University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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Research: Violence in Children's TV

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Barbara J. Wilson

Barbara J. Wilson , Ph. D.

Barbara J. Wilson (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison) is the Vice Provost of Academic Affairs and the Kathryn Lee Baynes Dallenbach Professor of the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Before joining the University of Illinois in 2000, she was on the faculty at the University of California, Santa Barbara for 12 years. Her areas of expertise include the social and psychological effects of the media, particularly on youth.  She is co-author of Children, Adolescents, and the Media (Sage Publications, 2002; second edition, 2009) and three book volumes of the National Television Violence Study (Sage Publications, 1997-1998).  She also co-edited the Handbook of Children, Media, and Development (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), and has published dozens of scholarly articles and chapters on media effects and their implications for media policy.  Recent projects focus on preschoolers’ attachment to media characters, the amount and quality of educational television programming for children, and children’s attraction to media violence.  Professor Wilson currently serves on the editorial boards of four academic journals.  In 2008, she was elected as Fellow of the International Communication Association.  She has served as a research consultant for Nickelodeon, the National Association of Television Program Executives, Discovery Channel Pictures, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Children’s programming traditionally has been more likely to feature violence than almost any other program genre. Children’s programming features almost three times the number of violent exchanges per hour and more than twice the number of violent scenes per hour compared to non-children’s programming.

Both child and adult viewers are influenced by contextual factors in the plot (attractive perpetrator, attractive target, justified violence, unjustified violence, presence of weapons, extensive/graphic violence, realistic violence, rewards, punishments, pain/harm cues, humor). However, special concerns emerge when considering the impact of violence on the very young. As children develop, they bring different cognitive skills and social knowledge to the television viewing experience. One developmental skill that is particularly important is children’s ability to differentiate fantasy from reality.

Children’s perceptions about the realism of television change dramatically with development (e.g., Morison & Gardner, 1978; Taylor & Howell, 1973). Generally, younger children judge characters or actions as “real” if they look or sound real, reflecting their belief that television is a “magic window” into real life (Hawkins, 1977). Thus, a fantastic portrayal of violence might be perceived as very real by younger children, whereas it would be discounted as unrealistic by older children and adults. In other words, we cannot dismiss cartoon or fantasy violence as unrealistic when considering younger audiences.

In a large-scale study of over 2700 television programs (children’s and non-children’s), the vast majority of children’s shows that were violent involved settings, events and characters that could never happen  in real life (87%; Wilson, Smith, Potter, Kunkel, Linz, & Colvin, 2002). In other words, most of the content could be described as fantasy. 

Violence According to Genres

The findings from a study of 2757 television programs suggest that there are different types of subgenres of children’s programming and that violence varies greatly across these categories (Wilson, Smith, Potter, Kunkel, Linz, & Colvin, 2002). The following is information about the genres and the incidents of violence within these genres.

  1. Slapstick programs have anthropomorphized characters who engage in farcical physical acts that defy the laws of physics. On average, this type of programming contained almost 30 different acts of violence per hour.
  2. Superhero programs feature characters who possess science fiction-like physical powers.  This type of programming contained almost 30 different acts of violence per hour.
  3. Mystery/Adventure programs  feature characters who seek to unravel a puzzling situation that involves potentially threatening or scary situations and often include surprises or plot twists. This type of programming contained 14 different acts of violence per hour.
  4. Social Relationship programs feature stories that emphasize how characters get along with one another or with their group in resolving problems they face. This type of programming contained 3 acts of violence per hour.
  5. Magazine programs  involve short segments that contain a variety of themes, skits, stories, or demonstrations, ranging from the performance of a song to the presentation of a scientific experiment.  This type of programming contained less than 1 act of violence per hour.

Web Resources

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Hawkins, R.P. (1977). The dimensional structure of children’s perceptions of television reality.  Communication Research, 7, 193-226.

Morison, P., & Gardner, H. (1978). Dragons and dinosaurs: The child’s capacity to differentiate fantasy from reality.  Child Development, 49, 642-648.

Taylor, B.J., & Howell, R.J. (1973). The ability of three-, four-, and five-year-old children to distinguish fantasy from reality.  Journal of Genetic Psychology, 122, 315-318.