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Does viewing violent media really cause criminal violence?

A methodological review
Joanne Savage
Department of Justice, Law and Society, American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington,
DC 20016-8043, USA
Received 9 September 2002; received in revised form 26 October 2003; accepted 30 October 2003
The topic of media violence has been the subject of heated debate in recent decades. There is a vast
empirical literature on the effects of television on aggression but no published comprehensive review
has ever focused on those studies that use criminal aggression as their outcome. The present paper
represents an attempt to fill this void and provide a resource for those who do not wish to delve into
four decades of original research in order to assess this line of investigation. Studies are evaluated
based on contemporary standards of research in the field of criminology. Although the possibility that
television and film violence has an impact on violent criminality remains, it is concluded here that,
despite persistent published reviews that state the contrary, the body of published, empirical evidence
on this topic does not establish that viewing violent portrayals causes crime.
D 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Television violence; Media violence; Violent crime
1. Introduction
A vast empirical literature on the impact of television exposure on aggression has accrued
over the last four decades, mostly in the fields of psychology and broadcasting. Reviews of
this literature typically conclude that there is evidence that viewing violent media is as-
1359-1789/$ see front matter D 2003 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
* Tel.: +1-202-885-2974.
E-mail address: jsavage@american.edu (J. Savage).
Aggression and Violent Behavior
10 (2004) 99128
sociated with aggression (e.g., Donnerstein & Linz, 1995; Huesmann & Miller, 1994; Paik &
Comstock, 1994; Wood, Wong, & Chachere, 1991). It is not this particular conclusion that is
going to be called into question in the present paper. Instead, the present paper focuses on the
extension of that conclusion to apply to violent or criminal behavior. For example,
Donnerstein and Linz (1995) conclude that studies strongly suggest that exposure to media
violence is a causal factor in criminal behavior, (p. 250). Palermo (1995) writes There is no
doubt . . . that excessive and extended exposure to television violence may promote violence
in some children . . . (p. 19). Huesmann and Miller (1994) summarize, . . . the existing
empirical studies do provide support for the conjecture that the current level of interpersonal
violence in our societies has been boosted by the long-term effects of many persons
childhood exposure to a steady diet of dramatic media violence (p. 155), and Sege (1998)
concludes, Although this phenomenon is complex and multifactorial, with deep historical
roots, one of the best documented causes of the modern upsurge in violence appears to be
childhood exposure to television violence (p. 129).
This idea has been reified through the popular press and other published works. Although
many publications have tamed their rhetoric on this topic in recent years (Anderson and
Bushman, 2002), one still may find many highly overstated comments on the TV violence
violent criminal behavior relationship. For example, in the abstract for a recent piece on the
effects of television violence we find: More than 1000 studies have proposed a link between
teen violence and violent TV programs (Mudore, 2000, p. 24). Bergenfield (1994) writes,
Thirty years of research have proved that exposure to TV violence is hazardous to childrens
health and welfare (p. 40). The medical community has been very active in recent years on
this topic and literature searches on media violence result in many hits related to statements
by the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics. A report on
the policy statement for the American Academy of Pediatrics quotes it as saying that
Exposure to and the influence of media violence directly correlates to violent behavior
(Chatfield, 2002; p. 735). Articles with titles such as Teaching Kids to Kill (Grossman,
2000) and Televisions Bloody Hands (McCain, 1998) are commonplace.
It is likely that it is this kind of rhetoric from the popular press (vs. the more carefully
worded scholarly summaries) that has inspired calls for action. For example, the American
Medical Association has expressed its vigorous opposition to television violence and its
support for minimally restrictive measures to protect children from the harmful effects of
such programming (American Medical Association, 1993). A report released by Senator
Orrin Hatch as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman is said to blame television for 10% of
youth violence, to identify media violence as one of the principal causes of youth violence,
and to recommend 14 actions federal government should take to counter effects of media
violence on youth (as reported by Albiniak & McConnell, 1999). Representative Henry Hyde
forwarded the Hyde Amendment, also known as the Childrens Defense Act in 1999,
which would have made it a federal felony, punishable by 5 years in jail, to expose children
under 17 to materials with sexual or violent content (reported by Reid, 1999).
Due to the immense attention media violence effects have received from policymakers, it is
paramount for criminologists to evaluate the literature for its implications for crime. Of
course, there are many reasons why one might expect that viewing violence would affect
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 100
violent behavior. Basic principles of learning would suggest that small children will imitate
behavior (Bandura, 1977). If the scenes viewed are exciting, this may also provide physical
stimulation (excitation) that might have an immediate effect on behavior and, perhaps, a
rewarding sensation that would then be associated with violence (classical conditioning).
There is also the likelihood that vicarious reinforcement would affect the viewerwatching
the perpetrator of violence receiving rewards for violent behavior might provide important
information to the viewer about the consequences of behaving violently.
The most sophisticated and widely accepted perspective on the relationship between
viewing violent TV and aggression has been forwarded by Huesmann (1986a). Huesmann
and Miller (1994) argue that . . . the most plausible hypothesis is that habitual exposure to
violent television programs teaches children aggressive habits which are maintained well into
adulthood (p. 165). Huesmanns theory is based on the proposition that social behavior is
guided by cognitive scripts that are stored in a persons memory. Aggressive people are those
who regularly retrieve and employ scripts that emphasize aggressive responding. Children
can learn aggressive scripts from many sourcesincluding watching television. The process
is reciprocaltroubled and aggressive children often watch more television and identify with
television characters to a greater extent than other children, and watching more television
reinforces these violent scripts. The theory also addresses other complexities such as the
importance of cues in the environment necessary for the retrieval of scripts.
However, although the theory makes sense, and there are a very large number of studies
that examine the effects of media exposure on aggression, there are comparatively few studies
that actually measure the effects of media violence on criminal aggression. The majority of
the published studies alluded to in the popular press use, as an outcome measure, a measure of
aggression that is not violent nor criminal. Most typically, they employ a shock box where
subjects are told to administer shocks to another individual in a learning scenario. The
outcome measure is often the maximum level of shock that each subject chooses to
administer, and evidence of an effect is demonstrated if the group who had viewed a violent
television show in an earlier experimental session set shock levels at a higher level, on
average, than a group who viewed a control program.
Kaplan (1984) questioned the validity of using laboratory measures of aggression, such
as the shock machine, for understanding real-life violence and aggression and concluded
that naturalistic observation in field settings held the greater promise for understanding this
phenomenon. Although most scholarly works provide very carefully worded conclusions
based on such studies, the belief prevails that watching violent television or movies causes
violent behavior. There are some obvious reasons why one might question the general-
izability of findings using this type of outcome to behaviors that are violent and criminal.
For example, there is a psychological difference between pressing a button and hitting or
shooting someone directly. There is also the matter of demand characteristics of the
experimental situation, where subjects are told to shock the other personthere is no rule
or law against itand, indeed, they are being encouraged to do so (see Felson, 1996, for
further discussion). We can imagine that many ordinary people who would not be willing to
violate the law or harm others normally might be willing to administer pain or harm to
another person in a setting where it is legal and expected (e.g. as part of service in the
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 101
armed forces, as a police officer, or as a nurse who must give a shot to a patient) and where
retaliation is unlikely to occur. There is no empirical basis for the assumption that there is
an uninterrupted linear relation between legal, laboratory aggression and crimes such as
aggravated assault and robbery. Given that the law, social disapproval, socialization, and
formal punishment stand between this type of aggression and criminal aggression, the
assumption is dubious at best.
The purpose of the present paper is to provide a review of all the published studies, in
English, that examine the effects of viewing television or film violence on criminal
behavior. Because previous reviews related to this topic are plentifully available, the
present paper will emphasize the methodological problems that cause one to question the
conventional wisdom. This is not the only review that has expressed skepticism regarding
the aggressionviolence relationship (see discussions by Felson, 1996; Freedman, 1984,
1986, 1988, 1992; Jensen, 2001; McGuire, 1986; Zimring & Hawkins, 1997). However,
the present review is the only comprehensive review of the literature limited to studies
that examine the effect of media violence on behavior that is criminally violent; that is,
the overt expression of physical force against another individual and that might constitute
criminal behavior, broadly defined. This review highlights the methodological issues that
are relevant for understanding whether viewing media violence causes violent criminal
behavior and, as such, it is hoped that it will provide a resource for those who want to
understand the effects of media violence on crime but who do not wish to delve into the
original literature themselves. Because the majority of reviews of this topic have
suggested that viewing media violence causes violent behavior, great care is taken here
to point out the plentiful evidence that contradicts this conclusion.
