What Is the Impact of Violent Media on Mental Health?

kid playing a video game

Carol Yepes / Getty Images

One of the most studied—and most controversial—topics in media psychology is the impact of violent media on consumers, especially children. Violence in is movies, on television, in video games, and on the internet. It's also included in content aimed at kids, tweens, and teens, and therefore, it's no surprise that psychologists, parents, and media consumers, in general, are concerned about the impact it has on people.

As a result, ever since the advent of television decades ago, psychologists have investigated the possibility of a link between the consumption of violent media and increases in real-life aggression.

This article will explore the research on this topic including arguments for and against an association. In addition, this article will examine newer research that has found a relationship between exposure to violent content, especially via news media, and mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

Does Consuming Violent Content Lead to Increased Aggression?

Studies have consistently shown that media violence has an impact on real-life aggression. These studies use a diverse set of methods and participants, leading many experts on the impact of media violence to agree that aggression increases as a result of media violence consumption.

However, that doesn't mean exposure to media violence drives consumers to murder or other particularly violent acts. These studies explore different kinds of aggression, making the association the research has established between violent media and aggression more nuanced than it initially appears.

Evidence for a Link Between Violent Content and Aggression

Many experiments in labs have provided evidence that demonstrates that short-term exposure to violent media increases aggression in children, teenagers, and young adults. However, aggression doesn't always mean physical aggression. It can also mean verbal aggression, such as yelling insults, as well as thinking aggressive thoughts or having aggressive emotions.

There Varying Degrees of Aggression

Moreover, even physical aggression exists on a continuum from a light shove to something far more dangerous. As a result, people may become more aggressive immediately following exposure to media violence but that aggression manifests itself in a variety of different ways, a majority of which wouldn't be considered particularly dangerous.

Consuming Violent Media During Childhood May Result in Adult Aggression

More disturbing are the few longitudinal studies that have followed people over decades and have shown that frequent exposure to media violence in childhood results in adult aggression even if people no longer consume violent media as adults.

For example, one study found that frequent exposure to violent television at age 8 predicted aggressive behavior at ages 19 and 30 for male, but not female, participants. This effect held even after controlling for variables like social class, IQ, and initial aggressiveness.

Similarly, another study that surveyed 329 participants between the ages of 6 and 9 found that 15 years later the exposure of both males and females to television violence in childhood predicted increased aggression in adulthood. In particular, the 25% of study participants who viewed the most media violence in childhood were the most likely to be much more aggressive in adulthood.

These individuals exhibited a range of behaviors including:

This was especially true if they identified with aggressive characters and felt that television violence was realistic when they were children.

These findings suggest that frequent early exposure to television violence can have a powerful impact on individuals over time and well into their adult lives.

Why Is This Topic So Controversial?

So if there's so much research evidence for a link between media violence and real-world aggression, why is the debate over this topic ongoing? Part of the issue is one of definition.

Studies often define violence and aggression in very different ways and they use different measures to test the association, making it hard to replicate the results. Moreover, many researchers edit together media for lab experiments, creating a situation where participants must watch and react to media that bears minimal resemblance to anything they'd actually consume via TV, movies, or the internet.

As a result, even when these experiments find media violence causes aggression, the extent to which it can be generalized to the population as a whole is limited.

Of course, it would be naïve to think that consuming media violence has no impact on people, but it appears it may not be the most powerful influence. The effect of media violence is likely to vary based on other factors including personality traits, developmental stage, social and environmental influences, and the context in which the violence is presented.

It's also important to recognize that not all aggression is negative or socially unacceptable. One study found that a relationship between exposure to television violence and an increase in positive aggression, or aggression that isn't intended to cause harm, in the form of participation in extreme or contact sports.

Does Consuming Violent Media Lead to Mental Health Issues?

While psychologists have been studying the association between the consumption of violent media and increased aggression for well over 50 years, more recently, some have turned their attention to the impact of media violence on mental health concerns.

Consumption of Violent Media May Lead to Anxiety

Studies have demonstrated that there's a correlation between exposure to media violence and increased anxiety and the belief that the world is a scary place. For instance, an experimental investigation found that late adolescents who were exposed to a violent movie clip were more anxious than those who watched a nonviolent clip.

