by Joyce Sprafkin & Kenneth D. Gadow (1988)
Department of Psychiatry, State University of New York, Stony Brook, USA
The Journal of Genetic Psychology: Research and Theory on Human Development, 149:1, 35-44
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ABSTRACT. The immediate impact of viewing aggressive cartoons on emotionally disturbed (ED) and learning disabled (LD) children's willingness to hurt another child was assessed. Fifteen ED and 23 LD children (M = 7.25 years old) viewed either an aggressive or a comparison cartoon and then played the Help-Hurt game. The children who watched the aggressive cartoon pressed the Hurt button for significantly more time than did those who were exposed to the comparison cartoon. Across cartoon conditions, the ED children pressed the Hurt button significantly longer than did their LD peers.
THE EFFECTS OF TELEVISION on the social behavior of children has been studied by many researchers (Comstock, Chaffee, Katzman, McCombs, & Roberts, 1978; Liebert, Sprafkin, & Davidson, 1982; Murray, 1980; Pearl, Bouthilet, & Lazar, 1982b), and the majority of such studies have focused on the impact of viewing aggressive content. Although there is still some debate (e.g., Cook, Kendzierski, & Thomas, 1983; Freedman, 1984; Kaplan & Singer, 1976), most researchers believe that the convergence of findings supports the conclusion of a causal relationship between viewing violence on television and subsequent aggressive behavior (Pearl, Bouthilet, & Lazar, 1982a).
Until recently, very little was known about television's effect on handicapped children, particularly youngsters who are labeled emotionally disturbed (ED) or learning disabled (LD) by the public school system. Such children often possess several characteristics that are associated with frequent exposure and high reactivity to television aggression, namely, low academic achievement, interpersonal conflicts with peers or parents, and aggressive behavior (for a review, see Sprafkin, Gadow, & Grayson, 1984). Indeed, ED and LD children have been reported to watch more television in general and more aggression-laden programs (Sprafkin & Gadow, 1986) and to be more likely to believe that television content represents real life situations (Sprafkin, Gadow, & Dussault, 1986; Sprafkin, Kelly, & Gadow, 1987) than do their peers in regular classes. Because evidence from several studies suggests that the perceived reality of media violence may be an important cognitive mediator of reactivity (Atkin, 1983; Feshbach, 1976; Sawin, 1981), it seems reasonable to speculate that ED and LD children may be more vulnerable to the adverse effects of watching portrayals of aggressive behavior on television.
Given that aggressive behavior is problematic for many ED and LD children and is often the basis for placement in special education programs, we considered it important to assess the effects of television on the behavior of these children. Because this was one of the first laboratory studies of its kind, it seemed reasonable (a) to test the hypothesis that exposure to aggressive cartoons would stimulate more aggressive behavior in ED and LD children than would nonaggressive cartoons, and (b) to employ a laboratory measure of aggression that was shown to be sensitive to immediate media effects. Although many different measures of aggression have been used in television studies with nonhandicapped children (for a review, see Andison, 1977), the Help-Hurt game was a good candidate because prior research had repeatedly found that children exposed to high aggression material showed a greater willingness to hurt another child (as demonstrated by the length of time they pressed the Hurt button) than were children who viewed a neutral or prosocial program (Collins & Getz, 1976; Liebert & Baron, 1972; Liss, Reinhardt, & Fredriksen, 1983). Furthermore, the construct validity of the Help-Hurt game as a general measure of aggression is indirectly supported by the fact that performance on similar measures can differentiate high and low aggressive (nonhandicapped) children (Williams, Meyerson, Eron, & Semler, 1967) and teenagers (Shemberg, Leventhal, & Allman, 1968).
The subjects were 38 children (31 boys and 7 girls) who attended one of two public schools, one for ED and one for LD children. Flyers containing a brief description of the study were distributed to the parents; approximately 70% of the parents expressed an interest in having their child participate and were contacted by telephone to make an appointment. Children and parents were paid an honorarium for participating.
The sample consisted of 15 children (14 males and 1 female) from the ED school and 23 children (17 males and 6 females) from the LD school. The racial composition was as follows: White (92%), Black (5%), and Hispanic (3%). The children ranged in age from 5 to 10 years old (M = 7.25), and their IQs (various tests) ranged between 62 and 163 (M = 90). Group differences in age and race were not statistically significant, but, as one would expect on the basis of prior research, the mean IQ of the ED children (97) was significantly higher than that of the LD students (84), r(37) = 2.16, p < .05.