Empirical articles and reviews of the literature were identified, first, by using an
electronic search of books and articles through a major university consortium database.
Criminal Justice Abstracts was also consulted for recent years. Then, the bibliographies
of all the items obtained were reviewed and empirical articles referenced therein were
evaluated. This process was repeated until all empirical articles were obtained that fit the
established criteria. Inclusion of studies was based on outcome measure; only studies
where criminally violent behavior or analogous behavior are used are reviewed.
Violent and analogous behavior includes behavior that is both physically hurtful or
coercive and violates a rule, law, or norm. For example, in the present analysis, although
the use of electric shock in a teacherlearner experiment is not included (because while
it may be physical and harmful it is not a violation of a rule or law), children pushing,
hitting, or kicking one another is included because it is physical and possibly harmful
and violates rules that are probably well known to the children. This is seen as analogous
to criminal violence, whereas following instructions in an experimental paradigm is not.
Because of the emphasis on certain longitudinal studies in recent years, they are included
although their outcome measure, peer-nominated aggression, represents overt violence
only peripherally.
The review is organized by study methodology starting with aggregate-level studies
(cross-sectional and longitudinal), continuing with individual-level studies (experimental
and quasi-experimental) and ending with correlational studies and prospective longitudinal
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 102
studies. The review emphasizes methodology, using, as its criteria, methodological
standards in the field of criminology. This methodological approach is important because,
as we shall see, a careful evaluation of numerous studies calls into question the
conclusions reported by their authors and later reviewers.
2. Methodological criteria
Table 1 summarizes the criteria for evaluating studies organized by study type. The
criteria are based on contemporary standards of research in criminology and criminal justice
and knowledge gained from reviewing several decades of television and media research.
Each study was evaluated based on the set of appropriate criteria, although comments in the
text of this paper are restricted to those of greatest relevance for determining the
contribution of that study to our understanding of the effects of media exposure on
criminal behavior.
In each section, more detail will be given on the specific methodological criteria
sought for that particular study type. The criteria that span all of the studies shall be
discussed here. First, for a study to be taken seriously, the authors should report the
measures used and analyses conducted in a systematic fashion so that others could
replicate the study if desired. This should go without saying, but several widely cited
studies in this area do not meet even this basic criterion. Second, sample sizes should be
large enough to make statistical inferences possible. In the interest of saving space, in
this paper comments on sample size are made only when samples are thought to be too
small to allow significance testing.
Measures should be reliable and valid. Reliability is not of great concern in the present
review because many authors took care to demonstrate reliability. With respect to validity,
outcome measures closer to criminal violence should be weighed most heavily. A few studies
using a marginal measure of criminal aggression, peer-nominated aggression, are used and,
all else being equal, studies using this measure should be given less weight. The best
measures of the independent variable, television violence exposure, include a reliable
estimate of television viewing that is weighted by an independent assessment of violent
content of the shows watched. Weaker measures include those where television viewing
overall is used (instead of television violence viewing) or where a rating of preferences for
programs is used rather than an estimate of actual viewing time.
Of interest throughout this review is the establishment of temporal order and the
control of spurious factors. Evidence suggests that aggressive people like to watch violent
material so the actual causal progression may be opposite that being tested (aggression
may cause exposure to TV violence) or the relationship may be spurious (aggressive
predisposition causes violent behavior and a taste for violent programs). The control
factors of greatest interest here are violence proneness (usually referred to as trait
aggressiveness) and parental neglect or abuse because of their likely influence on
television-viewing habits and violent behavior. Studies also control for factors such as
income and parental education fairly regularly, which is important.
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 103
Table 1
Methodological criteria for studying the effects of media violence on criminally violent behavior
Common criteria across all types of studies
1. Systematic reporting adequate for replication
2. Adequate sample size for statistical inferences
3. Reliable and valid measures: measures of actual exposure to violent television, outcome measures of violent
criminality analogous behaviors (e.g., hitting, pushing, etc.)
4. Establish or address temporal order
5. Control for potentially spurious factors
6. Test for interactions to demonstrate whether effects are limited to persons with certain characteristics (i.e., trait
aggressiveness/violence proneness)
Criteria for aggregate level studies
Cross-sectional studies
Hypothesis: Jurisdictions where residents are exposed to more violent television are expected to have higher
violent crime rates.
Attention to:
Temporal order
Control for factors likely to be associated with exposure to TVand crime such as SES, education levels, routine
activities, and demographics (e.g., racial composition, age distribution of the population).
Longitudinal studies
Hypothesis: Jurisdictions where there has been an increase in exposure violent television are expected to
experience increases in crime or violent crime.
Attention to:
Assurance that other historical factors were not the cause of the change in crime
A sensible time period including a prespecification of any expected time lags
Criteria for individual level studies
Experiments and quasi-experiments (group comparisons)
Hypothesis: Subjects exposed to violent television will subsequently respond more aggressively than subjects
exposed to a control condition.
Attention to:
Equivalent groups (ideally, random assignment)
Realistic viewing experience (complete program, program from normal television)
Appropriate control condition (if violent treatment is exciting, control must also be exciting)
Correlational studies
Hypothesis: Subjects who watch more violent television will behave more violently, controlling for
related factors
Attention to:
Measures of violent television exposure and criminal behavior that are developmentally appropriate
Valid measures of exposure (measures of actual frequency of exposure to programs weighted by violence ratings
are best)
Temporal orderexposure to television must precede aggression or increase in aggression
Control for important factors that may be associated with both television exposure and antisocialitymost
Trait aggressiveness
Socioeconomic status (SES)
Intelligence/ability to judge reality
Popularity (when using peer-nominated aggression measures)
Experience of neglect or abuse
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 104
Finally, the analysis of interaction effects has become the standard in later studies because
evidence suggests that the effects of television violence may be limited to persons with a
predisposition for aggression, and may be opposite for others.
3. Aggregate-level studies
3.1. Cross-sectional studies
It could be argued that the most desirable studies for those interested in public health
or violent crime generally would be those that examine aggregate crime levels across
jurisdictions or over time to see if television viewing or violence viewing affect crime
rates. Interest in rates is due, in part, to their relevance for policy. Although we may find
that television violence affects some individuals in the laboratory, if there is no
measurable effect on crime rates it would not be necessary to target it as a priority
for reform. Unfortunately, there have been only two cross-sectional studies and four
longitudinal studies that have attempted to evaluate this matter at the aggregate level.
The most careful of the aggregate cross-sectional studies (and one of the most
important studies overall) was done by Messner (1986), who examined variations in
the violent crime rate within the United States. Messner constructed a measure of violent
television exposure for standard metropolitan statistical areas (SMSAs) within the United
States based on Nielsen audience size estimates of violent shows and found that such
exposure was, contrary to expectations, significantly negatively related to violent crime
rates, controlling for about 10 factors that could potentially confound the relationship.
The findings were robust enough to warrant explanation, and Messner hazarded a routine
activities interpretationperhaps people who watch more violent television are less likely
to associate with deviant peers, to socialize with deviant subcultures, and may avoid
trouble by staying at home.
Correlational studies
Overall TV viewing (if interest is in violent viewing per se)
Parenting factors (use of television, aggression, disciplinary practices, education, etc.)
Simultaneous entry of control factors better than one-by-one control method
Prospective longitudinal studies
Hypothesis: Children who are exposed to a greater amount of violent television over time will behave in a more
criminally aggressive manner later in childhood and into adult life.
Attention to:
A sensible time period
Control of early wave criminal aggression (early control should match as closely as possible later measure of
violent aggression)
Sample sizemust be adequate to obtain variance in criminally violent behavior
Measurement of criminal violence at outcome
Control for parental factors such as abuse, neglect, education, etc.
Table 1 (continued)
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 105
Lester (1989) compared 20 countries rated for film violence and found no correlation
between film violence and homicide rates. It should be pointed out that the sample size is very
small, the measure of film violence is not described and no control variables are used.
Lesters finding is suggestive that countries high in film violence do not seem to have
higher homicide ratesbut the effect could have been suppressed by a variety of factors such
as wealth that might be associated with greater film violence and less homicide.
