A Parents' Guide to Identifying Media Violence and Aggression in School

This time of the year, many parents worry about their kids’ safety at school.

Tragic and violent events, like those that occurred at Columbine High School more than a decade ago, or more recently at Sandy Hook Elementary School, have fueled intense public debate over the effects of media violence among children and within schools. Examples of in-school violence include bullying, fighting, weapon use, online aggression, and gang violence.

Here are five principles that families can follow in order to reduce the likelihood of media-related school violence:

1. Know what the research says — and what it doesn’t say.

For many decades, researchers from various disciplines have studied the effects of graphic violence in television and films on children. More recently they have investigated similarly violent content in music (and, to a lesser extent, video games).

Scholars have noted a correlation between children's consumption of violent content and their desensitization to real violence.1 The challenge in interpreting the data, however, lies in the old scientific adage, “correlation does not prove causation.” Perhaps children who are in some way genetically predisposed toward violence seek out such media when they’re old enough to do so. It is impossible to claim a direct causal link between violent media content and violent behavior without a strictly controlled (and very long-term) study. Such research has not yet been possible.

It is important for parents to realize that the absence of direct causality does not diminish the probability or likelihood of negative effects stemming from violent media. Research has found that violent content may increase children's sense of fear about the real world and about the likelihood of aggressive behavior from others. Most parents do not impose rules about the media content their children consume, perhaps in part because they think the research on violence and aggressive behavior applies to other children and not their own. It is vital for every parent to realize that no child is immune from these influences.

2. Get to know your child, both at home and at school.

There is a longstanding tradition of alarmism in the United States when it comes to the media. Commentators tend to focus on its potential harms rather than on the ways in which children make sense of violent content over time. Because kids’ development — physical, cognitive, social, and emotional — is rapid and constantly changing, parents must be especially vigilant.

Work to discern how your child engages with media content. What kinds of media is she taking in? When does she consume video or audio content? Does she play video games? Where does this happen?

Media use is just one of many factors associated with in-school violence. Here are some others:

  • Learning and behavioral disorders
  • A history of aggressive behavior
  • Involvement with drugs or alcohol
  • Parental substance abuse
  • Involvement in gangs
  • Exposure to violence and conflict at home
  • Poor adult supervision
  • Authoritarian attitudes, or harsh, lax, or inconsistent disciplinary practices at home
  • Low parental involvement
  • Family disruption
  • Poverty

While one or more of these risk factors may be relevant to most kids, that doesn't mean they will engage in violent or even aggressive behavior. When it comes to the constellation of a child's life, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Communication with a child's teachers about some of the above circumstances, plus talking about in-school behavior, is paramount.

Keep in mind that while many risk factors exist regarding school violence, exposure to media violence is one that is much easier to control than the others. Families can download a fact sheet of risk factors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

3. Recognize that not all media are created equal.

It is important for parents to pay attention to violent content that their children may consume across many forms of media. These include the news, music, films, online videos, video games, cable programming, and broadcast television. Although programs may be assigned a rating, it is important to know that sports and news programming are exempt from the TV rating system. Moreover, these ratings do not actually do anything to limit a program’s audience. It’s also worth noting that television shows are rated on an episode-by-episode basis, as a program’s content may vary from week to week or day to day.

New apps such as YouTube for Kids attempt to curate age-appropriate content, but they are not entirely reliable. Media experiences that are supervised by parents or guardians reduce the likelihood of overexposure to violent content. However, if watching a program with a child is not an option, then asking her to report what she watches is another option. This practice teaches accountability and opens lines of communication around healthy viewing habits. It may also help you to get a sense of the ways in which your child is making sense of media violence.

Kids today consume in a transmediated way — taking in images, videos, and audio in many forms throughout a given day. This presents a great challenge for parents seeking to limit (or even monitor) their kids’ access to violent content. Ultimately, it is important for parents to ensure equilibrium in the media climate of their child — not just the amount of media she consumes, but with the quality of the content.

Common Sense Media lists several ways of dealing with kids and violent media: explaining nonviolent conflict resolution and the consequences of violent behavior; limiting overall access to such programming; and being especially attentive to the use of interactive media. The same organization also offers a Kids Media phone app that includes the entire Common Sense library of movie, TV, games, and app ratings and reviews from both parents and kids. Their feature, called "Families Can Talk About," provides parents with ways to discuss media content, including violent imagery.

4. Teach your kids about consequences.

In an otherwise disconnected culture of transmediated experiences, parents are responsible for educating their children about the ramifications of violent behavior.

Granted, it is much easier to identify and accept the constructed violence in a blockbuster Hollywood film than it is to make sense of the real violence that is mediated by news organizations. More challenging still are the three-dimensional and interactive designs of video games that may make violence intriguing for children and teach them new techniques for harming other children.

Most children who are developing at a normal rate can tell the difference between fantasy violence and real violence. Over time, however, a child can spend so many hours (in some cases unsupervised) engaged in fantasy violence that she develops a proclivity towards it. In extreme cases, she may even develop an addiction to it.

Parents should actively choose whether to allow their young children to engage in fantasy violence for recreation, rather than reaching this decision by default. They must ensure that whatever recreational universe their child interacts with consists of nonviolent and prosocial interactions, too.

Listen to the ways in which children describe their gaming experiences, especially the parts they find most engaging. Observe them to see if they are mimicking the violent behaviors (even violent language) at home, and ask their teachers whether they’re doing so at school. Talk with children about the consequences of fantasy violence within their favorite game versus the potential consequences of those violent acts in real life. Review the school policies to underscore the consequences of violent behavior and speech at school. The National Association for Media Literacy Education provides some key questions to pose about all media content. Parents can reflect on these points and decide how they relate to their kids as a way of increasing their critical awareness.

5. Provide models of civil dissent.

Media violence does not produce violent behavior. However, it can desensitize children and enable them to tolerate violence. It is the repeated, long-term exposure to violence that results in the potential for lifelong aggression, desensitization, and hostility. Over time, violence can become the dominant method for a child to communicate and express anger, frustration, and disappointment.

As a parent, you should work with your child’s school to promote programs in conflict resolution, peer mediation, and anger management. The American Psychological Association provides a number of resources for teaching conflict resolution to children at different developmental stages, several of which include acronyms you can teach to help them remember how to constructively solve problems in a nonviolent way. Parents should also ensure that their children engage in media experiences that foster a sense of connectedness rather than one of antisociality or cynicism.

Some adults may lack the intellectual tools or the emotional capacity to impose rules about the media content that their children consume. While parents certainly aren't perfect, they need to be vigilant in seizing every teachable moment to cultivate critical habits of mind in their children. It is indeed a difficult dance, but worth every step.

To learn more, check out this advice on bullying in schools and social-emotional development.


  1. For an excellent summary of the literature on media violence and behavior, see Craig A. Anderson and Douglas A. Gentile's "Media Violence, Aggression, and Public Policy," in E. Borgida & S. Fiske (Eds.), 2008. Beyond Common Sense: Psychological Science in the Courtroom (pp. 281-300). Malden, MA: Blackwell.