Does violent media make kids more aggressive?
Kids aggression

Justine was a client who was struggling with her six-year-old son’s aggressive behaviour. He was frequently lashing out at his siblings. He had been on detention for being physically aggressive at school. And he had started taking swings at Justine as well.

I asked a range of questions about interactions at home, entertainment choices and specifically about violent media. Justine told me that she didn’t think her son was watching or playing anything violent. Did she let him play video games? Yes. What was his favourite? She responded, “Call of Duty. Either that or Grand Theft Auto.”

I asked if she was aware of the content of those games. Her reply, “Yeah. But it’s all animated. It’s not real or anything.”

Further discussion revealed that Justine’s son spent up to six hours a day playing these games, or watching his older brother playing them. (It was longer on weekends.) Justine also took him to the movies to see whatever she was watching, or let him stay up late at night (he had no bed time) to watch ‘whatever’s on’, which usually included programs like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad.

Media violence impacts children

Since the 1980s, researchers have been describing the negative effects of media violence on children. One particularly interesting study (published in 2003) examined the longitudinal relationship between TV-violence viewing at ages six to 10 and adult aggressive behaviour about 15 years later for a group of children who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. The researchers found that childhood exposure to media violence predicts young adult aggressive behaviour for both males and females. The researchers found that this was the case regardless of income, mental capacity or parenting.

Interestingly, being aggressive as a child did not predict watching more violent TV as a teenager, suggesting that TV watching could be a cause rather than a consequence of aggressive behaviour. Other research has found that exposure to media violence can desensitise people to violence in the real world. In addition, for some people, watching violence in the media becomes enjoyable! This means that when they see violence, it does not result in the anxious arousal that would be expected from seeing such imagery had they not been exposed to it previously.

What about video games?

Because video game technology is relatively new – and constantly evolving – there are not as many high-quality scientific studies looking into the impact of video game violence on real world violence.  Still, several reviews have demonstrated that exposure to violence in video games has negative effects. This study makes it clear that the evidence we do have is fairly conclusive. The researchers state:

“The evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behaviour, aggressive cognition and aggressive affect and for decreased empathy and prosocial behaviour.”

What does that mean?

Playing these games is going to lead to children acting aggressively, thinking aggressively and even feeling aggressive. They’re less likely to help others, and less likely to care how others feel.

What should parents do?

Ultimately, what our children do, say, watch and play comes down to our own values and morality. There’s plenty of research to support the idea that playing video games can have benefits. And nobody will try to claim that some TV or movie time is a dire problem if we keep it to less than a couple of hours per day.

However, the violent media content our children are exposed to is a problem. Although a few vocal researchers pop up in the news from time to time and claim there is a ‘debate’ on this issue, the overwhelming majority of researchers believe that violent media increase aggression in children. They also believe that the media is the cause of that aggression. Paediatricians are even more convinced, and parents also have little doubt.

Violent children are far more likely to come from violent environments than calm, peaceful environments. As parents, it is our duty to provide clear limits on what is, and is not, appropriate.

This article was written for by Dr Justin Coulson, a positive psychology researcher, author, and speaker. It has been adapted for

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