It is difficult to describe precisely the psychopathological characteristics of the ED and LD samples. Most school-labeled ED and LD children never receive a DSM III (American Psychiatric Association, 1980) diagnosis, and the guidelines for labeling specified in federal law (Federal Register, 1977, 42, p. 42478) do not require the identification of diagnostic types. In an attempt to document the prevalence of at least one common problem in this population, hyperactivity, teachers were asked to complete the Abbreviated Teacher Rating Scale (ATRS; Conners, 1973). It was found that 41% of the participants scored above cut-off (17 for boys and 12 for girls, according to Sprague, Cohen, & Werry, 1974) on the ATRS. It should be noted, however, that the comparability of ratings completed in special education and public school settings has not been established and that the clinical utility of the ATRS cut-off has been recently reevaluated (Ullmann, Sleator, & Sprague, 1985). Perhaps the best behavioral descriptors of the populations from which our samples were drawn are contained in a direct observation study reported elsewhere (Sprafkin & Gadow, 1987). Diagnostic issues aside, it is noteworthy that 362,073 and 1,811,451 school children are receiving special education services for the emotionally disturbed and learning disabled, respectively (U.S. Department of Education, 1985) and that the study samples are representative of these populations.
To ensure an unbiased representation by school and gender, children were randomly assigned to either the aggressive or comparison cartoon condition within school and gender groupings. Group comparisons on age and IQ (t tests) and gender and school groupings (chi-square tests) did not yield any significant differences. A white female graduate student was the examiner.
Design and Television Conditions
The study employed a 2 x 2 factorial design. The two between-subjects factors were television condition (aggressive vs. comparison cartoon) and educational classification (ED vs. LD). Children were shown either an aggressive or a comparison cartoon. The aggressive program consisted of two Tom and Jerry cartoons (12.5 min), and the comparison program was one episode of Lassie's Rescue Rangers (12.8 min). The results of a content analysis of the social behaviors in the two programs are presented in Table 1. The content analysis definitions and procedures are described in detail in Sprafkin, Gadow, and Gray son (1987). Although we tried to locate a cartoon completely devoid of aggression, we could not and subsequently selected one with only a brief portrayal of aggression.
Experimental Setting and Equipment
The study was conducted in the offices and laboratory of a university research building. The laboratory is a suite composed of three 9 ft x 14 ft rooms: a viewing room and a game room, separated by a control room. The control room has two 32 in. x 49 in. one-way mirrors installed on opposite walls, which allowed the research staff to observe children in each of the other rooms.
The viewing room contained a child's sofa, which was situated across the room from a 13 in. color monitor-receiver. The one-way mirror was located on the wall behind the television monitor. A bookshelf containing books and toys was located against the wall adjacent to the mirror. The control room contained the VHS videorecorder on which the television programs were played and the timers and control switch of the Help-Hurt game. The game room contained the portion of the Help-Hurt game operated by the child.
The Help-Hurt game was modeled after the instrument employed by Liebert and Baron (1972) and was located in the game room on a small table. The game apparatus consisted of a wooden box that displayed two buttons labeled Hurt and Help, respectively. Just above each button was a small, white light bulb that lit when the button below it was pressed. A green light bulb, mounted in the center of the box and controlled by the examiner in the control room, signaled the duration of each trial. Two wires came out of the box and were fed through a hole in the wall to the control room. One of the wires led to an electrical power source, and the other wire was connected to a timer box, which registered the number of seconds each button was pressed. In the event that both buttons were pressed simultaneously, neither the light bulbs nor the timers were activated. A switch on the timer box turned both the power and the green light on and off.
The child was escorted to the viewing room and invited to watch television. The examiner offered the child a seat, turned on the television set, explained that only one channel worked, and demonstrated that all the channels but one were malfunctioning. The program that appeared on the screen was a commercial leader that preceded the onset of the cartoon and was activated by a research assistant in the control room. The examiner adjusted the volume level on the television monitor, told the child she would return soon, and left while the commercial was playing, which allowed the examiner to remain blind to the identity of the cartoon condition.
The child was alone for the duration of the cartoon program while a research assistant observed through the one-way mirror and recorded the child's attention to the cartoon. Using Stein and Friedrich's (1972) criteria for attending, she observed the child in 10-s blocks and indicated whether he or she was attentive or not in the subsequent 5-s block. At the end of the cartoon program (when the standard commercial began), the research assistant signaled the examiner to re-enter the viewing room.