3.2. Longitudinal studies
Four aggregate-level longitudinal studies on this topic have been published to date
(Berkowitz & Macaulay, 1971; Centerwall, 1989; Hennigan et al., 1982; Phillips, 1983). These
studies attempt to test whether television exposure overall or certain types of exposure affect
crime trends.
Berkowitz and Macaulay (1971) tested a contagion effect whereby violent crimes were
expected to increase after the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, and
after the mass murder of eight nurses in Chicago by Richard Speck in July 1966. Graphs of
violent crime trends suggest that unusual increments occurred in overall violent crimes,
aggravated assaults, and robberies following those events. However, the data are not as
convincing as the authors take them to be. First of all, the normal trends for these crimes
vary a great deal from month to month and there was a general increase overall during this
period so that the two unusual peaks are not especially obvious to anyone not looking for
them. Second, the effect was not evident for homicide, and if the effect were really due to
contagion or imitation, we would expect the effect to be more evident for homicide than
for other violent crimes.
Hennigan et al. (1982) conducted a time series analysis of UCR data and concluded that
the introduction of television in the United States was consistently associated with increases
in larceny, but not violent crime, burglary, nor auto theft. Those findings held for both city-
and state-level analyses. The authors compared crime trends for jurisdictions that received
television broadcasts before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) freeze on
broadcasting licenses between late 1949 and mid-1952 to those for jurisdictions that only
received television afterward. It is important to note that Hennigan et al. were looking at the
introduction of television, overall, and their independent variable was not a focused measure
of violence exposure. The illustrations provided in this paper do not provide the visual
analyst a very convincing case, but larceny trends vary at a statistically significant level, in
the hypothesized direction between the two types of jurisdictions. It is important to emphasize
that the finding did not apply to any violent crime and the authors themselves tentatively
attributed the association to the viewing of high levels of material consumption rather than
increased exposure to violent portrayals (supporting a relative deprivation hypothesis
rather than social learning).
Phillips (1983) examined daily homicide rates following heavyweight prizefights and
found convincing evidence of an effect on homicide 3 and 4 days after the events
particularly pronounced after highly publicized fights. The most important criticism of the
analysis is that the 3- to 4-day lag in effect was not predicted a priorione would expect that
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 106
if enough time lags were tested, some would turn out to be significant. Furthermore, the effect
was small. Phillips estimated 11.6 extra homicides in the United States per fight and did not
report significance levels for monthly or annual homicide rates. During this period the
number of U.S. homicides was approximately 20,000 per year, which is approximately 1667
per month, and it is probable that a change of 11 or 12 extra homicides per fight would not be
detectable at the monthly or annual level.
Furthermore, one could plausibly speculate that the extra homicides would have oc-
curred eventually anyway. Perhaps a few violent persons murdered someone due to imitation,
excitement, frustration, or altercations associated with the fight or related gambling losses, but
those persons may have been bound to kill someone at some point soon anyway (it is easy to
imagine that a person who would kill in response to a prizefight might do the same if caught
in a traffic jam on a hot day, fired from a job, or faced with a colicky baby at 3 a.m.). Phillips
argues that this is unlikely because there are no corresponding drops in homicide below the
normal level within the 3-week periods he analyzed. However, there is no reason to believe
that all the extra homicides were destined to occur within that period so it is highly
unlikely that such a drop would be evident. Because significance of extra homicides is not
established for monthly or yearly homicides, it is not possible to conclude there were more
homicides in the long run due to prizefights than there would have been otherwise.
A widely cited study by Centerwall (1989) presented a comparison of homicide trends in
the United States, Canada, and South Africa. Centerwall observed that 1015 years following
the introduction of television, the annual incidence of white homicide deaths in the United
States and overall homicides in Canada increased by over 90%, while no such increase
occurred in South Africa, where the government delayed television broadcasting until 1975.
Like Hennigan et al. (1982), Centerwalls independent variablethe introduction of tele-
visionis not a powerful measure of exposure to media violence. Centerwall takes this
comparison as very strong evidence that television causes violent crime and contends that
television is responsible for approximately 10,000 homicides annually (computing a relative
risk based on the fact that reported homicides doubled in the 1015 years after the
introduction of television and assuming, therefore, that half the nations homicides must be
due to television). Centerwall has republished these observations repeatedly and his articles
have been widely cited and accepted as important evidence for a link between television and
Many strong objections could be raised from this type of analysis. First, it is important to
highlight the fact that Centerwalls (1989) measurement and analysis are not documented in
any systematic way and as such, the study is not replicable and does not meet the scientific
standard normally accepted in the social sciences. Second, the comparison of individual
countries is plagued by a plethora of idiosyncratic, unmeasurable factors that might affect any
one nations crime rates. In this study, no convincing case is made that the United States,
Canada, and South Africa are roughly identical on the myriad social factors associated with
crime that might have changed in the 1950s and 1960s. Centerwall claims that he examined a
wide array of possible confounding factors (including changes in age distribution, urban-
ization, etc.), but he does not present the analysis or the measures used. Most troubling is the
oft-cited estimate that 10,000 homicides a year in the United States are due to television,
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 107
which relies on the tenuous assumption that nothing else changed in the United States and
Canada (but not South Africa) during the 1960s that could have caused homicide to increase.
In the same paper, Centerwall (1989) follows up with the observation that increases in
homicide rates in nine U.S. regions corresponded to the timing of their acquisition of
television. Again, no systematic description of data or analysis is presented; the correlation
between the timing of the acquisition of television and the timing of the regions subsequent
increase in homicide is reported to be .82 ( p=.003). It is unclear why regions are used instead
of cities or states, and the sample size is very small. Without further documentation,
Centerwalls findings are merely suggestive and should not be weighed very heavily.
Unfortunately, these findings have received a great deal of attention, have been published
and cited in prominent publications, and have been interpreted as support for the conclusion
that television violence causes violent crime.
Although it is contended here that Centerwalls report has received an exaggerated amount
of attention, it is the case that the United States did experience marked, astonishing increases
in reported crime, particularly violent crime and homicide, starting in the early 1960s, and
high rates of violent crime became the norm by the mid-1970s. This phenomenon does bear
explanation and Centerwalls suggestion that television may be responsible is an important
hypothesisnot only because Americans would have been exposed to more violence, but
also for a variety of reasons that range from a greater emphasis on material gain (Merton,
1938) to a decline in small-town informal social control. The extent to which television
influenced these crime trends is yet unclear.
4. Individual-level studies
4.1. Experiments, quasi-experiments (group comparisons)
A dozen studies comparing groups in an experimental or quasi-experimental setting have
been reported. Approximately four to five of these suggest that watching violent television or
films is associated with violent or analogous behaviorbut there are some serious
qualifications. Five of the studies found no effect of violence exposure, and four findings
suggest a negative effectchildren who watched the control television programs were more
violent than those who watched the violent programs. The methodological rigor among these
studies is comparatively better than among those that reported the hypothesized effect.
An early study by Steuer, Applefield, and Smith (1971) matched 10 preschool children
based on their usual exposure to television and exposed half of them to daily treatments of
violent programming (mostly cartoons) and half to nonaggressive programming. Separate
graphs for each of five matched pairs suggest that the children were very similar in aggressive
behavior during baseline (aggressive behavior included hitting, kicking, choking, etc.), and
that three of the children in the experimental condition diverged very visibly from their
matched control in aggressive behavior after the introduction of the TV diet. These findings
are some of the more visually convincing, but the very tiny sample size, and matching
procedure (which cannot eliminate many rival hypotheses) prevents statistical inferences.
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 108
Feshbach and Singer (1971) studied boys living in three private schools and four homes for
boys in California and New York. One of the earliest field experiments on this topic, the
findings do not support a relationship between viewing violent television and criminal
aggression. Within each institution, boys were randomly assigned to watch a diet of violent or
nonviolent television over a 6-week period. Overall, there were over twice as many instances
of fistfighting, hitting, and kicking among controls as there were among the treatment
group. When the institutions were analyzed individually, the statistical significance of this
finding held for all four boys homes (where, presumably, the boys were more troubled) but
not the private schools.
Although fears have been raised by reviewers that the boys in the control condition were
angry about being deprived of their favorite shows, the authors contend that they made every
effort to reduce possible sources of frustration, permitting boys to drop out and even
permitting a few boys to watch Batman, which was not on the list of nonviolent programs.
