Social Learning Theory And Tv Children And Young People Essay

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Children spend over 1,500 hours watching television in the course of a year; this amount of time spent in front of the television is significant when compared to the amount of hours a child spends in school, which is on average about 900 hours (Herr, 2007). Television impacts the lives of children in today’s society with violence being the main message in the majority of shows. TV has become an ongoing controversial issue in which many researchers since the 1950s have conducted research studies. This paper will discuss Bandura’s social cognitive theory and research conducted within the last ten years in order to gain a better understanding of the effects of TV violence and children.

Keywords: TV, violence, Bandura, social learning theory


In today’s ever evolving world of technology, television is at the top. While technology develops advancements and evolution, TV has maintained its popular presence. Postman (1985) states that television is our cultures way of knowing about itself and goes on to discuss how TV stages the world becomes the model for how the world is properly to be staged (p. 92). When the picture doesn’t reflect reality, this is where issues arise. A child being brought up in this type of reality and never knowing life without a television makes them vulnerable to the negative effects of television.

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A child’s cognitive development not being fully matured enough to understand violent messages that the media portrays becomes another issue that arises. Palmer, Hockett, and Dean (1983), found that for many children who watch TV programs geared for adults are not fully equipped emotionally or cognitively enough. Also it is to be noted that many of these children watch these types of program without adult supervision (p. 290). Difficulty to react emotionally to these types of TV messages is a lack of cognitive development (Potter, 2008, p. TV Violence 458).

Potter (2008) further notes that until a child has developed certain knowledge structures, they will lack certain perspectives of how to view the world around them (p. 61).

Television broadcasts many meaningful messages such as violence that not only entertains our children but has a huge impact on their lives. TVs popularity on violent programs has become an issue that many researchers have conducted research on since the 1950s. Gerbner states that being brought up around a violent culture develops aggressiveness, as well as, insecurity, anger, mistrust and desensitization in many (Stossel, 1997, p. 91). Many researchers attest that violent television viewing contributes to antisocial behaviors as well as other variable factors. Ongoing debates go on of whether long or short term effects of TV viewing occur, and children are the main focal group that needs special protection from the negative effects of violence on TV (Potter, 2008, p. 62).

The TV generations of children are bleak bunch when compared to earlier generations of children who seemed to be more outgoing and playful (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967, p. 126). Researchers today state that children who spend more time in front of the television are at a higher level of risk for developing antisocial effects.

Just about every household in the United States has at least one television if not more, and with that said many children are being exposed to violent images and programs at a very young age. Flavell and Ross (1981) state that 4 to 6 year olds have little reflective understanding of their moral knowledge and have an intuitive moral competence that they answer questions about moral rules and in how they excuse their transgressions and react to the transgressions of others. (p. 288)

The social learning theory was developed by Albert Bandura in 1977 and states that everyday individuals observe the actions of others in ways of being rewarded, ignored, or punished (p. 46). This theory is most relevant theory in criminology. Social learning can take place at age; however, research has shown that social learning is most important during childhood years. With this has come the influential debate on the effects of children and TV violence. Bandura’s most famous research was based on his Bobo doll experiment that demonstrated social learning theory in that children are more likely to be violent towards a life size doll after watching an adult be violent to the doll on TV.

Theory Relevance

Bandura’s social learning theory emphasizes the importance as well as the modeling behaviors, attitudes and emotional reactions of others. Bandura (1977) further notes that “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own action to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behaviors is learned by observation through modeling; from observing others individuals tend to form ideas of how new behaviors are performed” (p.22).

Social learning theory further explains behavioral patterns as having been learned through operant conditioning and observation. Social learning theory extends its details by examining human behaviors through interactions within cognitive, behavioral and environmental influences. Components of social learning theory are:



Motor Reproduction


The reason why I chose to discuss social learning theory is mainly because of my own research I conducted a few years ago. The results were comparable to many of the other research studies conducted. Further I chose to discuss the social learning theory because I find it fascinating how this ties into criminal justice and may be a factor in why criminals commit crime. It is possible that criminals who commit crime were exposed to negative activities and never were taught right from wrong, leading many of these offenders to commit crime.

It is up to the policy-makers to limit the amount of exposure of violence in the media from young children. It has been notes that violence contributes to 61% of TV programs that children view. Children aren’t the only ones affected by TV violence, adults are exposed to the same amount of violence as well and most aren’t even aware of it. In most recent technology, parents can restrict certain television shows from their children, and most recent laws now state that television rates must be present to rate the material being shown (e.g. amount of sexual content or violence).

