How often do children hear, see, or talk about violent television? Could it possibly be a factor in how aggressive or desensitized these children become? Surely anyone who has access to the news has seen the recent exponential growth in violence throughout the world. It is interesting to note that this growth and the massive production and display of media violence have occurred simultaneously. According to W. James Potter, Professor of communication, the two are correlated. The purpose of this paper is to analyze and critique Professor Potter’s research by identifying and explaining three flaws and one strength that are apparent in his published article, and to share personal beliefs regarding this matter.
In his 1999 article titled “On Media Violence,” Potter used many research methods in order to formulate his argument, including longitudinal research, case studies, surveys, and systematic observation. He summarizes his main points into ten different “laws,” which can be summarized as follows: First, one of the greatest effects of exposure to media violence on children is that they “(learn) to behave aggressively” (Potter, 1999, p. 309). As they continually view violent acts on television, children become “desensitized” to their cruelty, and are more likely to commit similar acts themselves. This desensitization is even more likely to occur if the viewer can relate to the criminal, and if the violence is portrayed in a realistic manner. Second, the more a child is exposed to media violence, the more that child is prone to accept that violence isn’t wrong. Thirdly, when violent media is introduced into a society for the first time, the crime rate in that society rises exponentially. Lastly, there are many long-term effects of exposure to media violence, such as having a fearful view of the world.
Although Potter’s article is very convincing, there are a few major flaws in his research and the conclusions that he draws according to certain findings. For example, he fails to consider alternate explanations for the observed aggressive behavior in the children. This is a major flaw because the violent media may not be causing children to be more aggressive, even though the two seem to be correlated. For example Potter states that after two researchers analyzed several studies on children, “they concluded that the correlational studies showed generally significant relationships (r = .10 to .32) and that the experiments generally showed an increase in aggression resulting from exposure to television violence across all age groups” (Potter, 1999, p. 310). Here, Potter fails to recognize that the fact that there is a positive correlation coefficient doesn’t necessarily mean that the media violence is causing the increase in aggression. He goes on to use four other examples of observational research that seem to prove that exposure to media violence leads to aggression.
However, there are many alternate explanations for the correlation between viewing violent television and being aggressive. For example, children who are bored at home tend to watch more television, and also tend to seek out social activities, some of which may lead to violence. Also, children who already have an aggressive character before being exposed to the television will find violent media entertaining, and will watch it more. If these types of people were to be observed, there may be a positive correlation coefficient between watching violent media and being aggressive, yet the two would not necessarily be causing each other. Another flaw in Potter’s research is that he relies on mostly one type of research method: systematic observation. In fact, five out of the seven specific experiments that he cites in his article are systematic observations which are followed up by surveys.
The pattern is the following: researchers show a certain age group of children some violent footage, and then, through surveys or further observation, determine if they are more accepting of violence, and if they are more aggressive. For example, “Linz, Donnerstein, and Penrod (1998a) exposed male participants to five slasher movies during a two-week period. After each film, the male participants exhibited decreasing perceptions that the films were violent or that they were degrading to women” (Potter, 1999, p. 319). By analyzing this quote, it is obvious that this response cannot be the only research upon which a large claim can be made. After all, the responses may be affected by the participant’s desire to give the answers that the researchers are looking for. What would be more convincing would be if an additional psychophysiological test were given to the same participants to measure if the reactions in their brain reflect the findings from the systematic observation. Again, over 70% of the experiments that Potter refers to in the article are systematic observations, and none of them are backed up by any other research method. Lastly, the systematic observations would be more convincing if Potter mentioned the use of a control group in the research that he did.
Not even once in the entire article, after speaking of several experiments, does Potter validate his findings by referring to the use of a control group. For example, “Collins (1973) ran an experiment on children aged 8 to 15…participants were shown a 30-minute film in which federal agents confronted some criminals…both 18 days before the experiment and then again right after the viewing, participants were asked their responses to a wide range of hypothetical interpersonal conflict situations…” (Potter, 1999, p. 314). While it is important that testing was given before and after the experiment, it is impossible to tell if it was the violent television that caused the desensitization (which was the result of the experiment), or if it was something else that happened during the 18 day break in-between tests. The lack of a control group causes any reader to doubt the reliability of the results.
