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Media and children’s aggression, fear and altruism (Part 2)

Barbara J. Wilson

(Part 1 of this article was published in our May 2008 issue)

Media and prosocial behavior
So much public attention has been paid to potential negative effects of the media on children that parents and researchers alike have scarcely acknowledged the positive. Yet if television and movies can teach children antisocial behaviors such as aggression, then it makes sense that these same media can teach beneficial behaviors as well. The challenge is to differentiate the media messages that are potentially harmful from those that are positive or prosocial in nature.

Prosocial behavior can be broadly defined as any voluntary behavior intended to benefit another person.99 Altruism is the most common example of prosocial behavior. Others are friendliness, sharing, cooperation, sympathy, and even acceptance of others from different groups.

Clearly children are exposed to a great deal of violence in the media. But how often do they witness prosocial behavior? One recent, large-scale study examined a randomly selected week of television programming across eighteen channels.100 The total sample included more than 2,000 entertainment shows. Nearly three-fourths of the programs (73 percent) featured at least one act of altruism, defined as helping, sharing, giving, or donating. On average, viewers of these programs saw about three acts of altruism an hour. Human characters rather than anthro­pomorphized ones enacted most of the altruism, and about one-third of the behaviors were explicitly rewarded in the plot. Altruism was more common in situation comedies and children’s shows than in other types of programs. It was also more common on children’s cable networks such as Disney and Nickelodeon than on general audience cable such as A&E or TNT or on the broadcast networks. Thus, programs targeted to younger viewers often portray helping behavior. As examples, Sesame Street (PBS), Dora the Explorer (Nickelodeon), and Dragon Tales (PBS) are popular prosocial and educational programs for preschoolers. Arthur (PBS) and The Wild Thornberrys (Nickelodeon) are prosocial shows that are well liked by younger elementary school children, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody (Disney) and Drake and Josh (Nickelodeon) are prosocial shows popular among older elementary school children.

Comparing the findings on prosocial TV content with those of the National Television Violence Study reveals much about the landscape of television.101 Children are more likely to encounter depictions of altruism (in three out of four programs) than of physical aggression (in two out of three programs) when they watch television. But the concentration of altruistic behaviors is lower (three incidents an hour) than that of violence (six incidents an hour). In children’s programming itself, altruism occurs about four times an hour, but violence occurs roughly fourteen times an hour. Thus, an American child who watches an average of three hours a day of children’s television programming will see 4,380 acts of altruism and 15,330 acts of violence each year.

But children and adults do not watch television indiscriminately. They are generally selective and gravitate toward their favorite programs. An examination of the top-rated programs on cable television is revealing (see Table 1).

In a typical week in 2007, most of the top cable shows were targeted to children and were featured on children’s networks such as Nickelodeon. Most were also situation comedies about young people in social situations. Zoey101, for example, features a teenage character named Zoey who is one of the first girls to attend an all-boys boarding school. She is described as “a quick thinker who is constantly saving the day with her smarts and problem-solving skills.” Other child-oriented programs on this list such as Drake and Josh are similarly prosocial in nature. Nevertheless, the top two programs that same week were two episodes of WWE Entertainment Raw, which features professional TV wrestling. Because these ratings are not calibrated by age, it may be tempting to conclude that children are watching the Nickelodeon and Disney shows, whereas adults are watching the violent wrestling shows. Yet 15 percent of the audience for wrestling shows consists of children under the age of twelve.102

The TV ratings data highlight both the variety of programming available to youth and the challenge of guiding youthful preferences in a prosocial direction. In the next sections, I will explore the impact of the media on three types of prosocial children’s behaviors: altruism, positive social interaction, and acceptance of others.

Most of the research on prosocial effects of the media focuses on children’s altruism or helping behavior. Early studies had children watch a television clip that featured a character engaging in helping behavior and then placed the children is a similar situation to see if they would imitate the behavior. In one experiment, first graders who viewed an episode of Lassie in which the main character saved a puppy were subsequently more helpful toward distressed puppies than were first graders who saw a neutral Lassie episode with no prosocial behavior or a Brady Bunch episode with no prosocial displays or dogs.103

Of course, one question is whether such short-term imitation can persist beyond the viewing situation. Field experiments that control children’s viewing over time in naturalistic settings can shed light on this issue. In one such study, kindergartners were assigned to watch either Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood or neutral programming that did not feature prosocial behavior, over the course of four sessions.104 In addition, some of the children watching the prosocial Mister Rogers received puppet role-play training that re-enacted the main events and dialogue in each episode they had seen. Two to three days later, all the children were given the opportunity either to work on an art project or to help another child who was struggling with the project. The children who had viewed the prosocial programs were more helpful than those who had seen the neutral programs were, especially if the prosocial programming had been reinforced by role-playing.