It is up to the government to put restrictions on certain types of shows in order to help restrict young views such as children from watching, which in tale can lead these children into an increased life of crime, thinking it is ok do what they see on TV. It is also up to the government to reduce the amount of violence portrayed on TV.

Research Support

The following will discuss previous studies conducted on television violence and its impact on children.

Gerbner’s research called The Cultural Indicators Project has been noted to be one of the most widely referenced content analysis dealing with TV violence. In 1976, Gerbner and Gross conducted research with the use of a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health. Their research entailed television programming and its concepts of social reality through a violent profile; which is a set of indicators along with the aspects of the TV world and the concepts of reality that are developed by viewers.

In 1995, the Cultural Indicators Project had viewed over 25 years worth of TV programs, their observations consisted of over 3000 programs and 35,000 types of characters from thematic to action heroes (Signorielli, Gerbner, & Morgan, 1995). Gerbner’s study focused mainly on physical, obvious violence, which was the most consistent within the data measuring TV violence (Signorielli, et al., 1995).

Other types of research conducted were from the Berkeley Media Studies Group, which focused on new stations that showed real life violence on TV. The Berkeley Media Studies Group focused their research on TV news stations and how they structure the public and policy issue on violence in children (Dorfman, Woodruff, Chavez, & Wallack, 1997).

Here, researchers conducted over 214 hours worth of local news media in California. The media collected in this study was 1,791 stories related to children, violence, or both. It is to be noted that the research study was done around Halloween in hopes of having a higher rate of news related stories involving children and violence, as well as, any story involving anyone younger than 24 involved in a gang.

The results of this study showed that the most frequent topic discussed on the news was in fact violence related (Dorfman, et al., p. 1312); with over 55% of the news stories shown were about children involved in violent acts and about 68% of the violence shown on the news worried children (p. 1314).

In today’s society, children don’t know what it is like to not have a television or TV violence for that matter. Almost every household in the United States 99% has at least one TV in their household, whereas majority owns two or more (Herr, 2007). Bandura (2006) further states that more than half of households in the United States have three or more TVs (as cited in Potter, 2008, p. 5).

The Kaiser Family Foundation (2010) conducted a study that found children ranging from ages 8 to 18 watch about 4 ½ hours of TV every day. It is also to be noted that this research found that 71% of these children had TVs in their bedrooms. With high saturation of TV programs, it is evident that there is also high presence of violent programming being watched by these young children.

Further, Signorielli (2003) conducted analysis based on a 13 week television program that builds off of research from the Cultural Indicators Project. The results showed no change in level of violence from spring 1993 to fall 2001, where six of the television programs had violence (p. 53). In her study, Signorielli also found that the same amount of violence was being shown but within fewer characters in the TV programs. Therefore, violence on TV in the past 30 years has been found in 60% of TV programs, which breaks down to 4.5 acts per program (p. 54).

Glascock (2008) also conducted analysis on children and TV violence, however Glascock’s study was based on aggressive behavior (e.g. verbal, physical, and indirect acts of aggressiveness) and TV programs. With 6,599 aggressive acts analyzed, he found that TV programs air approximately 68 acts of aggression every hour (p. 274).

Wilson, Smith, Potter, Kunkel, Linz, Colvin, and Donnerstein (2002) conducted a study on the nature as well as the extent of violence on television that mainly targeted children 12 years and younger (p. 5). Their results found that TV programs that targets children had more overall content of violence than non-children related TV shows (p. 29). Further, the results displayed over ¾ of violent scenes in children shows had some type of humor, whereas ¼ had aggression displayed in a humorous context (p. 22).

With the results of this research Wilson, Colvin, and Smith (2002) wanted to further their research to offenders committing violence. With that said, they discovered that many of the violent offenders (89%) were adults, and children accounted for 4 to 7% based on age. When combined with the 2,500 hours of violent TV programs involved in this study, they discovered that younger offenders view TV violence once every hour and a half, were as adults are engaged 5 times an hour (p. 45). So the research result show that younger offender have a higher chance of being seen as attractive, having less punishment and are more involved in violence that have fewer end result to the victim (p. 53).

Christakis and Zimmerman (2007) conducted a five-year observational, longitudinal study that discovered preschoolers; especially boys who view violence on TV do develop subsequent aggressive behavior (p. 996).

Huesmann, Moise-Titus, Podolski, and Eron (2003) conducted a 15 year longitudinal study that found high significance in both young boys and girls in relations to aggressive behavior after watch violent TV programs. (p. 203). They note that child ranging in ages from 6 to 9 who watch violent programs on TV that displayed aggressive same-sex characters, and had perceptions of TV violence being real had higher rates of aggression as adults (p. 215).

