Children’s Television Programs More Violent than Adults’ Programs?
North American culture in 2004 is a media-rich one. In addition to the Internet and magazines, there are literally hundreds of television stations in nearly every home. This has led to heated debate over the prevalence of violence on television. The wealth of literature on violence in television indicates that this is a matter of great interest to social psychologists. Furthermore, the indication by some studies that violent children’s programming leads to violent behavior, has fueled calls for greater oversight in the area of violence and aggression as it pertains to children’s TV. In this study I look at the distinction between aggression and violence, and examine the incidence of both on programs for children, compared to programs for adults.
The topic of television violence and children has generated much research over the past several years. Cantor (2000) examines some of the negative impacts of violence in children’s programming. These include an increased likelihood of acting violently, desensitization to violence, as well as increased fear and nightmares. “There is a good deal of research evidence that in general, violence that is shown to be justified and that if committed by attractive protagonists is more likely to be imitated.” (Cantor, 2000).
Simmons et al. (1999) point out that television viewing is an activity typical to everyone in the household. “Television has become the central activity in most homes today…98% of all households have at least one set…it is watched an average of 7.5 hours per day…[and] children watch more than 28 hours of television each week.” (Simmons et al., 1999). Since many adults don’t closely monitor their children’s television programs, they are often unaware of the content of these shows. Given the level of violence in adult programming, it is interesting to consider whether children’s shows are more or less violent, and the potential impacts of this content.
Smith et al., in 2002, published an extensive study of prime-time violence and its depiction in programs aimed at both children and adults. They found that children’s shows portray a less realistic type of violence, however, with more accompanying humor and unlikely (if any) consequences. They say,
Children’s programs also contain the most violent interactions per prime-time hour when compared to other genres…children are especially likely to witness repeated acts of violence…these programs are more likely to depict unrealistically low levels of harm and humorous violence than some other genres. Children who view programs designed for them during prime time, therefore, may learn that violence is common, funny, and not very harmful. (Smith et al., 2002)
On the other hand, Peters and Blumberg examined cartoon violence in particular (2002) and questioned whether the violent acts seen in cartoons should be interpreted as genuine violence, or a fantasy-based behavior with no relation to the real world. Because preschoolers watch so much television, largely cartoon shows, the issue of violence in cartoons, and its possible effects is also of interest. Peters and Blumberg point out that, “the NTVS [National Television Violence Study] found that nearly two-thirds of serials for children contained violent acts.” (2002). They go on to mention that the cartoon genre “anime,” popularized in Japan was an unusually violent (and popular) style of cartoon with children. This study on cartoon violence goes on to conclude that this may actually present a learning opportunity for parents who choose to co-view with their kids.
Lazar’s study on social workers and children focused on the impact of television violence to young children. Her conclusion was that violent programming has become so pervasive that many of us don’t even realize its impact. Furthermore, adults show a preference for violence on their television shows, a preference that may have an effect on the viewing habits of their kids.
Society is becoming more concerned with examples of extreme violence. Some experts believe these cases have their roots in the omnipresent media violence that surrounds us. Whether this is more prevalent in adults’ programming or in children’s, and the form of the violence, can have important implications for how much violent TV affects us and our children.
The variety of conclusions drawn in the scientific literature about the prevalence and the effects of television violence has a lot to do with how violence is defined and measured. Some researchers have chosen to look at acts of violence that have a specific harmful result. They define violence through intent as well as effect. Other studies use different definitions of violence and aggression with some looking only at intent to harm. Still others incorporate other variables to gain a more complete picture of violence in adults’ and children’s programming.
With the omnipresence of television throughout our culture there are numerous ways to measure the prevalence of violence in programming. In addition to different definitions of violence and aggression, researchers look at different aspects of the program itself. In children’s programming, cartoons are often considered separately from other shows. Comedies are examined apart from dramas. Whole new genres of television, such as reality TV, are commanding prime-time time slots for children as well as adult viewers. From this abundance of criteria that can affect a study on violence and television, it becomes clear that succinctly describing the variables involved and the definition of terms is vital.
For the purposes of this study comparing violence in children’s versus adults’ programming, I have decided to look at two factors, aggression and violence. The definitions for these concepts recognize that they exist on a continuum with aggression being less serious, but often developing into violence.
In defining aggression, I have concentrated on the intent of the act, rather than the result. Aronson (2002) says, “social psychologists define aggression as intentional behavior aimed at causing either physical or psychological pain. It is not to be confused with assertiveness.” The first variable considered in viewing both children’s and adults’ programs were instances of aggression. This could include verbal aggression or physical aggression such as pushing. I kept track of aggressive acts in six hours of prime-time television. What differentiated the aggressive acts from the violent ones, according to the definition, was that the aggressive acts did not result in physical harm to the victim. I also kept track of violent acts in six hours of prime-time television.
Something was considered to be violent if it resulted in actual physical harm to the target. Using the above definitions, I viewed three hours of prime-time adults TV shows, and three hours of children’s shows to investigate our hypothesis regarding the prevalence of television violence.
