When is violence too much? A look at the influence of aggression on behavior

Category: Play Therapy

In 1973 Albert Bandura conducted an experiment to study social learning theory as it applies to aggression. The idea was that children will learn behaviors that are modeled: If you witness an adult being aggressive, you are more likely to be aggressive yourself especially if you witness the model being rewarded for such behavior. The experiment is known as the Bobo doll study and the results showed that children were more likely to be aggressive toward the doll after watching an adult model aggressive behavior. So, what does this mean? Will children become aggressive if they witness one act of aggression? The answer is complicated because it involves mitigating factors such as biological factors, type of parenting experienced, reinforcement of behaviors, contextual and/or cultural factors.

The Bobo doll experiment occurred prior to video games being developed but has been cited as a reason to not allow children to play violent games, or at least to limit exposure. As you increase your aggression (e.g., fighting) in video games, there is a reward (points or achieved goals) and aggression is modeled throughout the game. Setting limits to screen time, discussing appropriate/inappropriate behaviors in real life, reinforcing desired behaviors, and monitoring use of developmentally appropriate video games can promote healthier gameplay. Some people have criticized parents for allowing younger children to play more mature games yet increase in violence is not seen until the teen years. Is exposure to mature video games in earlier childhood influencing violence in real life? Or are there other, more significant factors?

Research has not found a link between video games and school shooters despite what the media has portrayed. If violence in video games and other forms of media were the culprit, the rate of shootings would be higher as the percentage of children who play video games is around 90% and 85% of games on the market include some form of violence. So what is the cause of violence in the community? Is it that there is no sense of community anymore? Or is there an increase in social isolation and mental health issues?

Perceptions of what leads to violence varies by the type of violent act, ethnicity of the perpetrator, and social interactions. Many people believe that mass shootings (including but not limited to school shootings) are a result of a severe mental health disorder like schizophrenia or psychosis. However, these and others only account for approximately 5% of mass shootings. Whereas non-psychotic mental health issues (e.g., depression) account for around 25% and 23% linked to substance use disorders. But there is a general perception of a student with a mental illness or one who is a loner (no friends, bullied by others) as the perpetrator of a school shooting. Having links to the community, support of loved ones and friends, good self-esteem, and engagement in social interactions can provide protective factors against the violence seen in schools around the country.

Important things to note as a parent: monitor what your child is watching and playing, look for changes in mood and behavior, seek support if needed, and talk to your child about appropriate ways to handle disappointments, negative emotions, and challenges in life. Instead of focusing on what may influence negatively, let’s reinforce what will have a positive influence on your child’s life as they grow and develop.

Michelle A. Culver, LMFT