and thus was adaptive. He called this release of emotional tension catharsis. Those who support the catharsis hypothesis claim that violence in American would be far worse without the “release values” provided to us by media.

Just as we know that most pack-a-day smokers do not die of lung cancer and most abused children do not become abusive adults, we must still be mindful that smoking and child abuse are risk factors. One has to ask: Does passively viewing violence elevate aggressive responses and lower sensitivity? Do children who view violence in video games or on television become desensitized to it and more prone to engage in real world violence themselves? To find out, we will put the catharsis theory to the test by examining the latest research on violence in the media and its effects on children.

Violence on Television

Critical Thinking: What influences, both positive and negative, does television have on our culture?

Without question, one of the greatest impacts on our culture in the second half of the twentieth century has been television. Although it is only one of many types of mass media that has an effect on children’s behavior, it is one of the most influential because of its staggering persuasive capabilities (Comstock & Schareer, 2006). In fact, many children spend more time in front of the television than they do with their parents (Roberts & Foehr, 2008). Just how much television do young children watch? Surveys vary, with figures ranging from an average of two to four hours a day. When compared with their counterparts in other developed countries, children in the United States watch far more television and for considerably longer periods of time. The content children watch on television is not necessarily always a bad thing. Although a passive learning tool for the most part, television does have positive influences on a child’s development when it presents models for pro-social behaviors and motivating educational programs that increase their knowledge about the world beyond their immediate environment. Unfortunately television also has some drawbacks. The vast majority of television programs reinforce stereotypes, present children with unrealistic views of the world, and provide violent models of aggression (Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis, 2005; Kronenberger, et al., 2005). However, the lingering question remains: Does violence shown on television increase aggressive behaviors in children or help them channel it in less destructive ways?

One of the most commonly watched television programs by young children are cartoons. Unfortunately, these presumably safe cartoons often contain excessive amounts of violence. In a sampling of Saturday morning cartoon shows, an average of 25 violent acts occurred every hour (Wilson 2008). This violence is often accompanied with unrealistic outcomes such as characters being seriously or fatally wounded but showing no signs of lasting harm or characters who are unrealistically killed by being sent to other dimensions or turning into pixie dust. The question remains though, do the violent acts portrayed in cartoons have any effect on children’s behavior? In one experiment, preschool children were randomly assigned to one of two groups: One group watched television shows taken directly from Saturday morning cartoons for 11 days; the second group watched the same television cartoon shows except with all of the violence removed (Steur, Applefield, & Smith, 1971). The children were then observed during playtime at their preschool. The preschool children who had seen the cartoon shows with violence kicked, choked, and pushed their playmates more often than the preschool children who watched the nonviolent cartoon shows. Because these children were randomly assigned to the two conditions we can conclude that in this particular case the exposure to television violence caused the increased aggression in the children who viewed the violent cartoons.

Are there any long term effects to exposure to violence on television? Longitudinal studies have found that watching television violence as a child has been linked to acting out aggressively in later years (Olson, et al., 2009; Browne & Hamilton-Giachritsis, 2005) In one study, exposure to media violence by children 6 to 10 years of age was linked with aggressive behavior in their young adulthood. In another study, long-term exposure to television violence was significantly related to increased levels of aggression in a sampling of 1,565 12 to 17 year old boys. Studies have also concluded that boys who watched the most aggression on television were the most likely to commit violent crimes and engage in other antisocial behaviors later on in life (Mitrofan, Paul, and Spencer, 2009). It is important to note that these studies are correlational, so we can conclude from them that television violence is associated with aggressive behavior, and not necessarily causing aggressive behaviors.

Violence in Video Games

Critical Thinking: In what ways do video games teach violence? How can video games be used to temper violence?

Because of their interactive nature and increasing realism, violent video games raise even more concerns about aggression in children than television (Bluemke, Friedrich, & Zumbach, 2010). Violent video games became an issue for public debate in 1999 after teen assassins in Paducah, Kentucky, and Littleton, Colorado, seemed to mimic the carnage in the video games they had so often played. In 2002, two Grand Rapids, Michigan, teens and a man in his early twenties spent part of a night drinking alcohol and playing the video game Grand Theft Auto III (Olson, et. al, 2009). Among other things, this particular game allows players to steal cars, run down pedestrians, and beat them to death with fists and other weapons. These three young men decided to go out driving themselves, spotted a 38-year old man on a bicycle, ran him down with their car, got out, stomped and punched him, and then returned home to play the game some more. The victim, a father of three, died six days later.