Although one could criticize some aspects of the methodology, the very consistent negative
findings across separate sites argue that a diet of violent television does not increase and may
actually reduce aggression of a type that is analogous to criminality among troubled boys.
This conclusion is tempered by the authors report that some of the boys suspected that the
study was about aggression. The effect as reported suggests that either violent television
reduces aggression or that aggression-inducing effects of television are very easily overcome
by minimal social constraints and influences.
Hapkiewicz and Roden (1971) showed children either a violent cartoon, a nonviolent
cartoon, or no cartoon and then watched pairs of them try to watch a peep show with only
one eye hole. There were no significant differences between groups on aggressive
behaviors (85% of which were pushing) measured during this period, although a table
suggests that aggression scores were much higher for the no-cartoon group (the mean score
of 25.8 in the no-cartoon group was approximately double that in the aggressive and
nonaggressive cartoon groups). In a later study, Hapkiewicz and Stone (1974) used a larger
sample and found some evidence of an effect only when realistic violence was shown.
There was no effect of treatment on aggression for girls. The authors concluded that cartoon
violence may reduce aggression.
Friedrich and Stein (1973) observed the play behavior of preschoolers in a naturalistic
setting. Although they collected a large number of measures of various constructs, of
particular interest here is the comparison of the impact of diets of aggressive television
(Batman and Superman cartoons), prosocial television (Mr. Rogers Neighborhood) and
neutral films on physical aggression (the measure of which, unfortunately, included some
types of nonverbal aggression that are not analogous to criminality). The description of
the neutral and prosocial conditions suggests that there was no effort to make them as
exciting as the aggressive TV showsa problem since the effects of a violent program
could be due to the fact that it is exciting. The authors do not report a full analysis of
the dependent variable of greatest interest here, but the analysis of an overall measure of
aggression (which includes mostly noncriminal behavior) revealed a statistically signifi-
cant interaction suggesting that the aggressive TV condition affected children who were
initially high in aggression and not children who were initially low in aggression. This is
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 109
an early demonstration of an interaction effect that obtains more frequently in the later,
more analytically rigorous studies.
Leyens, Parke, Camino, and Berkowitz (1975) compared four cottages of institutionalized
boys in a private secondary school in Belgium. The boys lived at the school because they
lacked adequate care at home or had problems with the court, their school, or their parents.
Prior to the experimental treatment, boys in two of the cottages had low base rates of
aggression and boys in the other two had high base rates. During a movie week, children in
one of each of the high- and low-aggressive cottages were shown a violent film each night
while an (almost certainly less exciting) neutral film was shown in the other two cottages
(another important difference in the films is that the violent films were almost all American
and the neutral films were almost all French-language films; the authors refer to them as
comedies). Many types of aggression were studied; for present purposes the most
important was physical aggression, defined as physical contact of sufficient intensity to
potentially inflict pain on the victim (hitting, slapping, choking, kicking). Unfortunately, the
observers did not distinguish between play behavior and real physical aggression.
Results suggested that the violent films induced aggression in the high-aggressive cottage.
The rate of physically aggressive behavior increased from .015 to .049 from the baseline to
the movie week. Since the measure of aggression includes play fighting, it is not possible to
ascertain the size of the effect on real aggression. One can certainly imagine one or two
boys wanting to imitate the movies in play, and that the violent movies were more imitable
(e.g., one of the violent movies was Zorro [en garde!]). The effect only occurred in the
measures taken immediately after the movie screenings and did not persist through the
noontime observations made on each of the following days (which supports the concern that
the effect was due to arousal or play fighting).
Huston-Stein, Fox, Greer, Watkins, and Whitaker (1981) assigned 66 preschool boys and
girls to four TV conditions: high actionhigh violence, high actionlow violence, low
actionlow violence, and no TV. This approach is important because by using an exciting
comparison treatment, the researchers can disentangle the effect of watching something
exciting versus something violent per se. Subsequent observations of free play suggested that
while serious preschool aggression decreased from baseline in the no-television and low-
action groups, it stayed approximately the same for the high-action groups. There was no
effect of violent content.
Although preschool-type aggression is not closely analogous to adult criminal behavior,
one would expect it to be easier to induce using violent media stimuli. This was not the case
in the Huston-Stein et al. (1981) study. The findings suggest that the excitatory nature of the
material may be related to aggression (though remember, aggression in the exciting TV group
did not increaseit just did not decrease), but that violent content had no effect on aggressive
behavior. The decline in aggression among the low low and no TV groups suggests that
the baseline measures may not have represented typical behavior.
In a natural experiment, Joy, Kimball, and Zabrack (1986) compared three Canadian towns
(Notel, Unitel, Multitel) with varying exposure to television over the period of time during
which television was introduced into the Notel community. Researchers observed greater
increases in schoolyard aggression in Notel than in the other jurisdictions. Like Centerwalls
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 110
(1989) work discussed earlier, this study has been cited repeatedly as evidence that exposure
to television causes aggression.
There are several methodological limitations that restrict the generalizability of this study.
First, the communities were not randomly assigned or equivalent in the beginning. The
authors state that Notel (no television) was typical and similar to the comparison community
Unitel (one television station) and suggest that census data and resident reports corroborate
this statement (detail is not provided). A convincing case is made that Notel was not an
unusual town; the reason Notel had no television was simply because it was in a valley, a
geographic blind spot, and the transmitter for the area could not reach it. What is puzzling
is that the youngsters in the three towns had similar levels of aggression during baseline. If
television causes aggression, Multitel (multiple television stations) should have had much
higher levels of baseline aggression, followed by Unitel. Clearly, something else was different
about the Notel childrenor, television does not cause aggression.
Also, the dependent measure included a variety of aggressive schoolyard activities, some
of which were analogous to criminality but many of which were not. One has to wonder to
what extent imitative play fighting played a role in Notels increase in aggression. The
findings of this study are suggestive that the introduction of television was associated with
increased obnoxious playground behavior. It would be more instructive if actual crime counts
in the three towns could be compared.
Violent media exposure is just one of numerous predictors used by Kruttschnitt, Heath, and
Ward (1986) to distinguish between violent inmates and a matched sample of nonconvicted
men. There were significant differences between groups on a retrospective measure of
exposure to violent TV. The authors themselves do not put much confidence in the findings
because the size of the coefficient is smaller than those for a variety of other variables.
However, the finding does favor an effect of violent media exposure. The matched design,
however, has many drawbacks, the most important of which is that predispositions for
aggression were not controlled so the alternative hypothesis that aggressive kids like to watch
violent shows has not been eliminated. Heath, Kruttschnitt, and Ward (1986) expanded on
this analysis and found an interaction effectthat high exposure to television during
childhood years was related to the commission of a violent crime during young adulthood if
violence was also present in the home (p. 186).
Josephson (1987) marked a turning point in this line of researchher methods are a
marked improvement over prior studies of this type. Josephson randomly assigned boys to
watch a violent or nonviolent show and further manipulated frustration and violent cues. Her
primary interest was in the action of aggressive cues and frustration but she does report that,
controlling for initial aggression, frustration, and a variety of interactions, the main effect of
TV violence on floor hockey aggression was negative; the boys who watched violence were
less aggressive as a group than those who watched a control program. She tested interaction
effects and found that violent TV content was associated with higher aggressive behavior
among groups with relatively high average scores on initial characteristic aggressiveness. She
further points out that In most cases, the very opposite effects occurred among groups of
boys with low mean levels of characteristic aggressiveness (p. 888). Again, the interaction
between trait aggressiveness and viewing violence appears to be important.
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 111
Sprafkin, Gadow, and Grayson (1987, 1988) used learning-disabled (LD) and emotionally
disturbed (ED) children as subjects. The authors made some effort to use exciting control
cartoons (Lassies Rescue Rangers) and they found no main effect of condition (violent
cartoon vs. control cartoons) on short-term physical aggression in LD kids. Among the
emotionally disturbed children there was significantly more physical aggression during recess
following control cartoons. They also found an interaction such that low-IQ kids behaved
more aggressively after the control cartoon.
An unusual aspect of the design was that all the children saw both violent and nonviolent
cartoons in randomized order from one day to the next so that any effects the researchers
detected would have to be short term. If witnessing violent cartoons has an effect that persists
for days, for example, this type of design would miss it.