In 1960, a man named Leonard Eron surveyed every eight year old in Columbus County, New York. He stated “I want to measure child-rearing practices as they relates to aggression”. The parents asked such questions as:

Had they read Dr. Spock?

How often did their child watch TV?

What was their child’s favorite show?

The results of this survey showed that the more aggressive children watched higher amounts of violent TV programs. However, did watching TV make these children more aggressive or were aggressive children watching violent TV programs?

The U.S. Surgeon General formed a committee on TV and social behavior and asked Eron to survey the Columbia County children from 1960 (The Education Digest, October 1994).

In 1971, Eron found about 500 of the now 19 year olds from the original sample of 875 children. The Correlation between viewing violence at age 8 and how aggressive the individual was at age 19 was higher than the correlation between watching violence at age 8 and behaving aggressively at age 8. Further, Eron once again was asked to further conduct his study in 1981, using 400 of the subjects being studied again, along with 80 of their offspring’s (The Education Digest, October 1994).

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30 year old men who had been the most aggressive when they were 8 had more arrests for drunk driving and violent crime and were more abusive to their spouses. Of the 600 subjects whose criminal records were reviewed; those who watched violent TV programs when they were 8 had been arrested more often for violent crimes and self reported fights when consuming alcohol. (The Education Digest, October 1994).

In 1973, Tannis McBeth Williams studied children in a Canadian town before and after the town got TV; the results found that creativity dropped and that within two years after the town received the arrival of TV the rates of hitting, shoving, and biting among first and second graders had increased by 160%. Further studies discovered, 10 to 15 years after the TV was introduced, murder rates doubled (Newsweek, December, 1995).

Bandura (1960) conducted a study on preschoolers and let them watch TV footage of a man hitting a “bobo” or clown doll. Afterwards, the children who saw the violent footage were more likely to mimic the same motions the adult did to the doll. Further studies have shown that these child also spontaneously would act out towards a man dressed as a clown as well, indicating that TV violence might spill easily into the real world. In another twist, a group of children saw a similar piece of footage of a man hitting a doll but being spanked for the actions. The children who watched this footage were less likely to attack the doll themselves (Newsweek, December, 1995).


Current and past research has shown that many of the children who view violent content on TV at a young age do grow up to be violent. Bandura’s research with the Bobo doll clearly shows the effects of violence on children. In a study covering from 1982 to 1992, researchers found that for every 10 prime-time male characters who commit violence, 11 were victims. For every 10 female offenders, there were 17 female victims and for every 10 women of color given power, 22 were victimized (Newsweek, December 1995).

Research also shows that 10% of violence comes from what we learn as children. Numerous years of research on this subject has proven that the more violence children are brought up around the more they think it is ok.

It is also to be noted that this type of research establishes causation, which can determine cause and effect between variable.

Not all research on this violence and children are accurate, not all children grow up to be violent offenders either. This is where most of the research becomes weak. There is no evidence or other factors that are tested to prove that TV violence is in fact the only contributor to offenders committing violent acts of crime.

Much of these studies have been controlled type studies, and with this, controlled studies can be artificial, or done in a lab type setting which tends to eliminate real life effects on this type of study.

It also should be noted that much of the research conducted on this subject have been done in previous years where exposure to TV violence was mild compared to current TV programs. Also, studies conducted in past years had fewer channels to choose from limiting the amount of available violent content.

Studies suggest a high correlation between exposure to TV violence and violent behavior. Results of studies should be used to educate the public, parents, children, and programmers. Further, making suggestions on what can be utilized from parents, and criminologist may also help understand better the correlation between the two. Awareness on TV violence needs to be utilized in order to see who is at higher risks of violence.

With the use of TV ratings on shows, parents are able to decide what shows there children are allowed to watch and in return reduce the amount of violence young children watch, reducing the effects of young children committing crime.

Summary and Conclusions

In today’s society not many individuals can say they can pass the day without engaging in some sort of use of the television; whether it is used for entertainment or background noise. Signorielli (2006) notes that the television is the most all-encompassing mass medium in the United States and with this Postman (1992) stresses the need for American culture to change its concepts on reality expressed through TV (p. 19).

Bandura’s (1986) social learning theory discussed that individuals are not driven by the inner forces nor are automatically shaped and controlled by external stimuli. However, he further states that human functioning is utilized in a way of modeling a triadic reciprocality, where behavior, personal and cognitive factors as well as environment interact with one another and are the determinates of one another (p. 18).

Limitations of the studies discussed throughout this paper have demonstrated both past and present research and has been noted that it is impossible to control the factors such as environment, cognitive, and personal factors. With limitations within the data sets it is to be known that any analysis used from this data can be flawed.

