Violent Content

Research Summary

Children today are immersed in entertainment and news media, like fish are immersed in water. Using hand-held devices, children can consume media just about anywhere or anytime they want. Violence is a common theme in the media (e.g., TV programs, movies, videos, video games, music, books, and comic books). Pediatricians, policy makers, and parents often wonder whether violent media are harmful to children. Fortunately, we don’t need to rely on unreliable sources to answer this question, such as common sense, gut feelings, intuition, instincts, premonitions, or the biased claims of the media violence industry and its apologists. Science has provided us the answer to this question. Over the past six decades or so, hundreds of research studies have been conducted on this topic. Experimental studies have shown that exposure to media violence causes people to behave more aggressively immediately afterward. Field experiments have produced similar effects in natural settings with realistic measures of aggression. The effects can be long lasting too. Numerous longitudinal studies show that exposure to violent media as a child predicts aggressive and violent behavior many years later as an adult. Although there is never complete consensus in any scientific field, the evidence is so convincing that dozens of major scientific and medical organizations have issued statements about the harmful effects of exposure to violent media, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological

Association, the U.S. Surgeon General, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the International Society for Research on Aggression. Violent video games may be especially harmful because of their interactive nature, but more research is needed on this issue. Consequently, pediatricians, parents, and policy makers should take steps to protect children from the potentially harmful effects that can occur from violent media exposure.


How much time should children spend consuming media?

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 18 months old, and no more than 1 hour of screen time per day for children less than 5 years old. For children ages 6 and older, consistent limits on screen time and the types of media should be enforced, and media should never take the place of adequate sleep or physical activity.

I have heard the phrase, “Correlation does not equal causation.” Can violent video games cause aggressive and violent behavior?

Experimental studies can establish cause and effect, and many experiments have shown that exposure to violent media can cause children to behave more aggressively. For ethical reasons, it is more difficult to study violence in experiments (i.e., severe acts of physical aggression that can lead to injury or death). But correlational and (especially) longitudinal studies can provide good tests of causal theories, and they have consistently shown support for a causal link between exposure to violent media and violent behavior.

Isn’t it true that only a small proportion of children and adolescents are affected by violent media? In other words, aren’t most young people immune to the harmful effects of media violence?

To be sure, not all children are equally affected by violent media and there are a variety of factors that can help lessen the risk (e.g., parental involvement, school-based interventions). However, no group is entirely immune from the impact of violent media (e.g., girls, nonaggressive children).

Key Takeaways

  • Exposure to violent media is not simply a harmless form of entertainment. Hundreds of studies have shown that exposure to violent media is a risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior, and can make people numb and less likely to help others.
  • Video games are not inherently “good” or “bad.” Video games are tremendous teachers that can have positive or negative effects, depending on their content and on how much time children spend playing them.
  • Exposure to violent video games is not the only risk factor for aggressive and violent behavior, or even the most important risk factor, but it is not a trivial factor either. Importantly, exposure to violent media is one of the few risk factors parents can control.

Guidelines for Parents

How can you tell if a video game is potentially harmful?

  • First, play the game, or have someone else demonstrate it for you. You can also watch videos of others playing the game on YouTube. After watching gameplay for a sufficient amount of time (e.g., 15 minutes), ask yourself the following 6 questions:
    1. Does the game involve some characters trying to harm others?
    2. Does this happen frequently, more than once or twice in 30 minutes?
    3. Is the harm rewarded in any way?
    4. Is the harm portrayed as humorous?
    5. Are nonviolent solutions absent or less “fun” than the violent ones?
    6. Are realistic consequences of violence absent from the game?
  • If two or more answers are “yes,” think very carefully about the lessons being taught before allowing your child access to the game.
  • Make sure the game is age-appropriate. Video games have age-based labels (e.g., “M” for mature players 17 and older), and content codes (e.g., “graphic violence”). But just because a video game is age appropriate does not mean it is harmless. Many parents also think the agebased labels and content codes are not strict enough. Some games rated “E” by the video game industry as appropriate for “Everyone” contain violent content. Many video games rated “T” for teens 13 and older are very violent.

What else can you do?

  • Be a wise consumer:
    • Do buy video games that are helpful to your children.
    • Don’t buy video games that are potentially harmful to your children.
  • Be a wise parent/grandparent:
    • Know what your children are playing.
    • Don’t allow access to violent video games.
    • Restrict time spent on video games.
    • Make sure all televisions and computers are in public locations, not in private space such as bedrooms.
    • Use passwords on TVs to block out programs containing violence.
    • Use software on computers to block sites with violent content.
    • When your child visits a friend’s home, tell that parent that your child is not allowed to
      play or watch age inappropriate video games.
    • Explain to your children why violent games are harmful.
    • Teach nonviolent problem solving at every opportunity.
  • Be an involved community member:
    • If you learn that a retailer is selling violent games to children, complain to the
    • If you learn that a retailer is doing a good job of screening sales or rentals of violent
      material to children, thank the owner/manager and support the business, perhaps by
      purchasing nonviolent educational video games.
    • Help educate others in your community (parents, youth, and public officials).
    • Let your public officials know that you are concerned.
    • Consider not purchasing products from companies that sponsor violent video games,
      and tell them why.


Anderson, C.A., Bushman, B.J., Bartholow, B.D., Cantor, J., Christakis, D., Coyne, S.M., Donnerstein, E., Brockmyer, J.F., Gentile, D.A., Green, C.S., Huesmann, R., Hummer, T., Krahé, B., Strasburger, V.C., Warburton, W., Wilson, B.J., & Ybarra, M. (2017). Screen Violence and Youth BehaviorPediatrics, 140(140S2). doi:10.1542/peds.2016-1758T

The analysis, conclusions, and recommendations contained in each paper are solely a product of the individual workgroup and are not the policy or opinions of, nor do they represent an endorsement by, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

Additional Information