In summary, the group comparisons reviewed here provide very little evidence that
viewing violent media is positively associated with spontaneous, physically aggressive
behavior in natural settings. Of the four studies reporting a positive effect, only one did
not have serious doubts cast on the findings by the authors or a critical review. Numerous
studies of greater methodological soundness have found null effects and even negative effects
of viewing violent media on violent behavior.
It is important to point out that this set of studies were short term in nature and do not
provide evidence related to long-term effects of a diet of violent television or film exposure. It
is not necessary for short-term effects to be evident for there to be a long-term effect on
4.2. Correlational research
Erons (1963) early study was the starting point for a long series of longitudinal research
conducted by Eron, Huesmann, and Walder (1972) (discussed in the next section). The
original study, not originally designed to test the effects of television, found a correlation
between peer-rated aggression among third graders and the violence rating of the subjects
three favorite television shows. There was also a significant negative relationship between the
number of hours of television viewed (estimated by the mother but not corroborated by
fathers estimates) and aggression. Only simple correlations were reported and no control
variables were used. This finding was in many ways a springboard for several decades of
research on this association. By todays standards, however, the findings leave us wanting;
like many other early correlational studies temporal order has not been established (it could
be that aggressive children simply like violent programsnot that violent programs caused
their aggression), and because no controls were used, we must wonder if the relationship is
The other purely correlational studies can be condensed and summarized because they
were very similar to one another in design, and their findings are not ambiguous. Unlike the
other types of studies reviewed here, most of the correlational studies find a significant
positive correlation between exposure to or preferences for violent television and measures of
delinquency or physical aggression (Belson, 1978; McIntyre & Teevan, 1972; McLeod,
Atkin, & Chaffee, 1972a, 1972b; Robinson & Bachman, 1972; Thornton & Voigt, 1984).
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 112
Like some studies reported earlier (Friedrich & Stein, 1973; Josephson, 1987), Robinson and
Bachman (1972) found that the relationship between preference for violent television and
aggression was only evident among the group highest in prior aggression.
Some of the correlational results do not support a significant relationship between viewing
violence and violent behavior. A reanalysis of the McIntyre and Teevan (1972) data found
that overall television viewing was associated with violent behavior for girls but not boys
(Hartnagel, Teevan, & McIntyre, 1975). The authors conclude, We are forced, then, to
conclude that the TV violence predictors, both objective and perceived, do not matter
significantly in explaining violent behavior (p. 347). McCarthy, Langner, Gersten, Eisen-
berg, and Orzeck (1975) found that longer viewing hours was associated with higher
scores on fighting and delinquency but not violence of preferred programs.
Of the four types of studies used as categories in the present paper (aggregate, group
comparisons, correlational and prospective longitudinal) the pattern of findings among
correlational studies appears to provide the greatest amount of support for the hypothesis
that exposure to violent television causes criminally aggressive behavior but it is very weak
support. The finding of a correlation between viewing violence or a preference for it and
aggressive behavior is consistent with the hypothesis that exposure to television violence
causes aggression, but it is also consistent with the hypothesis that aggressive children choose
to watch violent programs. Without a proper control for trait aggressiveness in any of these
studies, the causal order cannot be determined. These studies should not be weighed heavily
in an assessment of the evidence even though there are so many of them.
4.3. Prospective longitudinal studies
The prospective longitudinal design is the most relevant to the most prominent explanation
for media effectsthat a diet of violent television and movies over time contributes to the
aggressive socialization of a child who will, over a long period of time, develop aggressive
habits (cf. Huesmann, 1986a; Huesmann & Miller, 1994; Huesmann, Moise, & Podolski,
1997). Several prospective longitudinal studies have been cited widely to support the
hypothesis that viewing violent television causes criminality.
Although prospective longitudinal studies probably are among the highest quality of those
evaluating media violence, most of them use, as their dependent measure, an unsatisfactory
measure of aggression and, therefore, their findings should not be overemphasized. The
measure used is peer-nominated aggression obtained by asking children in a classroom to
nominate which of their classmates behave antisocially (see Table 2). Each subjects score is
based on the number of other children who nominated him or her for the items.
The only items that are relevant for our purposes are Who starts a fight over nothing?
(which could be physical) and Who pushes or shoves other children? Unfortunately, these
items are embedded in a scale dominated by far less relevant items (see Table 2). Of most
concern is that the measure is unlikely to identify the most violent children, because there are
no items that reflect severe, but infrequent, violence. It may also miss children who are highly
aggressive at home, with siblings, for example, but who are not aggressive at school. The
child who bullies his little sister may appear to be low in aggressiveness while a little girl who
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 113
is verbally aggressive may score high on this measure. In spite of this problem, as a group, the
set of longitudinal studies are the most methodologically rigorous and have some potential for
elucidating this phenomenon, therefore we include the three main sets of longitudinal studies
and a more recently reported study here.
4.4. The Eron/Lefkowitz/Huesmann et al. studies
The first set of studies was conducted by Eron and his colleagues starting with third-grade
subjects and was initially reported in 1963 (this study was discussed earlier among the
correlational findings (Eron, 1963)). Those subjects were followed up at age 13 (reported in
Lefkowitz, Eron, Walder, & Huesmann, 1972), age 19 (Lefkowitz, Eron, Walder, &
Huesmann, 1977) and finally, when they were 30 years old (Huesmann, 1986a).
Controlling for initial levels of aggression (an important milestone in the present line of
research), Lefkowitz et al. (1972) reported a partial correlation of .25 (significance not
reported) between age 8 preference for violent programs and age 13 peer-nominated
aggression. This approach, used in other studies as well, predicts change in aggression over
a period of time using information related to violent television exposure. The authors went on
to report a multivariate regression, but the procedure was run stepwise and thus is of little
use since television violence preference at age 8 was entered into the model first, not
effectively controlling for the other factors. Although the study does not contradict the
authors hypothesis, its support is weak since alternative hypotheses were not effectively
Lefkowitz et al. (1977) followed up the same subjects at age 19. The peer-nominated
aggression measure is used again and is even less satisfying because the subjects were no
longer in school together and may have been basing their responses on impressions from
years past. Furthermore, the peer-nominated aggression items seem less relevant to a young
adult sample than they were for a child sample (e.g., Who does not obey the teacher?
Who makes up stories and lies to get other children into trouble?). The authors found a
significant relationship between preference for violent television at age 8 and aggression at
age 19, controlling for a variety of factors one by one. Most important among these factors
Table 2
Items from a peer-nominated aggression measure
1. Who does not obey the teacher?
2. Who often says, Give me that?
3. Who gives dirty looks or sticks out their tongue at other children?
4. Who makes up stories and lies to get other children into trouble?
5. Who does things that bother others?
6. Who starts a fight over nothing?
7. Who pushes or shoves other children?
8. Who is always getting into trouble?
9. Who says mean things?
10. Who takes other childrens things without asking?
From Huesmann and Eron (1986, p. 32).
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 114
was peer-rated aggression at age 8. This study was among the earliest to attempt to isolate the
effects of television violence on change in aggression and to establish the temporal order of
the effect. The authors also controlled for other measures from age 8 (one by one): fathers
occupation, fathers aggressiveness, childs IQ, mothers aggressiveness, parental punishment
of child, parents mobility orientation, hours of TV watched, and a series of factors measured
contemporaneously (age 19) including fathers occupation, subjects aspirations, and hours of
watching television.
The estimated correlation between early preference for violent television and later ag-
gression is .31 and is almost certainly larger than it would be if all the control variables were
entered simultaneously. For present purposes, the finding is highly suggestive, but the
outcome is not as close to criminal conduct as one would like. Based on such a finding, it
would still be speculative to say that television violence would have a significant net effect on
criminal aggression. This is the most important finding reported to date but not terribly
satisfyingnevertheless, reviewers have interpreted it as convincing evidence that exposure
to television violence causes violent crime.
Huesmann (1986a) briefly reports a 22-year follow-up of this study
in a theoretical article
that presents a model of media effects on behavior. Figures are presented briefly at the end of
the article and they appear to demonstrate correlations between early preferences for
television violence, frequency of TV viewing, and the number and seriousness of convictions
at age 30. This would qualify as a very important finding, but the details of measurement and
analysis are not described and no freestanding empirical article reporting this finding has been
published to date.
Nevertheless, the finding has been emphasized dramatically by reviewers.