Are youths learning social scripts when they play video games? Interactive games transport the player into their own vivid reality, so deeply immersed that they experience an altered state of consciousness in which rational thought is suspended and arousing aggressive scripts are learned (Barlett, Anderson, & Swing, 2009; Barlett & Rodeheffer, 2009). The direct rewards that a player receives (“winning points or advancing to the next level”) for their actions may also enhance the influence of video games on the individual (Barlett, Anderson, & Swing, 2009; Barlett & Rodeheffer, 2009). For instance, when someone assumes the video game identity of Claire Redfield in Resident Evil 2, who sprays bullets into zombie cops, whose bodies then slump over, twitching and hemorrhaging, is anything being learned? Very likely since a system of rewards and punishments is the single most powerful mediator of learning and acting out what one has learned (Barlett and Rodeheffer, 2009; Barlett, Anderson, & Swing; 2009).

Critical Thinking: Is it fair to blame real life violent acts on video games when other risk factors such as alcohol, drug use, or lack of parental supervision is involved?

Correlational studies indicate that children who extensively play violent video games are more aggressive than their counterparts who spend less time playing games or do not play them at all (Anderson & Dill, 2000). Researchers have observed a rising level of arousal and feelings of hostility in college men as they played games such as Mortal Kombat while other studies have found that video games can prime aggressive thoughts and increase aggression (Ballard and Wiest, 1998). Another report found that University men who have spent the most hours playing violent video games tend to be the most physically aggressive (Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Anderson & Dill, 2000), for example, to acknowledge having hit or attacked someone else. In another experiment, those randomly assigned to play a game involving bloody murders with groaning victims (rather than to play nonviolent Myst) also displayed more hostility (Anderson & Dill, 2000). This suggests that, due partly to the more repetitive and active participation of video game play, violent video games have even greater effects than the well-documented effects of exposure to television and movies (Anderson, 2000).

In Congressional hearings, video game spokesmen have disputed these claims, and instead point to a handful of internal studies that find no increases in aggressive behaviors. When confronted with the massive amounts of evidence to the contrary, they point out their efforts to incorporate a rating system that helps parents make informed decisions about the content contained within the games they purchase for their children. When this strategy does not work they, like their television counterparts, they fall back on their First Amendment right to produce any material of their choosing (Anderson, 2000).

One question remains to be answered. Why are some of the best-selling video games also the most violent ones? Could Drew Markham’s suggestion that we are violent by nature be the reason? Are there other factors that are contributing to record-breaking video game sales? An industry insider reported that psychologists are often consulted by video game designers in an effort to find ways of making their games more appealing (Young, 2009). The goal is to get the player addicted to the game, to change the motivation from, “I want to play this game” to, “I need to play this game”. These Clinical psychologists know that attracting players to video games starts with inducing an adrenaline rush and the most effective way to trigger that rush is to create vivid, imaginary worlds, with the prospect of the player’s death around every corner. These simulated environments increase the amount of dopamine that is being produced while playing a game (Young 2009; Costa 2007; Koepp, et al., 1998). Dopamine, sometimes called the master molecule of addiction, is connected to the same reinforcing effects of drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines (Costa 2007; Koepp, et al., 1998). When players engage in vividly violent games it is like receiving a jolt equivalent to an injection of amphetamines. So one can argue that perhaps the reason the most violent video games consistently make the top-seller’s list is because they are designed in such a way to maximize the dopamine output for the player, thus becoming physically addictive (Costa 2007; Koepp, et al., 1998).


As it stands right now, the research overwhelmingly has not supported the catharsis hypothesis. To the contrary, most studies have found that playing violent video games and watching violent television is related to increased aggression, physiological arousal, aggressive thoughts, and decreased pro-social behaviors in children. Studies consistently support the view that exposure to media violence not only desensitizes people to violent acts, it also encourages aggressive self-views and automatic aggressive responses. Extensive exposure has also been shown to have long-term effects on individual aggression levels. In fact, the relationship between media violence and aggressive behavior is almost as strong as the relationship between smoking and lung cancer.


adaptive Adaptive behavior is a type of behavior that is used to adjust to another type of behavior or situation.

agents of socialization the individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions that provide substantial amounts of socialization during the life course.

aggression any physical or verbal behavior intended to hurt or destroy.