Based upon a review of the literature, I hypothesized that acts of aggression would be more common in children’s television programs (as compared to adults’ programs), whereas acts of violence would predominate in adults’ programming.
Acts of aggression, I felt, would be more common in kids’ programs because they take into account intent, although, I felt the programmers would be less inclined to depict violent acts which inflict physical harm. In terms of adult programming, I felt television producers would be more inclined to show the actual physical effects of the violent actions, in the belief that adults would be more equipped to understand the context for the violence.
Methods and Procedures
To undertake this research, decisions had to be made concerning what programs would be selected during the sample period of six hours (three hours for adult-oriented programming and an additional three hours for children- and youth-oriented programming), and from what networks.
The first decision was to define prime-time as being the period from 7 p.m. To 10 p.m. While recognizing that this period might be too late in the evening for many children to be watching television, this period was included for both categories (adult and children/youth) of the sample. Many of the children’s programs that were available during this time period were reruns of programs that were also offered earlier in the day. Therefore this limitation was minimized by the inclusion of repeat programs that would have been seen while younger children were awake and viewing television.
A further consideration concerning the 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. time period was that many stations broadcast local, regional and national news, weather and sports from 6 p.m. To 7 p.m., thereby eliminating a significant sampling of children and youth programs from non-specialty networks during the supper hour. As a result, the time period for sampling for this research project became 7 p.m. – 10 p.m.
I wanted to achieve a degree of randomness in the selection of programs and networks. For programs, I wanted the representation to cover at least two of the major program categories for both adult and children/youth programs. For adults, these categories include sitcoms, dramatic series, reality television and movies. For children/youth, the categories include dramatic series, cartoons, sitcoms, music videos and movies. Random selection was achieved by cutting up a T.V. Guide, using weekday programs that aired during the week of May 10 – May 14, 2004. The program duration and airing network were also noted for each program. The program and network options were then separated between the two target audience categories. A random drawing was made on May 9 until three hours of viewing were covered for the adult and children/youth categories. The selected programs were then checked against program categories, to ensure that at least two of the options for each audience category were covered. The results were:
Adults – one hour-long drama (Law & Order), and four half-hour sitcoms (That 70s Show, Will and Grace, King of Queens and Everybody Loves Raymond)
Children – one hour-long dramatic series (7th Heaven), two half-hour sitcoms (Lizzie McGuire and Boy Meets World), and two half-hour cartoons (Berenstein Bears and Timothy Goes to School)
Random selection generated the above programs, thereby negating any need to substitute unrepresented categories from those with a biased (exclusive) representation.
The above selection provided a range of program times and networks within the target timeframe for viewing television programs. The following program viewing schedule was produced:
Will and Grace
Everybody Loves Raymond
That 70s Show
Law & Order
King of Queens
Timothy Goes to School
Boy Meets World
Each program was viewed according to the above schedule, and acts of aggression and acts of violence were recorded. These results are presented and discussed in the next section.
In summary, the sample parameters became a weekday evening from 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. with representation from at least two of the main categories of programming for adults and children/youth. For adults, these categories include sitcoms, dramatic series, reality television and movies. For children/youth, the categories include dramatic series, cartoons, sitcoms, music videos and movies. A random drawing of programs from within the above parameters was made, and a viewing schedule was created. The programs were viewed, acts of aggression and acts of violence were recorded, and this report was then prepared.
Results and Discussion
Following is the data that was collected during the three hours of television viewing for each category of program: adult-oriented programs and children/youth-oriented programs.
Acts of Aggression
Acts of Violence
That 70s Show (half hour)
Will & Grace (half hour)
King of Queens (half hour)
Everybody Loves Raymond (half hour)
Law & Order (hour)
Totals for Adult Programs
Children/Youth Programs and Duration
Acts of Aggression
Acts of Violence
Lizzie McGuire (half hour)
Boy Meets World (half hour)
Berenstein Bears (half hour)
Timothy Goes to School (half hour)
7th Heaven (hour)
Totals for Children/Youth Programs
The results of my research show that adult programs contained higher frequencies of both acts of aggression and acts of violence. Interestingly the proportion of acts of aggression to acts of violence for both audience types were the same, at 4:1.
As a representation of television programs, this limited sample possibly provides an idea of the degree of aggression and violence that exists within television viewing during 7 p.m. – 10 p.m. However the results would be expected to differ if a selection of programs with weighting from different program categories was available. For example, sitcoms are generally intended to create a sense of well-being using laughter. One can speculate that levels of aggression exist within sitcoms, but (as was observed in this study) these acts are generally intended to invoke laughter by creating unexpected situations, both physically and verbally (slapping, kicking, derogatory comments, innuendo, etc.).