In summary, there are several problems with overstating the correlations discovered by the
Eron/Lefkowitz/Huesmann group in this line of researchfirst, the initial measure of
exposure to violent television is limited to preferences for violent showsnot exposure to
violent television. The most important finding is that early preferences for violent television
are associated with peer-rated aggression at age 19, controlling for initial levels of aggression.
Unfortunately, the measure of aggression includes mainly obnoxious, irritating behaviors and
few unlawful ones so generalization to criminal violence is tenuous. The most anticipated
finding was one where early-wave aggression was related to seriousness of conviction record
at age 30, controlling for earlier peer-nominated aggression. The casual reporting of the
finding invites skepticism. Even if accepted as stated, there are some alternative explanations
that prevent a great deal of confidence in that finding. In particular, it is quite likely that using
peer-nominated aggression in third grade as a control is not appropriate when predicting later
Although studies by Huesmann, Eron, Lefkowitz, and Walder (1984) and Huesmann, Lagerspetz, and Eron
(1984) have both been cited as the 22-year follow-up of this study, said to report a relationship between
preferences for violent TV at age 8 and seriousness of criminal convictions at age 30, neither study presents any
such comparison (various published misattributions exist, suggesting that reviewers are citing material they did not
It has been reported in the popular press (Rhodes, 2000) that the correlation between age-8 TV violence
viewing and adult violent crime was due to three subjects who were the only subjects to have committed violent
crimes; all three had scored high on age-8 TV violence viewing.
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 115
criminality instead of later peer-nominated aggression. It is likely that such a measure
misses children with serious antisocial tendencies who would not have been identified by
the early measure. Still, this finding is of keen interest if replicated with a larger sample and
valid measures of violent behavior would provide part of the basis for a convincing argument
that TV violence is an important cause of violent crime.
4.5. The Milavsky et al. study
Though reviews of the literature repeatedly allude to the authors as researchers for a major
television network presumably to discredit their work, Milavsky et al. also report a rigorous
test of the impact of television violence on aggressive behavior (Milavsky, Kessler, Stipp, &
Rubens, 1982a, refers to their portion of the NIMH report; Milavsky, Stipp, Kessler, &
Rubens, 1982b, refers to their book).
Elementary school boys and girls and teenaged boys were used to test the hypothesis that
television violence viewing measured earlier in the study would predict aggression and
delinquency measured later in the study, controlling for prior aggression and other factors.
The authors present multivariate models controlling for SES and other variables including
stability of aggression (Wave 1 aggression) that do not indicate a significant relationship
between early, violent TV viewing and later aggression for boys. They report a small but
significant effect for girls. The authors explored the data in great detail for curvilinearity, for
effects among subgroups (such as those based on income, occupation, city, family size,
fatherhood involvement, strictness, etc.) and found no evidence, above what we might expect
by chance in such a large number of analyses, for a relationship. The outcome measure was a
modified version of the peer-nominated aggression measure Huesmann and his colleagues
had previously usedMilavsky et al. used factor analysis to create the final index, which
included four items (Who tries to hurt others by saying mean things to them? Who makes up
stories or lies to get someone else into trouble? Who tries to hurt others by pushing or
shoving? Who hits or punches other people to hurt them?); this index is somewhat more
satisfactory than those used by the Eron/Lefkowitz/Huesmann group (Lefkowitz et al., 1977)
because violent behaviors such as pushing, shoving, and punching are weighted more heavily.
One important difference between the Milavsky et al. study and the other longitudinal
studies is that the authors chose to control for early-wave violent TV exposure as well. By
partialling out variability in initial TV habits, the authors are essentially testing whether the
exposure specific to the study period affects the outcome variables. This is a much more
conservative test of the hypothesis than is reported in other studies and would make it more
difficult to detect an effectin particular if the appropriate age group is not used.
In a more relevant set of analyses (because the outcome is criminal in nature), Milavsky et
al. (1982b) examined onset of delinquency for the teenage sample who were asked during
each wave of data collection if they had committed any of a series of delinquent acts (badly
beaten someone up, gotten arrested, been in a gang fight, stolen a car, knifed someone).
Because of an unfortunate anomaly with the incidence rates, the authors chose to see if they
could predict onset of delinquency using TV violence exposure rather than using another
measure of delinquency. Although a global significance test of a large number of comparisons
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 116
suggested that exposure to television violence was not related to onset of delinquency, a
visual inspection of the pattern of findings reported certainly appears to provide some
evidence for a positive effect of exposure to violent television on onset of delinquency. The
probabilities of onset of delinquency increased from .09 for teenagers in the 5th percentile of
TV violence exposure to .18 for those in the 95th percentile. There were other similar patterns
also reported, but Milavsky et al. choose to rely on significance tests and conclude that their
data do not support an effect.
A problem with the design in this particular comparison, though, may have resulted in an
exaggeration of the effectMilavsky et al. did not control for trait aggressiveness or some
other indicator of initial variability in the propensity for delinquency in this comparison. They
argue that a control was not necessary because the boys chosen for the onset analysis had
not committed a delinquent act as of the first wave and therefore did not vary. It could
easily be argued, however, the subjects did vary in their propensity to become delinquent or in
trait aggressiveness and the authors should have at least used the peer-nominated aggression
measure from the early wave as a control for personality differences (though this is not
completely satisfactory as argued earlier, it was the best measure they had for the purpose).
Based on the other findings where such a control nullified some significant simple
correlations, one would expect it to reduce the visually evident (but not statistically
significant) effect here too.
4.6. The Huesmann, Eron, et al. cross-national studies
Because of some dissatisfaction with the earlier series of studies, Huesmann and col-
leagues organized a replication of the Eron/Lefkowitz/Huesmann study, designed especially
to test whether or not exposure to violent television had independent effects on later
aggression. A well-designed, very ambitious project, Huesmann and Eron ran the study in
the United States while it was being replicated simultaneously in four other countries:
Australia (Sheehan, 1986), Finland (Lagerspetz & Viemero, 1986), Israel (Bachrach, 1986),
and Poland (Fraczek, 1986). The studies are all reported in one volume.
Like Milavsky et al. (1982a, 1982b), Huesmann and Eron, 1986 used a multiple-wave
design. In each country two cohorts of childrenone in first grade and one in third grade
were followed up for 3 years. The findings of most interest for Americans are those reported
by Huesmann and Eron (1986) based on the sample of children in the United States. They
found the expected positive simple correlations between television violence viewing and
aggression for boys and girls in almost all comparisons. More importantly, though,
controlling for initial aggression, TV violence viewing in the first and second waves had a
significant positive correlation with third-wave aggression for girls but not boys. This is the
effect of primary importance and it did not hold for boys. One could take this as strong
evidence, given the high quality of the study, that exposure to TV violence is not an important
predictor of aggression for boys, who are of most interest because they are disproportionately
involved in violence.
The authors followed up by creating a second version of the independent variablea
multiplicative composite of TV violence viewing and a measure of identification with
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 117
aggressive characters (which had demonstrated a very high correlation with aggression).
They found that the composite was significantly, positively related to Wave 3 aggression,
controlling for Wave 1 aggression for boys. It is unclear why this is a surprise, because
Huesmann has elsewhere convincingly reported that aggression is a stable trait and
identification with aggressive characters is correlated with it. It is also unclear why the
composite measure is seen as a valid substitute for the purer TV violence exposure variable.
The modified independent variable is a mixture of exposure to violent television and a
personality-related measure and, thus, we cannot know the extent to which aggression in the
later wave is due to TVor personality (in fact, we must suspect it is due to personality since
the correlation for identification was high and the partial correlation for TV violence was
null). The follow-up finding has been widely cited as evidence for the effect of violent
television on aggressive behavior, in spite of the fact that the original analysis suggested that
violent television did not cause aggression in the preadolescent boys in the sample.
Furthermore, in data from the four other countries where the study was conducted, in no
case was the model of most interest based on the studys original design (Wave 3 peer-
nominated aggression = Wave 1 aggression + Wave 1 and 2 TV violence viewing + covariates)
reported as statistically significant. In fact, most of the authors did not report this model at all.