These findings suggest that the regular consumption of violent media could lead to anxiety in the long-term.

Constant Exposure to Violent Media Via Technology May Lead to Poorer Mental Health

Today, the violence shown on the news media may especially impact people's mental health. New technology means that violent events, including terrorist attacks, school shootings, and natural disasters, can be filmed and reported on immediately, and media consumers all over the world will be exposed to these events almost instantly via social media or news alerts on their smartphones and other devices.

Moreover, this exposure is likely to be intense and repeated due to the need to fill a 24-hour news cycle. Studies have shown that this kind of exposure, especially to acts of terrorism, has the potential to lead to depression, anxiety, stress reactions, substance use, and even post-traumatic stress (PTSD).

Plus, those who take in more images of a disaster tend to be more likely to experience negative mental health consequences. For example, in a study conducted shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, people who viewed more television news reports about what happened in the seven days after the event had more symptoms of PTSD than those who had viewed less television news coverage.

How to Cope With the Impact of Media Violence

Violence will continue to be depicted in the media and, for most adults, there's nothing wrong with watching a violent horror or action movie or playing a violent video game, as long as it doesn't impair your mental health or daily functioning.

However, if you feel you're being negatively impacted by the violence depicted in the media, especially after a disaster that's getting constant coverage on the news, the first solution is to stop engaging with devices that could lead to further exposure.

This means turning off the TV, and for anyone who frequently looks at the news on their computers or mobile devices, adjusting any settings that could lead you to see more images of a violent event.

How You Can Help Your Child

For parents concerned about children's exposure to violent media, the solution isn't to attempt to prevent children from consuming violence altogether, although limiting their exposure is valuable.

Instead, parents should co-view violent media with their children and then talk about what they see. This helps children become discerning media consumers who can think critically about the content they read, watch, and play.

Similarly, when a disturbing event like a school shooting happens it's valuable to discuss it with children so they can express their emotions and parents can put the incident in the context of its overall likelihood.

When to Seek Therapy

If a parent notices their child seems depressed or anxious after frequent exposure to media violence or an adult notices their mental health is suffering due to regular consumption of violent media, it may be valuable to seek the help of a mental health professional.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Anderson CA, Berkowitz L, Donnerstein E et al. The Influence of Media Violence on YouthPsychological Science in the Public Interest. 2003;4(3):81-110. doi:10.1111/j.1529-1006.2003.pspi_1433.x

  2. Huesmann LR, Eron LD. Television And The Aggressive Child: A Cross-National Comparison. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; 1986.

  3. Huesmann LR, Moise-Titus J, Podolski C-L, Eron LD. Longitudinal relations between children's exposure to TV violence and their aggressive and violent behavior in young adulthood: 1977-1992Dev Psychol. 2003;39(2):201-221. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.39.2.201

  4. Giles D. Psychology Of The Media. London: Palgrave Macmillan; 2010.

  5. Giles D. Media Psychology. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers; 2003.

  6. Slotsve T, del Carmen A, Sarver M, Villareal-Watkins RJ. Television Violence and Aggression: A Retrospective Study. Southwest Journal of Criminal Justice. 2008;5(1):22-49.

  7. Madan A, Mrug S, Wright RA. The Effects of Media Violence on Anxiety in Late AdolescenceJ Youth Adolesc. 2013;43(1):116-126. doi:10.1007/s10964-013-0017-3

  8. Pfefferbaum B, Newman E, Nelson SD, Nitiéma P, Pfefferbaum RL, Rahman A. Disaster Media Coverage and Psychological Outcomes: Descriptive Findings in the Extant ResearchCurr Psychiatry Rep. 2014;16(9). doi:10.1007/s11920-014-0464-x

  9. Ahern J, Galea S, Resnick H, Vlahov D. Television Images and Probable Posttraumatic Stress Disorder After September 11: The Role of Background Characteristics, Event Exposures, and Perievent PanicJournal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 2004;192(3):217-226. doi:10.1097/01.nmd.0000116465.99830.ca

  10. The Conversation. Here's How Witnessing Violence Harms Children's Mental House.