Other studies have found that training or follow-up lessons can enhance the effects of prosocial television.105 One reason why such guidance may be beneficial is that prosocial morals on television can be difficult for children to extract. Compared with violent programming, prosocial shows typically have less action and more dialogue, which makes their plots and subplots more challenging to follow and comprehend, especially for younger children. In one study, four- to ten-year-olds watched an episode of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and were asked about possible lessons in the program.106 Most of the children agreed that there was a “moral” to the show, yet only the eight- to ten-year-olds were able to identify the lesson—in this case, that work should come before play. The younger children focused instead on the fighting in the program. Other research demonstrates that moral lessons on television that are conveyed in the context of violence are often misunderstood by children under the age of eight.107

Social interaction
Another concern often voiced about screen media is that they may interfere with children’s social interaction. Indeed, preschoolers and their parents spend less time talking with and looking at each other when the television set is turned on than when it is off.108 Moreover, families that eat dinner in front of the television converse less and talk about fewer topics than do families that turn the television off before they sit down to dinner.109 On the positive side, families engage in more physical contact and cuddling when they watch television together than when they are doing other activities.110

Although the sheer amount of time spent in front of a TV or computer screen may have detrimental effects on social interaction, viewing particular types of programs can teach children social skills. One early study found that second and third graders who watched a single episode of The Waltons displayed more cooperative behavior in a prisoner’s dilemma game than did students in a control group who had not seen the program.111 A single episode of prosocial television, however, may not be sufficient for teaching cooperation among younger, preschool-aged children.112 Part of the difficulty here is that cooperation is more difficult to model behaviorally than helping is. Also, good drama often features cooperation after a period of interpersonal conflict, and this type of mixed message is likely to be particularly confusing for younger viewers.

Even though a single program may do little, repeated exposure to prosocial television can affect preschoolers’ social behavior. In one study, three- to five-year-olds watched fifteen minutes a day of either Sesame Street or Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in their pre­school.113 The study observed the children’s social behaviors before, during, and one week after the treatment. Exposure to Mister Rogers increased the sheer amount of social contact preschoolers had in the classroom and increased their giving of positive attention such as praise and physical affection to others. Sesame Street had a similar positive effect, but only for those who were low in social skills at the baseline. Because the study did not include a no-exposure control group, it does not permit firm causal conclusions. Nevertheless, it suggests that regular viewing of particular TV series may have a lasting impact on children’s social behavior.

Acceptance of others
The casts of prosocial and educational programs for children, such as Sesame Street and Dora the Explorer, are typically more diverse than those of adult or general audience television.114 Such programming also portrays children from different racial and ethnic groups interacting with one another. Early research on Sesame Street found that over time, preschoolers who watched the program extensively developed more positive attitudes toward people of different groups.115 More recently, Children’s Television Workshop, the creator of Sesame Street, has developed con­tent that explicitly tries to teach tolerance and respect for others. One such effort is Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim, a series broadcast throughout Israel and Palestine. Like Sesame Street, the program teaches basic educational lessons to preschoolers, but it also features characters who live on an Israeli street (Rechov Sumsum) and visit their friends who live on a Palestinian street (Shara’a Simsim). One research study compared the social attitudes of Israeli-Jewish, Palestinian-Israeli, and Palestinian preschoolers before the series debut in 1998 and four months later.116 Before the show began airing, children as young as four held negative stereotypes about people from the other culture, reflecting the political turmoil in this region. Four months after the series had been regularly aired on TV, the two groups of Israeli children showed more positive attitudes toward Arabs. Unexpectedly, the Palestinian children’s attitudes toward Jews became more negative, suggesting a boomerang effect of sorts. The study did not, however, measure individual children’s exposure to the program, so it could be that other factors contributed to this negative effect. The study illustrates how challenging it can be to alter stereotypes, even among young children.

Summary of prosocial evidence
To sum up all of this research, Marie-Louise Mares and Emory Woodard conducted a meta-analysis in 2005.117 Their analysis of thirty-four studies of the prosocial effects of television involving more than 5,000 children found an overall effect of .27 (a medium size effect), indicating that viewing prosocial programming does in fact enhance children’s prosocial behavior. The strongest effects of prosocial content were on altruism (.37); the effects on positive interaction (.24) and on tolerance for others (.20) were slightly weaker. This finding is consistent with the idea that it is easier for television characters to demonstrate behaviorally how to help someone than how to be cooperative or tolerant of others. In general, effects were also stronger when the television content mirrored the behavior that children were to imitate afterward. Finally, the effect of prosocial content varied by children’s age and socioeconomic status, but not by gender. Effects increased sharply between the ages of three and seven and then declined until age sixteen. That effects peak at age seven is consistent with the notion that prosocial lessons may be difficult for very young children to understand, especially lessons conveyed with words instead of action. Prosocial television had a greater effect on children from middle- to upper-class families than on children from lower-class families. The authors speculated that the relatively happy world depicted in most prosocial programming might resonate best with children from more affluent backgrounds.

