The Effects of Observing Violence in the Media

If you are on this website and care about the issue of violence, then you have probably wondered about the effects of violence in movies, video games, and TV on people’s behavior.   Rowell Huesmann, the head of the University of Michigan’s Aggression Research Program, has spent his career on this topic.  Huesmann’s experiments have repeatedly proven that children who are exposed to violence in the media are more likely to become aggressive and that repeated exposure increases the effect.  This increase in aggressiveness happens both in the short term – children imitating behavior that they see – and in the long term – norms picked up through observational learning.  For the long-term effect, individuals who witness violence essentially increasingly view aggressive behavior as an acceptable form of behavior and are therefore more likely to behave aggressively.

Yet, we have all been exposed to violence in the media and most of us have not become abnormally aggressive.  There are many factors that influence our behavior – such as our parents, our community, our education level – and observing violence is just one factor.  If a person is repeatedly exposed to media violence and also has other factors that predispose him to violence, he may behave more aggressively.  If you are not otherwise predisposed to behave violently, than you may not behave aggressively.

As it turns out, observing violence in person affects us in much the same way as watching it on TV.  If we observe the violence, we are more likely to imitate the violence and more likely to think that acting violently is acceptable.  The major difference is that people who witness violence in person may have a stronger connection to the people involved in violence and it may therefore have a stronger effect.  A person who lives in a violent community and repeatedly sees people he knows behaving violently is more likely to be negatively affected by that violence.

For more on Rowell Huesmann’s work and on the connection between observing violence and behaving aggressively, many of his studies and papers are available for free on the internet: