It’s no surprise that the media dominates the waking hours of most children and adolescents. The use of cellphones, video games, television and the internet have increased dramatically over the past decade with the average adolescent spending up to 8 hours per day accessing various forms of media (1), leading to the moniker ‘generation M’.

8-11 year olds are spending up to 4 hours per day watching television(2) and up to 2 hours per day playing video games. Worryingly enough, over 90% of video games rated as appropriate for children 10 years and older contain some form of violence. (3) Well-intentioned parents therefore often unknowingly allow childhood exposure to media violence.

It is well established that this exposure leads to both short-term and long-term increases in aggressive behaviours amongst the youth, with many theorized underlying psychological mechanisms.

In the short-term, the priming of pre-existing aggressive cognitions, combined with changes in emotional arousal heightened by observed violence, are likely the psychological means by which aggression is enhanced. Immediately following exposure to violent media, children may simply mimic viewed behaviours; persistent exposure, however, leads to long-term enhancement of aggressive cognitions and emotions through observational learning. (4)

Interestingly, children mimic the characters that they can most relate to.Therefore, violence in the action hero is far more permeating than violence in the villain and widely beloved characters – such as the Hulk, Captain America and Batman – are in actuality increasing the risk of long term aggression in our youth. When these characters are lauded as being heroes due to their (albeit well-intentioned) violence, it further promotes the idea that aggression is rewarded during social interaction. This in turn normalizes the belief that hostility is appropriate and leads to the formation of violent social scripts. (5) With Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice released with PG-13 ratings earlier this year, parents may want to think twice about the potential long term consequences of ‘age appropriate’ movies.

And aggression isn’t the only problem. Another potentially more ominous trend seen is the ‘desensitization’ effect, whereby repeated exposure to media violence leads to loss of emotional and cognitive response to fictional victims. In turn, this effect transfers to real-life interactions, whereby the ability to appropriately respond to true victims through affective empathy or sympathy is diminished. (6,7) The entire desensitization effect is automatic and subconscious – so children are becoming emotionally detached without realising it. This poses a threat to pro-social behaviours as well as moral judgement making by youth, both of which are heavily influenced by an individual’s emotional reactivity.

To combat the side effects of media violence, parents are advised to limit their children’s daily media access, screen all content for violence and engage children in more real-world activity. (8) The younger a child is, the more likely exposure is to lead to acquision of aggressive social scripts and desensitization, so parents should begin setting boundaries early, when their parental influence is at its highest.

If current trends continue, we risk raising a generation of youth with the potential to be aggressive and emotionally blunted, with anti-social personality traits. Unfortunately, with the past and current prevalence of violent media exposure, the majority of children in the western world will be/ have already been affected.


1) Anderson C, Shibuya A, Ihori N et al.Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: A meta-analytic review.Psychological Bulletin 2010; 136(2)151-173.
2) Rideout V.J., Foher U.G., Roberts D.F. Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8-18-Year-Olds: A Kaiser Family Foundation Study2010.
3) Harvard Mental Health Letter. Violent Video Games and Young People. Harvard Health Publications 2011.
4) Bushman B, Huesmann L. Short-term and Long-term Effects of Violent Media on Aggression in Children and Adults. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 2006;160(4):348-352.
5) Brockmeyer J. Playing Violent Video Games and Desensitisation to Violence. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America 2015; 24(1)65–77.
6) Vossen H, Piotrowski J, Valkenburg P. The Longitudinal Relationship Between Media Violence and Empathy: Was It Sympathy All Along? Media Psychology 2016. DOI: 10.1080/15213269.2015.1121825
7) Mrug S. Madan A. Windle M. Emotional Desensitization to Violence Contributes to Adolescents’ Violent Behavior. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 2016; 44(1)75-86
8) American Academy of Pediatrics. Children, Adolescents and the Media. Pediatrics 2013;132:958–961