The impact of television violence has been contested by parents and educators alike, but a study co-authored by a Duke researcher could impact future discussions.
Previous research concerning the effects of screen violence on children has linked violent media with aggressive tendencies, desensitization and numbness to the pain and suffering of others, said Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. Now, his research—in collaboration with Jonathan Wai, a research scientist at Duke’s Talent Identification Program—is examining the effects of violent media on mental performance gifted children.
The research, conducted with collaborators in Turkey, studied 10-year-old children in a Turkish school, with children being classified as "gifted" if he or she scored in the 98th percentile on the revised Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. The children's performance of a verbal task was evaluated before and after they were exposed to a violent cartoon. The results showed that children from both the "gifted" and “non-gifted" group saw hindered mental performance upon watching the violent cartoon, but that this effect was amplified in the population of gifted children.
“It turns out that in experimental studies, screen violence tends to have a negative effect on any kind of mental task,” Wai explained.
Bushman noted that watching the violent programs "completely wiped out the advantage gifted children had over other children."
The verbal task, which was used to assess mental performance, involved asking the participants to generate as many words in one minute as possible that started certain letters. Participants from both the gifted and non-gifted groups were randomly selected to watch either a violent or a non-violent cartoon and then asked to take the test again with a different set of letters.
As expected, gifted children performed better than non-gifted children in the pre-test and in the post-test after both groups had been exposed to the non-violent cartoon. However, both groups experienced hindered performance when exposed to a violent cartoon, with gifted children showing a significant decrease in performance on the verbal test. In fact, the gifted group actually performed slightly worse than the less gifted group after both groups had been exposed to the violent cartoon.
In another significant finding from the study, gifted children who saw the same cartoon as non-gifted children rated the cartoon as far more violent than what the non-gifted children rated it. Both Wai, an expert on gifted children, and Bushman, an expert on media violence, explained this result in the same way.
“Our guess from this data is that one reason these effects occur is because gifted children are more sensitive than other children to violence,” Bushman said.
Their hypothesis suggests that greater sensitivity among gifted children leads them to react to violence with more anxiety, which would lower their working memory capacity and, in turn, reduce their attention to mental tasks.
Although the study reveals much about the effects of violent cartoons on the mental performance of children, the researchers noted that the findings might not necessarily carry over to violent news. More research will need to be conducted before Bushman and Wai can confirm similarities between violent news and violent cartoons, they added.
“The violence depicted in our videos was quite small compared to the violence that children are often exposed to, such as in the news,” Wai wrote in an article in The Conversation.
Wai also explained that there has been much research showing that higher intelligence is linked to greater sensitivity.
"At the same time there’s not a lot of empirical evidence to date on [what gifted kids are more sensitive to]. So that’s kind of where our study comes to play,” he said.
The findings from the study could provide insight into the long-term impacts of exposure to violence through media, Wai added.
"If [screen violence] can have this negative effect even if i'ts short term within an experimental setting, these kinds of things [can add up] over time if there’s continuous exposure and that could potentially become a large negative effect," Wai said.
Currently, the plans for further research and development have been halted by the political turmoil in Turkey where the educators had access to a large group of gifted children. Wai and Bushman both said they hope to continue this research and are looking for opportunities around the world to study the effects of violent media on gifted children.
“We hope that we can continue this research if Dr. Wai and I can find other educators who have access to other gifted children, but right now we are not sure," Bushman said.
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