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.

Risk factors for media effects on youth
The modest effect sizes charted in Figure 1 suggest that other variables interact with or modify the media’s influence. As I have noted along the way, one such variable is the age or developmental level of the child. Television violence seems to have the strongest impact on preschool children, in part because they are still learning social norms and inhibitions against behaving aggressively. Prosocial effects of watching television are strongest for slightly older children, peaking at about age seven or eight. Prosocial lessons are often conveyed more subtly in the media and therefore require more advanced cognitive skills to decipher. The influence of media on fear and anxiety is common throughout childhood, although the types of content that upset children differ with age. Younger children are frightened more by fantasy portrayals; older elementary school children and preteens, more by realistic content, including the news.

Another important variable is a child’s perception of how real the media are. Children differ in the degree to which they believe that what they see on the screen is realistic.119 When media storylines seem realistic, children are likely to pay closer attention to what they are watching and presumably exert more cognitive effort in processing the information. Shows perceived as being real may also encourage children to imagine themselves in the characters’ place. And indeed, television violence has a heightened effect on children who perceive television as realistic.120 On the other hand, children who are able to discount television as unrealistic will have a less intense fear reaction to a scary television portrayal.121

Another variable in children’s susceptibility to the media is the extent to which they identify with characters and real people featured on the screen. Children begin developing attachments to favorite media characters during the preschool years.122 Fondness for media characters can last throughout childhood and adolescence. In one survey nearly 40 percent of teens named a media figure as their role model—nearly the same share that named a parent or relative.123 Consistent with social cognitive theory, children are more likely to learn from those they perceive as attractive role models. Strongly identifying with violent characters, for example, makes children more likely to learn aggression from the media.124 Identifying with victims of tragedy also enhances children’s fear responses to news stories.125

Parental influence on children’s media experiences
Parents, it turns out, can play an important and positive role in how electronic media affect young people’s lives: they can not only enhance the benefits but also reduce the risks associated with children’s media exposure. Parents who watch prosocial programming with their child and reinforce the messages in different portrayals can enhance their child’s prosocial learning.126 Such active mediation can include explaining and discussing the moral lessons in a plot, reinforcing the information through rehearsal, and engaging in role-playing activities that elaborate on the information.

By helping children think critically about potentially harmful content in the media, parents can also reduce the impact of media violence.127 In one experiment, elementary school children who were encouraged to think about the victim while watching a violent cartoon liked the aggressor less, liked the victim more, and believed that the violence was less justified than did children who received no such guidance.128 Moreover, boys who were given such guidance were less aggressive after viewing the cartoon than were boys who received no such help; girls were less aggressive overall so the mediation had no impact on their behavior Parents can also teach children coping strategies to deal with frightening images in the media. Discussing the special effects used in a horror film or explaining that fantasy events on the screen cannot happen in real life are both effective techniques to reduce children’s fright reactions.129 Such “cognitive” strategies work especially well with older elementary school children who can comprehend such information and store it in memory for later use.130 For younger children, “noncognitive” strategies such as providing physical comfort and turning off the program seem most effec­tive.131 Parents should consider shielding children, especially preschoolers, from the types of fictional themes that are most frightening at different points in development.

When it is the news that is frightening to children, parents’ role is more challenging. Older children can be taught to recognize that news programming overemphasizes crime and violence and that many terrible events covered in the news, such as child kidnapping, occur only infrequently in the real world.132 Permitting children under the age of eight to see graphic images in the news, even inadvertently when the TV is on in the background, may present challenges because such content is hard to explain to younger age groups. In the case of major catastrophes, research suggests that all children benefit from curtailed television exposure and constructive conversations with a calm parent.133

In general, it is essential for parents to monitor the media content their children view and find attractive. Such parental involvement is arguably more important than establishing rules about how much time children can spend watching TV or playing video games. Guiding children’s media choices and helping children become critical consumers of media content can foster the prosocial benefits of spending time in front of a screen while preventing some of the risks.


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This feature: From The Future of Children, a collaboration of The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and The Brookings Institution.