The examiner turned off the television monitor and escorted the child to the game room. The child was seated at the small table with the Help-Hurt game apparatus. Using essentially the same directions as Liebert and Baron (1972), the examiner explained
There's a child in another room who's going to play a game in just a minute. [The other child was, in fact, fictitious.] He(she) [same gender as subject] has to turn a handle, and this green light here [point] comes on each time the boy (girl) turns the handle. When this green light comes on, you have to push one of these two buttons. If you push this button [Help], that will make the handle easier to turn and will help the child to win the game. If you push this button [Hurt], that will make the handle feel ice cold. That will hurt the child, and he(she) will have to let go of the handle. Remember, this is the Help button, and this is the Hurt button [indicate]. See, it says Help and Hurt. . . This light comes on when you press the Help button, and this light comes on when you push the Hurt button. You have to push one of these two buttons each time the green light goes on, but you can push whichever one you want to. You can always push the same button or you can change from one button to the other whenever you want to, but just remember, each time the green light goes on, you can push only one. So if you push the Help button, then you help the other child, and if you push the Hurt button, then you hurt the other child. Now if you push the Help button for just a second, then you help the other child just a little, and if you push the Hurt button down for just a second, then you hurt the other child just a little. But if you push the Help button down a little longer, then you help the other child a little more, and if you push the Hurt button down a little longer, then you hurt the other child a little more. The longer you push the Help button, the more you help the other child and the longer you push the Hurt button, the more you hurt the other child. One more thing. Don't press both buttons at the same time. The lights won't come on and you won't be helping or hurting the other child [demonstrate].
The examiner then asked the child a series of questions to assess his or her comprehension of the game instructions (e.g., "What happens if you press the Help button?"). Parts of the explanation were repeated a second time if the child was confused. When the examiner felt that the child understood the task, she said that the other (fictitious) child would begin to play shortly and left to finish her work.
The examiner went to the control room to operate the Help-Hurt game and to record the number of seconds registered on the timers. There were 15 trials of 15 s duration with a 7-s intertrial interval. For each trial, she turned on the power/green light switch, timed the 15-s interval on a stopwatch, turned off the power/green light switch for 7 s, and recorded the number of seconds that accumulated on the timers corresponding to the Help and Hurt buttons. At the end of the 15th trial, she turned off the power switch and reentered the room to signal the end of the game.
Results and Discussion
The primary dependent measure was the total number of seconds the child pressed the Hurt button during the 15 trials. A 2 x 2 (Television Condition x Educational Classification) analysis of variance (ANOVA) yielded significant effects for television condition, F(l, 34) = 15.85,/? < .001, and educational classification, F(l, 34) = 6.73, p < .05; the interaction effect was not significant. The children who viewed the aggressive cartoon (M = 88.7) pressed the Hurt button significantly longer than those who viewed the comparison cartoon (M = 26.6), and the ED youngsters (M = 82.7) pressed the Hurt button significantly more than the LD youngsters (M = 41.3). Exploratory analyses were performed on IQ and age to examine their role in determining reactivity to the television conditions independently of educational placement. The median age and IQ were determined (88 months and 84, respectively), and two 2 x 2 ANOVAs (Television Condition x IQ Split, and Television Condition x Age Split) were conducted. Television condition was significant in both analyses, but there were no significant effects for IQ, age, or the interactions of these variables with television condition. Parallel analyses on the Help scores did not yield any significant effects (M Help score for the aggressive cartoon was 53.4; for the comparison cartoon, 69.9; for ED, 67.7; for LD, 57.6).
A t test on attention paid to the two cartoons did not reveal any significant difference. Attention to the aggressive and comparison cartoons averaged 88% and 84%, respectively.
The major finding of this study was that both ED and LD children exposed to an aggressive cartoon program were significantly more willing to hurt another child than were those who viewed a nonaggressive cartoon. This corroborates the findings reported for normal children in the same age range (Collins & Getz, 1976; Liebert & Baron, 1972; Liss et al., 1983), but additional research is required to document whether or not there are differences in the relative reactivity of handicapped and nonhandicapped children. Nevertheless, it would appear that the immediate impact on normal, ED, and LD children of a brief exposure to regularly broadcast television programs containing aggression is that it makes them more willing to inflict harm against another child in situations in which there are no deterrents for such behavior or opportunities for peer retaliation.
Our eyes contain millions of light sensitive cells, called rods and cones. Rods enable us to see light and motion. Cones enable us to see color. Dogs have two types of color-receptive cones: Green & Blue This enables dogs to see blue, green, and a little bit of yellow. Humans have three types of color-receptive cones: Green, Blue & Red. Our additional red cone enables us to see not only red, but all the colors that are derived from red. Butterflies have FIVE types of color-receptive cones: So in addition to seeing two colors we don't have names for, butterflies can see a massive spectrum of color our brains aren't even capable of processing.
When it comes to color vision, butterflies are almost at the top of the food chain. There is one other animal that has better vision than the butterfly: the mantis shrimp. The mantis shrimp lives in warm, shallow water, and typically grows to be between 6-12 inches (15-30 cm) in length. And this marvelous creature has not two, not three, not five, but SIXTEEN color-receptive cones. The rainbow we see stems from just THREE colors, so try to imagine a mantis' rainbow created from SIXTEEN colors. Where we see a rainbow, the mantis shrimp sees a THERMONUCLEAR BOMB of light and beauty.