Huesmann and Erons (1986) finding of a significant association between TV violence
exposure and later aggression for girls was unique among all the findings reported. Yet the
international findings have also been taken to support the hypothesis that viewing violence
causes aggression because of findings reported using modified variables. In Finland,
Lagerspetz and Viemero (1986) used the product of television violence viewing and
identification with aggressive characters as their independent variable and found a significant
relationship between this composite variable and Wave 3 aggression. Fraczek (1986),
reporting the Polish study, uses violence of preferred shows in Waves 1 and 2 as the
independent variable and finds that this is not significantly related to third-wave aggression
(though the authors and subsequent reviewers characterize the finding as marginally
significant, P<.10).
The Israeli study is reported by Bachrach (1986), who uses the proper independent
variabletelevision violence viewing in Waves 1 and 2, but instead of using Wave 3
aggression as the dependent variable, he reports findings for the ratio of aggression to
avoidance of aggression for reasons unexplained. Controlling for cohort, initial aggression,
initial peer aggression avoidance, the multiple regression reveals a positive and statistically
significant relationship between early television violence viewing and this ratio. Finally,
Sheehan (1986) does compute the model anticipated by the studys design and reports that
television violence exposure did not have significant effects on aggression among the
Australian children. This is the only study that limits itself to reporting the expected multiple
regression model for both sexes using the pure peer-nominated aggression and TV violence
viewing variables. It is also the only study that reports completely null effects.
Huesmanns (1986b) own summary assessment of the evidence from these studies suggests
there is a consistent, convincing pattern that supports the TV violence viewingaggression
relationship. A more critical evaluation would conclude that there is very little evidence from
this set of studies that exposure to television violence causes aggressive behavior. There was
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 118
no relationship between early-wave TV violence viewing (measured in its most appropriate
form) and later wave peer-nominated aggression for any subject grouping except the
American girls.
4.7. Johnson et al. (2002)
Avery recently released study by Johnson, Cohen, Smailes, Kasen, and Brook (2002) was
published in Science and reported on the front page of the Washington Post. This study
collected self-report and maternal report data beginning in 1975 in a study of children in the
community. The independent variable was hours of television viewing per day, divided into
three groupings ( < 1 h, 13 h, > 3 h). This is a measure of overall television viewing, not
violence viewing per se, so the findings should be interpreted accordingly. The authors found
that net of controls, there was a higher prevalence of assaults, robberies, and aggressive acts
more generally among individuals who watched more than 1 hour of television in
adolescence (average age 14) 2 to 8 years later when they were young adults (measurements
were made when their average age was 16 and again at 22) than among individuals who
watched less than 1 hour of television. Though not statistically significant, it was clear that
prevalence rates were also higher among those watching more than 3 h than 13 h.
Furthermore, the prevalence of violent behaviors at average age 30 (ages ranged from
approximately 25 to 35) among those viewing more than 3 h per day as a young adult
(average age 22) were higher than among those who watched less than 3 h of television a day.
Some, not all, of the findings held when the authors controlled for previous and subsequent
television viewing.
The analysis is difficult to evaluate thoroughly because the article is short and does not
contain a great deal of detail. Furthermore, it was difficult to find the detail in other works
cited. First, the subject ages seem somewhat inappropriate for testing the theory that has
received the most attention in recent yearsthat a diet of television violence leads to
violent behavior in children. Many studies suggest that aggressive tendencies are estab-
lished rather early in life and the earliest measures in this study were taken when subjects
were an average age of 14 years old (ages ranged from about 9 to 19). Even Huesmann
would probably argue that this is too late to test his theory. The controls used in the first
analysis are listed as childhood neglect, growing up in an unsafe neighborhood, low family
income, low parental education, and psychiatric disorder. It is likely that these are dummy
coded and, thus, lose some of their power. For example, the measure of childhood neglect
is based on information from a central registry and retrospective self-reports and may not
be adequate for controlling for the subtleties of parental monitoring and supervision.
Another concern is that parental harshness or abuse is not controlled. The addition of a
control for neglect is a welcome one, but it is not clear that this measure has adequate
validity for the purpose.
Huesmann et al. are preparing a report of the longitudinal follow-up of these children. The published report is
currently limited to abstracts from a symposium on The effects of childhood aggression and exposure to media
violence on adult behaviors, attitudes, and mood (Huesmann, Moise, Podolski, & Eron, 1999).
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 119
Previous research has been very consistent in suggesting that aggressive children prefer
violent television so it is very important in any study of this type to control for early
tendencies for violent aggression if the outcome to be examined later is violence. The only
control used here is psychiatric disorder based on the Diagnostic Interview Schedule for
Children (DISC-I). Although the authors do not explain the measure in full, it appears that a
dummy code was used for presence or absence of psychiatric symptoms (including aggressive
symptoms). This very broad measure is really not adequate for controlling for early violent
The second set of comparisons that were reported examining the effects of television
viewing in young adulthood (average age 22) are a little more ambiguous. The authors report
that control factors were used but do not specify which ones. The control factors used in the
prior analysis seem inappropriate (it does not make sense to control for neglect among
subjects aged 1727), and because violent behaviors were measured in young adulthood, this
measure should have been used as a control. There are additional problems with this
comparisonat this age, of course, watching a great deal of television could be associated
with unemployment, depression, intelligence, whether the subject has children or not,
whether the subject is a high school dropout or not, marital problems, and a variety of
factors that could be related to violence and are unmeasured and uncontrolled here.
Although the Johnson et al. (2002) findings suggest increased violence among persons
who watch more television, and add to the literature by suggesting this correlation lasts into
adulthood, they do not add significant evidence in favor of the thesis that viewing violent
television causes violent behavior.
In summary, although findings from the prospective longitudinal studies have been taken
as strong evidence that viewing violence causes violent aggression, a careful reading suggests
that evidence for an effect on criminal behavior is practically nonexistent and the evidence for
an effect on aggression is very weak at best. If peer-nominated aggression is proximate for
violent behavior, as is presumed by many, the evidence suggests, instead, that viewing violent
television does not affect it significantly.
5. Summary and conclusions
Table 3 displays a tightly summarized version of what has been discussed throughout this
paper. Although there are numerous positive effects evident in the table, they are concentrated
among studies of least methodological relevance for studying the effect of television violence
on criminally violent behavior (see Table 3). These include the correlational studies (which,
for the most part, do not establish temporal order and have inadequate controls for spurious
factors) and the prospective longitudinal studies that have, for the most part, relied on peer-
nominated aggression as the outcome and that have not reported consistent significant effects
based on the statistical model implied by the original design of those studies.
Although a tally of the findings summarized in Table 3 is not a perfect way to compare
effects, it is a quick way to get a sense of the findings reported. If we limit ourselves to studies
of highest and medium relevance for testing this hypothesis, we find 23 markings.
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 120
Table 3
Summary of study findings by methodological relevance for testing hypothesis that exposure to television
violence causes criminally violent behavior
Relevance Study authors Most important methodological problems Overall
Aggregate-level studies
Highest Messner (1986)
Medium Phillips (1983) Time lags not prespecified; significance tests
not reported
Hennigan et al., 1982 Few controls; measure of exposure is
introduction of television
Lowest Lester (1989) No controls o
Berkowitz and Macaulay
Inadequate controls; time lags not
prespecified; independent variable actual
violent events that were reported in news
Centerwall (1989) Inadequate reporting; three-country
(see extensive discussion in text)
Experiments and quasi-experiments
Highest Hapkiewicz and Roden (1971) o
Hapkiewicz and Stone (1974) + Realistic
Josephson (1987) P
Sprafkin et al. (1987) o
Sprafkin et al. (1988)
Medium Feshbach and Singer (1971) Control group may have been angered and
may have suspected intent of research

Friedrich and Stein (1973) Control condition not equally exciting P

Leyens et al. (1975) Control condition not equally exciting;
play fighting may have been included;
subjects not randomly assigned
Kruttschnitt et al. (1986) Matched design (potential for spuriousness) +
Huston-Stein et al. (1981) Baseline probably not representative of
typical behavior
Lowest Steuer et al. (1971) Very small sample (n =10); no significance
tests reported
Joy et al. (1986) Television exposure, not violence exposure
measure used; three-community
comparison; see further critique in text
Correlational studies (some report multivariate)
Medium Hartnagel et al. (1975) Temporal order not established; no control o Boys
(later analysis of McIntyre and
Teevan, 1972)
for trait aggressiveness + Girls
McLeod et al. (1972a) Temporal order not established; no control
for trait aggressiveness
(continued on next page)
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 121
Relevance Study authors Most important methodological problems Overall
Correlational studies (some report multivariate)
Lowest Eron (1963) Temporal order not established; no controls;
peer-nominated aggression used
Bassett, Cowden, and Cohen
Retrospective measure; no controls;
inadequate reporting
Robinson and Bachman
Temporal order not established; no controls P
McCarthy et al. (1975) Temporal order not established; no controls;
preference for violence as measure
Belson (1978) Temporal order not established; trait
aggressiveness not adequately controlled;
Singer and Singer (1981) Action detective shows used; limited
controls; no control for trait aggressiveness
Thornton and Voigt (1984) Temporal order not established;
no control for trait aggressiveness;
preference for violence used
Prospective longitudinal
Medium Milavsky et al. (1982a, 1982b) Peer-nominated aggression used; o Boys
onset of aggression used without control
for prior aggressiveness
+ Girls
Huesmann and Eron (1986) Peer-nominated aggression used o Boys
+ Girls
Sheehan (1986) Peer-nominated aggression used o
Lowest Lefkowitz et al. (1972),
Eron et al. (1972)
Preference for violence used;
peer-nominated aggression measure used
Lefkowitz et al. (1977) Preference for violence used;
peer-nominated aggression measure used
Huesmann (1986a) Inadequate reporting; inadequate control
for early criminally violent behavior
Bachrach (1986) Peer-nominated aggression used; ratio of
aggression to avoidance of aggression used
Fraczek (1986) Peer-nominated aggression used;
violence of preferred shows used
Lagerspetz and Viemero
Peer-nominated aggression used; weighted
measure TV violence viewing; identification
with aggressive characters used
Johnson et al. (2002) Hours of TV viewing used; inadequate
control for violence proneness
o Overall null effect.