Further research needs to include factors such as social class, family communications and issues, parental monitoring, aggression within the family, viewing habits of television from both parents and children and many more.

Recommendations for Further Study

As television, programming, and audience evolves, research that is conducted also needs to evolve, as well as the types of questions being asked. For example, content analysis cannot focus mainly on certain prime-time TV shows on cable, for there are many more different types and channels on satellite, digital video recording (DVR) as well as live streaming off the internet, which have all changed the individuals viewing habits. With the popularity of news programs and reality shows Glascock (2008) states these types of programs need to be added to the analysis as well.

Music television, advertising, public broadcast and even sports have been forgotten as well within this research. It is also to be noted that very little attention has been put on violent vs. nonviolent content on TV.

Another factor that is an important variable for this research is how nonviolent programs affect and assist in better understand modeling behaviors in children.

Much of Banduras evidence from his social learning theory is highly supported those individuals who view and enjoy TV more than others tend to like or relate to certain characters. Therefore, when these individuals see their character that they relate to act out with use of violence, that individual becomes excepting to that type of violence, leading them to have higher risks of committing crimes themselves.

Research studies from the year 2000 to the present need to be investigated and address future research with questions such as:

What types of progress and/or new conclusions can be used to identify certain effects that impact children who view violence on television?

Has any new understandings or developments emerged within the last ten years that relate to TV violence and aggressive behavior in children and adults?

However, many media effects researchers have began to look into studies on prevention and interventions. These types of studies use the social learning approach used in TV violence research and are examining process of comprehension, interpretation, and evaluating types of aggressive acts. Murray (2008) suggests that further researcher needs to involve neurological correlations of viewing TV violence (p. 1223). Many researchers are beginning to worry about addictions and dependency on TV.

Researchers such as Anderson, Berkowitz, Donnerstein, Huesmann, Johnson, Linz, Malamuth, &Wartella (2003) suggest that more parental monitoring as well as better guidance need to be put in place. Walma van der Molen (2004) go further to discuss the important of families, schools, and children doctors in helping to promote awareness on TV violence and its effects to children, more so on topics of real life violence and its effects (p. 1771).

It is to be noted that no one kid is immune to the effects of TV violence, many children who are exposed to violent TV at a young age are at higher risk of committing crimes as young adults as well as adults. Further evidence has shown that any child from any family, city or any other type of background has the risk of learning and behaving more aggressively when exposed to violence on TV.


Almost everything on television can now be categorized as reality yet all of it is seen as entertainment. With the television making its presence in homes long ago, it has since moved its way into where we work, our schools, on our phones and even in our cars. Leading more of today’s children demanding more time spent watching it.

Much of the research in this paper supports the notion that constant viewing of violence on TV leads to more acceptance aggression and violent behaviors. Bandura’s social learning theory further discusses that if individuals have a strong link to a certain character and the character receives rewards, punishments or uses violence, the individual is more likely to act like the character and display the same type of behavior (Nabi & Clark, 2008, p. 407).

Research has shown time and time again that the lack of punishments and remorse that is displayed leads to a false reality and decreased sensitivity; leading more children to think it is ok to be aggressive and commit crimes and with no guidance from parents children will grow up to think this type of behavior is ok, which will lead many of children to grow up and end up in jail (Caputo, 1993; American Association of Pediatrics Committee on Communications, 1995; Signorielli, Gerbner, & Morgan, 1995; Federman, 1996-1998; Peters & Blumberg, 2002; Wilson, Colvin & Smith, 2002; Potter, 2008; Richmond & Wilson, 2008).

Decrease sensitivity is desensitization. Many children model and react the same way they see things on TV, leading many children to grow up being insensitive, lazy, and having a lack of concern in emotional situations and these types of attitudes are seen in many of the criminals today. Desensitization can range differently for many individuals, however, the results are the both negative; for an individual will have a decreased amount of emotional reactions from the violent views or will have no regards to the consequences of violent acts they commit.

5,958 young children ages 10 to 24 were murdered in 2006 from gunfire, this is on average a total of 16 children being murdered every day (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2009). These murder rates are higher than children deaths due to cancer, AIDS/HIV, asthma, influenza, and pneumonia combined (Children’s Defense Fund, 2004, as cited by, 2010). With no proof leading to the reasons why children use guns and kill can only lead to possibilities that violence on TV is in fact a key factor.

With many young children in today’s society growing up having more antisocial behaviors leads many to believe that the majority of these children will in fact grow up and become criminals or will commit more crimes as a young adult. When paired with the amount of time children are exposed to violence on TV it is easy to see the correlation linked to antisocial behaviors which leads many individuals to commit crime.


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