Perhaps this is why they're so glorious to look at.
Being a creature who perceives and presents such beauty, one would expect the mantis shrimp to be some kind of undersea holy man, gracefully floating along the sea floor, high-fiving lobsters and blessing babies. Gentlemen! Stop this fighting at once! Your journey must be one of peace and love, not violence. Now kiss each other on the mouth.
This, however, couldn't be further from the truth. The truth is, the mantis shrimp is an undersea nightmare, and one of the most creatively violent animals on earth. It has two raptorial appendages on the front of its body. These accelerate with the same velocity as a gunshot from a twenty-two caliber rifle, and in less than three-thousandths of a second can strike prey with 1,500 Newtons of force. To put this in perspective, if human beings could accelerate our arms at 1/10th that speed, we'd be able to throw a baseball into orbit. Their limbs move so quickly the water around them boils in a process known as supercavitation. When these cavitation bubbles collapse it produces an undersea shockwave that can kill prey even if the mantis shrimp misses its target. The force of these collapsing bubbles also produces temperatures in the range of several thousand Kelvins and emits tiny bursts of light. This effect is called sonoluminescence. These are my murder sticks. There are many like it, but these ones are mine. Using these "murder sticks," dismemberment is primarily how the mantis shrimp kills its prey. It bashes other animals to pieces, smashing apart crabs, mollusks, oysters, and octopi until deliciousness starts squirting out. Aaaaaaad now you're dinner. Their limbs are so resilient, researchers have been studying their cell structure for use in the development of advanced body armor for combat troops.
Aquariums don't typically house mantis shrimps because they tend to slaughter every other creature they share a tank with. Why hello there, Mr. Handsome little seahorse! OneTwoThree DEATH! And also because they can break aquarium glass. Why hello there, Mr. Handsome little ape ... pig ... thing. OneTwoThree DEATH!
This is why the mantis shrimp is my new favorite animal, because in the presence of such extraordinary light and beauty it embraces DARKNESS. It extols DEATH with the luminescent brilliance of a DYING STAR. It is Genghis Khan bathed in sherbet ice cream. The mantis shrimp is the harbinger of blood-soaked rainbows. It is bright. It is dark. And it is beautiful.
-- Why the Mantis Shrimp is my new favorite animal, written and drawn by Matt Inman, theoatmeal.com
Although our findings are consistent with those of other researchers, they should be qualified on several grounds. First, direct assessments of the ecological validity of the Help-Hurt game as a measure of media reactivity are needed. There is some evidence, however, that supports the construct validity of the Help-Hurt game as a measure of aggression: Regardless of television condition, the ED youngsters pressed the Hurt button for significantly more time than did the LD children. This finding is consistent with both rating scale (e.g., Cullinan, Epstein, & Dembinski, 1979; McCarthy & Paraskevopoulos, 1969) and direct observation (Sprafkin & Gadow, 1987) studies, which show that ED children are more aggressive and engage in more negativistic behavior than do their LD peers. Second, the comparison program contained frequent instances of altruistic behavior, which might have magnified the differences between the two media conditions. Nevertheless, had the comparison program been a prosocial treatment, one would have expected the Help scores for this condition to be significantly higher than those for the aggressive cartoon, which was not the case. Incidentally, at least one research team (Liss et al., 1983) found that prosocial programs produce significant increases in Help scores.
Third, laboratory studies should be examined with regard to potential problems with ecological validity, problems that are generally less serious in field experimental designs. Interestingly, the field experiments have been reevaluated, and some researchers (Freedman, 1984; Hearold, 1986) have concluded that they provide little evidence to support the notion that there is an adverse effect unique to aggressive television content. Furthermore, the findings from our own recently completed field experiments on ED (Gadow & Sprafkin, 1987; Gadow, Sprafkin, & Ficarrotto, 1987; Sprafkin, Gadow & Gray son, in press) and LD (Sprafkin, Gadow, & Gray son, 1987) children are, in general, compatible with this interpretation. This disparity between laboratory and field experiments is both troubling and exciting. It is troubling because conflicting results are an impediment to reaching a consensus on the social significance of television violence as an environmental toxin, and it is exciting because an understanding of this dissonance may hold the key to clarifying the situational determinants of media reactivity.
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This study was funded in part by Grant No. MH30058 from the National Institute of Mental Health.
We wish to express our gratitude to James Burke, James Fogarty, Patricia Grayson, and Merrill Zusmer for making this study possible.
Requests for reprints should be sent to Joyce Sprafkin, Department of Psychiatry, State University of New York at Stony Brook, South Campus, Putnam Hall, Stony Brook, NY 11794-8790.