Does the media cause children to become desensitized to violence?


Desensitisation is a word used to describe the ways in which viewing acts of violence reduce our responsiveness (Bushman & Huesmann, 2006). Media violence may stimulate aggressive behaviour by desensitising children to the effects of violence. This means that the more violence that a child views on television, the less emotionally concerned they become and the more acceptable it seems (Cline, Croft & Courrier, 1973). Frequent viewing may cause children to be less anxious about violence and see it as more ‘normal’. Therefore, they may be more likely to engage in violence themselves.

According to Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis (2005), there is consistent evidence that violent imagery in television, film and computer games has substantial short-term effects on arousal, thoughts, and emotions. This increases the likelihood of aggressive or fearful behaviour in younger children, especially boys. These conclusions were drawn after a search for published work was conducted, revealing five meta-analytic reviews and one quasi-systematic review, all of which were from North America. The evidence becomes inconsistent when considering older children and adolescents, and also the long-term effects upon all ages. The different levels of aggression in children were tested, resulting in difficulties with the method and problems showing causation. However, a small but significant association was found, but with only weak evidence from correlation studies that linked media violence to crime.

Disinhibition is quite similar to desensitisation, the promoting of violent behaviour leads us to believe that violence is common and acceptable. According to Suler (2005), this reduces our normal inhibitions about behaving in certain anti-social ways, and may lead to us stopping exerting conscious control over our behaviour. Josephson (1987) argues that violence on screen is very different to violence in the real world, stating that media violence is more likely to make children more ‘frightened’ than ‘frightening’. According to Huesmann and Moise (2003), there are stronger desensitisation effects for males than there are for females. They suggest that boys who watch excessive amounts of television show lower-than-average physiological arousal in response to scenes of violence.

There is not sufficient evidence to support the claim that the media desensitizes children to violence, as there is an unpredictable link between watching television and aggression. The media cannot be wholly blamed for causing desensitization and disinhibition efftecs, certain factors such as individual differences and personality types need to be taken into consideration. Results cannot be generalizable to all children, as most studies tend to be conducted on young, white males, without taking into consideration females or other cultures. There are also some methodological problems; demand characteristics are common with controlled experiments. For example, when a natural experiment was conducted in St Helena (a British Colony in the South Atlantic Ocean), where people were first introduced to televisions in 1995, the new televisions did not increase aggressive behaviour, or desensitize people to acts of aggression (Charlton & O’Bey, 1997).




Browne, K. D. & Hamilton-Giachritsis, C. (2005) The influence of violent media on children and adolescents: a public-health approach, The Lancet, Vol. 365 (9460) pp. 702 – 710. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(05)17952-5


Bushman, B. J. & Huesmann, L. (2006) Short-term and long-term effects of violent media on aggression in children and adults, Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 160 (4) pp. 348-352


Charlton, T. & O’Bey, S. (1997) Links Between Television and Behaviour: Students’ Perceptions of TV’s Impact in St Helena, South Alantic, Support for Learning, Vol. 12(3) pp. 130-136. doi: 10.1111/1467-9604.00031


Cline, V. B., Croft, R. G. & Courrier, S. (1973) Desensitization of children to television violence, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 27 (3), pp. 360-365. doi: 10.1037/h0034945


Huesmann, L. R. & Moise, J. T (2003) Longitudinal relations between children’s exposure to TV violence and their aggressive and violent behavior in young adulthood, Developmental Psychology, Vol. 39(2), pp. 201-221. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.39.2.201


Josephson, W. L. (1987) Television violence and children’s aggression, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 53(5), pp. 882-890. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.53.5.882


Suler, J. (2005) The disinhibition effect, International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, Vol. 2(2), pp. 184–188


4 responses »

  1. A large proportion of research conducted into the link between the media and violence in children relies upon the findings of observational research (Shaffer & Kipp, 2010). For example, Wood, Wong and Chachere (1991) conducted a meta-analysis of studies where children were initially exposed to a violent television program and were then observed to determine the impact that the violence on the television program had on their post-exposure behaviour. They found a significant relationship between violence in the media and subsequent displays of violence and aggression by children; consequently supporting their original hypothesis. However, it can be argued that studies involving observational methodologies are unreliable, as the findings can be easily biased by investigator effects (Shaffer & Kipp, 2010). For example, if researchers are specifically looking for violent displays of behaviour, they may wrongly interpret some of the behaviour they observe.

    Shaffer, D.R., & Kipp, K. (2010). Developmental psychology: Childhood and adolescence (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    Wood, W., Wong, F.Y., & Chachere, G. (1991). Effects of media violence on viewers’ aggression
    in unconstrained social interaction. Psychological Bulletin, 109(3), 371-383. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.109.3.371

  2. Drabman and Thomas (1974) demonstrate how children that viewed a violent film were more tolerant of real-life violence, than children who did not watch the film. An explanation of these findings may be due to the lacking realism of the the violent film; The characters were not real and therefore their suffering would not truly elicit the same degree of empathy that a real person might. Also, the negative consequences of aggressive behaviour on the victims are often omitted or downplayed in favour of glamorizing violence. A similar experiment could be conducted with a film that addresses the realistic, adverse effects of violence. This may help to understand whether realism and empathy mediate this effect.

    Drabman, R. S., & Thomas, M. H. (1974). Does media violence increase children’s toleration of real-life aggression? Developmental Psychology, 10(3), 418-421. Retrieved from

  3. Pingback: Desensitization of sexuality shown to children in the media throughout the decades. – 202mcgroup10

  4. A fastnnaciig discussion is definitely worth comment.I think that you ought to write more on this subject matter, it might not be a taboomatter but usually people do not talk about such issues.To the next! Kind regards!!

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