+ Overall positive effect of exposure to TV violence indicator on aggressive behavior measure.
Overall negative effect of exposure to TV violence measure on aggressive behavior measure.
P Interaction effectexposure associated with increased aggression for subjects high in trait aggressiveness.
Based on statistical test that best tests the research question of interest here. These are intended to summarize
findings for study and do not necessarily reflect the conclusions drawn by the researchers themselves.
Table 3 (continued)
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 122
Of these, seven summary findings report a positive effect but three of those are for girls only.
Four summary findings report a negative effect (more media violence, less violent behavior).
Nine findings are null and three reflect an interaction such that viewing violence had a
positive effect on those already high in trait aggression. On the balance, for boys, there
appears to be no more evidence for a positive effect than there is for a negative effect of
media violence on violent behavior. Although it could be the case that most of the studies
missed the effect due to methodological limitations, it is not appropriate nor is it common
practice to conclude that the effect must have been missed in those studies. What is common
practice is to evaluate the methodology of studies that report significant findings, see if there
are rival hypotheses, and temper our conclusions to the extent that there are. Of the high
and medium relevance studies reporting positive findings we find a time lag that was not
prespecified, a matched design with potential for spuriousness, and a lack of control for prior
aggressivenessall very significant problems that without further study mitigate against our
confidence in these findings. Of course this conclusion would be different if we accept the
interpretations of the prospective cross-national studies provided by their authors, which have
not been accepted at face value in this review.
Schramm, Lyle, and Parker (1961), in the very first lines of one of the first full-length
studies of television and North American children, wrote that No informed person can say
simply that television is bad or that it is good for children. For some children, under some
conditions, some television is harmful. For other children, under the same conditions, or for
the same children under other conditions, it may be beneficial. For most children, under most
conditions, most television is probably neither particularly harmful nor particularly benefi-
cial (p. 1). This early conclusion probably holds today.
Unfortunately for the serious scholar, most published reviews and discussions of this topic
frequently cite conclusions of authors without addressing the inadequacies of the research that
produced them. At present, it is safe to say that the research has established several
correlations. Children with aggressive tendencies tend to prefer violent programming more
than children without them. Some studies find a correlation between exposure to violent
programming and aggressive behavior. However, that correlation may be due to a variety of
spurious factors that have not been adequately eliminated. In the laboratory, subjects who
view violent material often behave more aggressively, on average, than those who did not
but mild aggression is typically measured as an outcome, and demand characteristics
probably exaggerate this effect beyond applicability to criminal behavior.
However, saying there is a lack of evidence supporting a hypothesis does not mean there is
convincing evidence that the null hypothesis is true and correct. As an early reviewer of this
paper pointed out, it is important to acknowledge the methodological challenge of measuring
the long-range impact of exposure to violent television. Criminality is rare and it would take
very large samples of the general population to obtain enough variance to reliably predict it.
Effects are probably interactive or indirect (e.g., exposure could change attitudes or beliefs,
making one more prone to violence at a later date), and these effects are hard to measure.
Exposure could change the way one raises ones own children, could influence the choice of
whether or not to buy a gun, or keep it in the house. If the effect operates in these complex
ways, it is not surprising that it is not obvious in the current body of literature. Furthermore,
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 123
considering that most of the research discussed here used violent portrayals that are not nearly
as violent as the material available today, and the research paradigms do not test a steady diet of
these programs (more likely since the advent of video recorders and cable television), the effect
sizes may be weaker than what we might get today if we conducted the same studies again.
Huesmann, in numerous papers has proposed a very compelling theory about why and
how TV violence may influence aggressive behavior (e.g., Huesmann, 1986a; Huesmann &
Miller, 1994; Huesmann et al., 1997). Given the logic of his and other social learning
theories, it would be hard to deny that television could have an effect on behavior. Any parent
has witnessed the obvious and direct effects of The Power Rangers or The Three
Stooges on the play behavior of his or her children. But the question addressed here is not
whether or not the effect is plausible, but whether the effect has been demonstrated
convincingly in the scientific literatureand the answer is not so far. Furthermore, it is
also quite plausible that the role that a childs biological status, parents, neighborhood,
schools, and salient features of the childs environment overwhelm any effects that viewing
television is likely to have on all but a few very neglected children. As Jenkins (1999) put it,
Real life trumps TV every time. And if the effect is limited to a few trait-aggressive or
neglected individuals (and evidence of an interaction of this type is mounting) it may not be
appropriate to focus policy on television violence, but on the causes of early childhood
aggression and parental neglect.
Future studies of this matter could, first, make use of old data and reanalyze some of the
early experimental studies on aggression to see if there are interaction effects. There is
emerging evidence that the effect may exist for highly aggressive children and this bears
further exploration. Second, a well-designed longitudinal study, using a criminal outcome and
adequate controls would be of keen interest. An important component would be a good
baseline measure of violent behavior (not simply aggressive tendencies) as a control. Such a
study would require clever sampling to ensure variance in the outcome (criminal violence),
for example, oversampling of high-risk children. If Huesmann (1986a) were correct about the
dynamics of this process, starting with a younger sample would also be very useful, because
trait aggression is evident in young children. It is of paramount importance to distinguish
between violent and property offending because this has important implications for the
theories being tested and, of course, it is essential that the measure of exposure be very
specific (e.g., an estimate of television viewing weighted by violence rating of preferred
programs as has become the norm). Control factors should include those used by previous
researchers with an emphasis on validity of the control for early violence and parental abuse,
neglect, education, and supervision.
At the aggregate level, which is interesting because of its implications for policy, studies
replicating that of Messner (1986) would be useful. This type of study requires a good
measure of violent conduct, a good measure of violence viewing, and controls for factors
related to both, such as population demographics, unemployment, poverty, inequality, routine
activities, education, and the like. Admittedly, because the role of individual-level factors in
the etiology of crime rates are probably limited due to many characteristics of a social
environment that affect crime rates at aggregate levels, the prospects for discovering media
violence effects on aggregate crime are not strong.
J. Savage / Aggression and Violent Behavior 10 (2004) 99128 124
Because legislators and other policymakers make frequent calls to reduce media violence,
this line of research, spanning over 40 years now, is still relevant and topical and bears further
scrutiny. At this point it must be said, however, that there is little evidence in favor of
focusing on media violence as a means of remedying our violent crime problem.
This paper was originally inspired by an invitation to present a talk to the Free Expression
Network at the Freedom Forum in Rosslyn, Virginia, about the criminologists perspective on
the causes of violence. I wish to thank Chris Finan and Amy Isbell of the Freedom of
Expression Network and Paul McMasters of the Freedom Forum for their invitations and L.
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