The Risk of Watching Violence

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: I’m appalled at the violence in video games today. I can’t help but think that children immersing themselves in that level of violence will themselves become violent. What do you think?

Your question is very relevant and should be the concern of every parent and society as a whole. There is a long history of research concerning viewing violent images and becoming violent. Albert Bandura, Ph.D., Psychologist, a researcher at Stanford University, first demonstrated the relationship in his famous “Bobo Doll” experiments. He made a film in which a woman was shown beating up a bobo doll and shouting aggressive words. The film was shown to a group of children who were allowed to play in a room that had a bobo doll. Immediately, the children began to beat the doll, imitating both the actions and words of the woman in the film.

Bandura developed Social Learning Theory. The major premise of Social Learning Theory is that we can learn vicariously, that is by observing others. Bandura postulated that this is the typical way that human beings learn. He claims that modeling can have as much impact as direct experience.

He and others concerned with the media have used Social Learning Theory specifically to explain the effects of media. In Bandura’s earlier work, he warned, “Children and adults acquire attitudes, emotional responses, and new styles of conduct through filmed and televised modeling.”Dr. Bandura cautioned that parents and society should be concerned that television might create a violent reality for some. In other words, some may come to believe that violence is acceptable.

Consider the fact that Bandura’s warnings were in the 1960s and 1970s. Parents and educators feared that escalating violence on television would turn children into bullies. As a result of his strong stance against escalating violence on television, network officials were able to prevent him from being selected to take part in the 1972 Surgeon General’s Report on Violence.If he had been chosen to be a member of the research team, the report would have more likely established a stronger link between television violence and aggressive behavior.

Remember, it was 40 to 50 years ago that Bandura began warning society of the dangers of allowing violent programming to be accessible to impressionable children. It seems that his predictions were correct. Young offenders plague our schools and society with violence. And yet, producers of media (television, movies, internet, etc.) remain in denial of the impact of the constant flood of violence and now sex into people’s homes.

More recently, Peter Fischer, Ph.D. and colleagues conducted meta-analysis on the topic, and published the findings online in Psychology Bulletin. They concluded, “Playing video games that feature reckless driving and seeing media images of smoking, drinking and unprotected sex makes people more willing to engage in such risk behaviors.” Fischer concluded that the effect is stronger in video games where the individual takes the role of, for example, the racecar driver and drives recklessly. The relationship between viewing the risky behaviors in media and pursuing the risky behaviors is strongest for those in the age group from 14 to 29.

The federal government has been able to pass legislation that requires labels warning of the risk of smoking cigarettes. What if television sets, DVD players, and all video games came with labels, such as, “Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that playing this game will likely result in your child physically harming others.” Or, “Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that entering this site has great potential for your child becoming a rapist, or other type of sex offender.”

Yes, there is plenty of empirical research making the connection between viewing violence and other high-risk behaviors and becoming involved in the same or similar behaviors. If you are a parent, I recommend you monitor the games your children are playing, sites visited on the Web, and television programs and movies watched. Not only do I recommend that you monitor these activities, but strongly urge that you have the fortitude to eliminate from your home and your child’s repertoire of activities anything that has strong potential for leading your child into high-risk behaviors.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]

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