The Contribution of Family Communication Patterns to Children's Interpretations of Television Violence

Article excerpt

Three decades of research have lead to the conclusion that watching television violence is related to increases in aggression among viewers (Hamilton, in press). However, a growing body of research emphasizes that it is the type of violence and not simply the presence or absence of a violent portrayal that matters in terms of viewer tendencies to respond aggressively after watching media violence. For example, violence committed by attractive perpetrators is more likely to be imitated than violence committed by unattractive perpetrators (Bandura, 1994). Similarly, a recent meta-analysis of 217 studies showed that audiences are more likely to imitate programs that contain justified violence than those that contain unjustified violence, and they are more likely to think aggression is the norm (Paik & Comstock, 1994). It is clear that not all violent portrayals have the same effect on viewers. The type of violent portrayal influences an individual's likelihood to act aggressively after being exposed to the violence (Huesmann, 1986) and, as important, television violence influences an individual's likelihood to believe that aggression is the norm (Huesmann, Guerra, Miller, & Zelli, 1992, 1994).

But the arguments forwarded in this type of research tend to focus on program features. It is the program feature that is manipulated in the experiment; manipulation checks are performed to test if the manipulation "worked." When the manipulation does not work, it is often presumed that viewers were not attending or that they had some unusual or idiosyncratic interpretation. It is possible that interpretations of media violence are systematic and influenced by individual difference variables. While the effect of demographic variables such as gender and age on individual interpretations have been examined to some extent, more environmentally driven variables, such as family communication norms, have been examined to a lesser degree. It is the primary goal of this study to examine an individual difference factor--specifically, children's family communication patterns, on their interpretation of a violent act on television.

A second goal of this study is to determine whether children's interpretations of a violent depiction as justified or unjustified affect their likelihood to provide an aggressive solution to a hypothetical interpersonal dilemma. While evidence exists that exposure to justified violence increases the likelihood that viewers will act aggressively (Paik & Comstock, 1994), more research is needed that looks at the effects of `justified' violence on normative beliefs about aggression. In this study, choice of story ending was used to see if children would select an aggressive solution to a hypothetical interpersonal dilemma. In doing so, it was possible to test whether justified violence, and not just violence in general, can cause children to perceive violence as normative.

In sum, this research seeks to fill several gaps in the existing literature. First, because the justification for violence is seen as an important mitigating factor in viewers' tendency to act aggressively, it is important to see how perceptions of justification vary with individual differences in gender and family communication. Second, because television violence can cause viewers to perceive violence as normative, it is important to test if justified violence affects beliefs about aggression in the same way it affects tendency to behave aggressively.

Interpretations of Television Violence and the Role of Gender

There is little doubt that among children, boys are more likely to be affected by violent television than are girls: They imitate it more and may lower their inhibitions against aggression more as a result of watching violent television (Huesmann, et al., 1984). But besides the extensive work on the effects of media violence, there is some evidence that gender plays a central role in children's attention to and interpretation of violent television. …