antisocial behavior a pervasive pattern of behavior that displays disregard for the violation of rights of others, societal mores, or the law (such as irritability, consistent irresponsibility, lack of remorse, failure to conform to social norms, etc.).

catharsis emotional release. In psychology, the catharsis hypothesis maintains that “releasing” aggressive energy (through action or fantasy) relieves aggressive urges.

correlational a type of scientific investigation in which the causality between variables cannot be directly inferred.

culture the enduring behaviors, ideas, attitudes, and traditions shared by a large group of people and transmitted from one generation to the next.

desensitization the process of reducing sensitivity.

dopamine a neurotransmitter associated with movement, attention, learning, and the brain’s pleasure and reward system.

effect the result or consequence of an action, influence, or causal agent.

environment every non-genetic influence, from prenatal nutrition to the people and things around us.

experiment a research method in which an investigator manipulates one or more factors (independent variables) to observe the effect on some behavior or mental process (the dependent variable). By random assignment of participants, the experiment controls other relevant factors.

gender roles Learned behaviors that condition activities, tasks, and responsibilities viewed within a given society as “masculine” or “feminine.”

imitation copying (or trying to copy) the actions of someone else.

longitudinal study a research strategy in while the same individuals are studied over a period of time, usually several years or more.

modeling the process of observing and imitating a specific behavior.

observational learning (also known as vicarious learning, social learning, modeling) a type of learning that occurs as a function of observing, retaining and replicating novel behavior executed by others. It is argued that reinforcement has the effect of influencing which responses one will partake in, more than it influences the actual acquisition of the new response.

pro-social behavior positive, constructive, helpful behavior. The opposite of antisocial behavior.

random assignment assigning participants to experimental and control conditions by chance, thus minimizing preexisting differences between those assigned to the different groups.

reinforcer in operant conditioning, any event that strengthens the behavior it follows.

stereotype sometimes accurate but often overgeneralized belief about a group of people.


Anderson, C.A. (2000). Violent video games increase aggression and violence. Testimony to the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing on “The impact of interactive violence on children,” March 21, 2000.

Anderson, C.A., & Bushman, B.J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12, 353-359.

Anderson, C.A., & Dill, K.E. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 772-790.

Ballard, M.E., & Wiest, J.R. (1998). Mortal Kombat: The effects of violent videogame play on males’ hostility and cardiovascular responding. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 26, 717-730.

Barlett, C., Anderson, C., & Swing, E. (2009). Video Game Effects—Confirmed, Suspected, and Speculative: A Review of the Evidence. Simulation & Gaming, 40(3), 377-403. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

Barlett, C., & Rodeheffer, C. (2009). Effects of realism on extended violent and nonviolent video game play on aggressive thoughts, feelings, and physiological arousal. Aggressive Behavior, 35(3), 213-224.

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Comstock, G., & Scharrer, E. (2006). Media and popular culture. In W. Damon & R. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology (6th ed.). New York: Wiley.

Costa, D. (2007, April 24). Turn It Off, Kids!. PC Magazine, p. 55. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

Koepp, M., Gunn, R., Lawrence, A., Cunningham, V., Dagher, A., Jones, T., et al. (1998). Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. Nature, 393(6682), 266. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

Kronenberger, W., Mathews, V., Dunn, D., Yang, W., Wood, E., Larsen, J., et al. (2005). Media violence exposure in aggressive and control adolescents: differences in self- and parent-reported exposure to violence on television and in video games. Aggressive Behavior, 31(3), 201-216.

Mitrofan, O., Paul, M., & Spencer, N. (2009). Is aggression in children with behavioural and emotional difficulties associated with television viewing and video game playing? A systematic review. Child: Care, Health & Development, 35(1), 5-15.

Olson, C., Kutner, L., Baer, L., Beresin, E., Warner, D., & Nicholi II, A. (2009). M-Rated Video Games and Aggressive or Problem Behavior Among Young Adolescents. Applied Developmental Science, 13(4), 188-198.

Roberts, D.F., & Foehr, U.G. (2008). Trends in media use. Future of children, 18 (No. 1),11-37.

Steur, F.B., Applefield, J.M., & Smith, R. (1971). Televised aggression and interpersonal aggression of preschool children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 11, 442-447.

Wilson, B.J. (2008). Media and children’s aggression, fear, and altruism. Future of Children, 18 (No.1), 87-118.

Young, K. (2009). Understanding Online Gaming Addiction and Treatment Issues for Adolescents. American Journal of Family Therapy, 37(5), 355-372.

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