Therefore, it is unknown that the violent television is really causing the children to become desensitized or more aggressive. It could be that factors in the participant’s microsystem or mesosystem, such as family and friends, are the cause of the increase in aggression and/or desensitization. The only way to really know that the violent television is the cause of aggression and desensitization would be to use a control group, and to find that those in the control group did not become more aggressive and desensitized. Although the article contains several flaws, there are also many strong points to Potter’s reasoning and research. Notable among the strengths are the large and diverse sample sizes of the experiments to which he refers. This supports Potter’s claims because it means that he can generalize the findings and state that they reflect how the nation-wide (or in some cases, world-wide) population is affected by exposure to violent television. For example, early on in his argument, Potter states, “Andison looked at 67 studies involving 30,000 participants…and found a relationship between viewing and subsequent aggression, with more than half of the studies showing a correlation (r) between .31 and .70” (Potter, 1999, p. 311). 30,000 people is a very decently sized sample, and from those findings one must believe that exposure to violent television really does affect many children negatively.
He goes on to state, “Hearold looked at 230 studies involving 100,000 participants to determine the effect of viewing violence on a wide range of antisocial behaviors in addition to aggression…(he) concluded that for all ages and all measures, the majority of the studies reported an association between exposure to violence and antisocial behavior” (Potter, 1999, p. 311). That is quite a convincing way to prove one’s hypothesis. Potter’s sample sizes are not only large, but are also culturally diverse. He stated that “Huesmann, Eron, Guerra, and Crawshaw (1994) conclude from their longitudinal research that viewing ciolence as a child has a causal effect on patterns of higher aggressive behavior in adults. This finding has appeared in studies in the United States, Australia, Finland, Israel, Poland, the Netherlands, and South Africa” (Potter, 1999, p. 318). Therefore, Potter is able to convincingly conclude that exposure to media violence causes children to be more aggressive throughout the entire world. These large and diverse sample sizes make Potter’s findings very reliable, as similar findings have been made in several different locations and with thousands of different children.
I personally agree that exposure to media violence causes children to be more aggressive and to believe that violence is acceptable. I believe that when a child plays violent video games or watches violent television, he is more likely to reenact those same violent acts, or at least think they are acceptable, later on in life. The saddest part about violent media is that it rarely shows the physical, mental, and social consequences that violence has both on the criminals and the victims. It portrays violence as a good thing that is rewarded with money and praise, and instills in children that being violent is tolerable. So many times, the media criminals are the ones that seem to be much happier and more popular than the citizens that obey the law and are kind to others. I think this way because I have seen desensitization to violent acts in my own life. I played many shooting and car racing games as a child, which led me to believe in my adolescent years that shooting others really wasn’t a bad thing.
On scouting trips I sometimes imagined shooting someone with my gun and never thought about the terrible consequences that it would bring to so many lives! I also used to see how fast I could drive my car so that I could be just like the people in the racing games. Now that I think back on those terrible thoughts and decisions, I realize that it was the violent media that conditioned my brain to think that those things were acceptable, because I had seen them done before in virtual worlds. I also believe this way because of my religion. I know that we are approaching the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and that Satan — he that tempts us to make wrong choices — is trying harder than ever to keep us from following Christ. The fact that so much violent media is coming out lately must be, in part, a result of Satan’s plan to desensitize us and make us believe that being violent is acceptable.
When we are violent to others, we are not following Christ’s commandment to love one another. Thus, violent media may be one of Satan’s tools to draw us away from Christ as we approach the glorious Second Coming of our Lord and Savior. Violent media does seem to have an effect on children’s behavior. Potter’s reasoning did include many flaws, including failure to consider alternate explanations for certain findings, the over-use of one research method, and the lack of control groups. It also had many strengths, including the very large and diverse sample sizes used to conduct research. It seems as though parents worldwide should consider this claim very carefully, and make appropriate changes in the way they conduct their homes in order to raise a generation that stops this chain of ever-growing violence.
1. Potter, W. J. (1999). On media violence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
2. Berk, L. E. (2009). Child Development. New York, NY: Pearson Custom Publishing.