New research sheds light on why exposure to violent media can lead to aggressive behavior


The road leading to my house is full of potholes. Deep potholes. The kind that break cars. Sure enough, after months of driving through this maze of potholes, my muffler fell off as I pulled into the driveway a few weeks ago. And just like that, 60 more bucks went to another mechanic. Have you ever noticed that we don’t really care how a car works until it’s broken? We’re usually content knowing that it gets us from here to there, without a second thought as to how it works. But when something goes wrong, wouldn’t it be nice to understand how it works so that we could fix the problem ourselves?

As a parent, I love hearing about research showing a connection between media exposure and some sort of behavior. But as a researcher, I’m driven to understand why. New research conducted by Dr. Brad Bushman at The Ohio State University sheds light on why exposure to violent media leads to aggressive behavior.

Consensus exists among reputable scholars that exposure to violent media is related to aggressive thoughts and actions among children and adults. What is less clear, however, is why. Bushman recently published a “meta-analysis” about the link between violent media exposure and “hostile appraisals.” A meta-analysis is a fancy term that scholars use to describe a study that looks at all the research in an area to statistically determine if a relationship truly exists. And a hostile appraisal is “the tendency to perceive ambiguous actions by others as aggressive. For example, if a person bumps into you, a hostile attribution would be that the person did it on purpose to harm you,” Bushman reports. Not surprisingly, the study found a correlation between exposure to violent media and hostile appraisals. In other words, the more we (or our children) view violent media, the more likely we are to assume that someone’s intentions were purposely aggressive, even if we don’t know for sure if they were or not.

Understanding this is like understanding how a car works. Sure, it’s good to know that media has an effect, but understanding why it has an effect gives us the tools to fix the problem ourselves. You see, our appraisals of others or of situations is a great predictor of our own behaviors. If I encounter a dog and determine that it looks aggressive, my behavior will reflect my judgment of the dog. This research suggests that we do the same thing with people. So, it’s possible then that violent media exposure leads to aggressive behavior because it first distorts our appraisals of others’ intentions. Pretty cool, huh?!

So if understanding how something works empowers us to fix the problem, our job as parents is to help kids understand how we feel about violent media. It’s our job to tell them that it’s not cool to behave like mean people on TV. Kids need to hear from us that solving problems with violence, like often happens on TV, is not the right way to solve problems. Research shows that these types of conversations can dampen the effect of watching violent TV on children’s subsequent aggressive responses.

Once we understand how violent media can affect kids, it’s our job to be the pothole in the road leading from violent media exposure to aggressive behavior. Understanding these processes is worth more than a $60 muffler. In fact, it’s priceless. Just like our kids.

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