This sampling was biased in favor of sitcoms. If additional dramatic series had been included in the sample, and if fewer sitcoms had been represented, then the overall number of incidents for aggression and violence would likely have been higher. The impact on the ratio of aggression to violence is not known, but one can speculate that the ratio would remain similar to these findings (more acts of aggression result in more acts of violence).
The absence of some program categories from this research could also affect the overall findings. For example neither reality television was selected in either audience category, nor was the category of movies. Music videos were also absent from the children/youth category, although this is not surprising since this category did not appear in the program selection from the T.V. Guide. The impacts of including these categories in subsequent research projects could influence the numbers of acts of violence and acts of aggression, but could possibly offset any ratio increases that result from the inclusion of additional dramatic series or movies in the sample. The limited selection of programs likely affected the results of this project, and will be further discussed in the limitations section.
In the children/youth category, the inclusion of mainstream cartoons that target preschoolers could also have affected the overall number of acts of aggression and violence. The Berenstein Bears are presented as educational programs, fostering a sense of togetherness, right vs. wrong and consequences for inappropriate actions. The assumption is that preschoolers may be shielded from both acts of aggression and acts of violence in educational-based programs, from parents, from regulators and legislators, from broadcasters and even by producers. As children age, increased levels of aggression and violence are anticipated, based on the ability of maturing youth to differentiate between right and wrong, real and fiction. Non-educational programs, and non-mainstream programs (such as the “anime” style of cartoon, mentioned in the introduction) are likely to contain higher levels of aggression and violence, even when the primary target is preschoolers. Therefore the inclusion of educational preschooler programs might have significantly affected the findings of this project, particularly in the children/youth programs.
Finally the timing of the sample could also have an impact on program content. During ratings weeks, viewer interest is generally pursued aggressively, and can be accomplished through the presentation of unexpected scenarios – the killing of key characters, the involvement of key characters in controversial situations, or the involvement of key characters in other attention-grabbing situations. Both aggression and violence can increase viewer interest, therefore creating viewer numbers, and thus numbers of aggression and violence are expected to increase as key ratings periods occur.
Based upon the television viewing and the results summarized above, I conclude that the prevalence of aggression and violence in children’s programs is lower than that of adults’ television. This leads me to reject my hypothesis that violence would be higher but aggression would be lower in adults’ TV programming.
Because there is such a diversity of scientific research into violence and television, this study is in accord with some of them and conflicting with others. Generally speaking, most of the literature examined indicated that aggression and violence were more likely to be found in programs for children. Both aggression and violence were found in proportion to those found in adult-oriented programming, but the number of incidents in adult programming was much higher than in children/youth programs. However a different sample of programs could lead to significantly different results, particularly if the composition of the sample categories shifted to include additional movies and dramas and fewer sitcoms and preschool-based programs.
Limitations few of the key limitations of this study are:
Limited Sample Size – Six hours of television viewing is insignificant, given the volume of programs that are available 24 hours each day, seven days each week. Also the sampling time-frame (7 p.m. – 10 p.m.) could also affect the findings, with different levels of aggression and violence expected both earlier and later in the day (less during daylight hours and more during night-time hours). To overcome this limitation, future studies should significantly expand the number of hours of viewing in the research project.
Limited Sample Duration and Sample Period – The sample period only ran for one week, and could therefore significantly affect the findings. In the discussion section, the possible impact of ratings periods was noted. To overcome this limitation, future studies should select a range of viewing periods over the course of a year, particularly during the main (September – April) television-viewing season.
Inclusion of Preschool Educational Programs in Sample – The cartoons that were included are targeted as educational programs to preschoolers. This target population is the most protected, and therefore is the least exposed to aggression and violence in mainstream television. Cartoons aimed at older (school-age children) would likely include higher levels of aggression and violence), as would alternate forms of cartoon entertainment aimed at preschoolers. To overcome this limitation, future studies should restrict or eliminate preschool-aged educational programs from the sample.
Unrepresentative/Biased Sample – Only two categories of programs were included for the adult category, and only three categories of programs were included for the children/youth category. To overcome this limitation, future studies should strive to include a sample from each main program category.
These are a few of the limitations that have been identified for this project. These limitations need to be addressed in further studies, thus rendering the findings of this project exploratory at least and inconclusive at best.
Aronson, E., Wilson, T., Akert, R., & Fehr, B. (2002). Social Psychology. Toronto:
Cantor, J. (2000). Media Violence. Journal of Adolescent Health, 27S, 30-34.
Lazar, B. (1998). The lull of tradition: a grounded theory study of television violence,
Children and social work. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 15 (2), 117-132.
Peter, K., and Blumberg, F. (2002). Cartoon Violence: Is it as Detrimental to Preschoolers as We think? Early Childhood Education Journal, 29 (3), 143-149.
Simmons, B., Stalsworth, K., and Wentzel, H. (1999). Television Violence and its effects on Young children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 26 (3), 149-154.
Smith, S., Nathanson, A., and Wilson, B. (2002). Prime-time television: Assessing violence during the most popular viewing hours. Journal of Communication, (March 2002), 84-112.
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