My Lunch with Annie Lang: Children, Violence, Imitation (and a darned good house salad)
Violence, Games & Art, Part Two
By Thom Gillespie, Maitre d'Igital for Cafe Technos
"Then, shall we simply allow our children to listen to any stories that anyone happens to make up, and so receive into their minds ideas often the very opposite of those we shall think they ought to have when they grow up?" Socrates in Plato's The Republic (translatiom by D. Lee, 2nd ed., Penguin, London 1987)

In Part One of this column on violence and media [see TQ 9:1], I interviewed folks, most of whom were in attendance at the most recent Computer Game Developer's Conference in San Jose, California, and who are involved with the design of computer games. I asked them a variety of questions, such as: whether they thought computer games could cause someone to harm another person; when the use of violence in a computer game is appropriate; and, do they or would they use violence in any games they designed. I think this was a reasonable starting point for thinking about violence in media, but the obvious area lacking in my interviews was a Q&A with anyone who actually studies and researches how messages are received and how they might actually influence behavior, either immediately or over a period of time due to exposure.

I teach in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University, so I am surrounded by faculty members who do study the process and effects of media communications. The department regularly offers a course on media and children, one of which has very high enrollment. The primary teacher of this course is Annie Lang, who studies how people in general process mediated messages. Her work focuses on how structural aspects of television -- such as cuts, edits, zooms, videographics, pacing, and audio/video redundancy -- affect involuntary attention processes such as orienting and capacity allocation, and how these responses alter how information is encoded and stored. Annie is interested in how the viewers' emotional responses to message content mediate this process. She is also the mother of two young children, an 11-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl, so her interest in children and media is more than merely academic.

I invited Annie to lunch at a local restaurant, plied her with sparkling cider and mineral water, turned on my tape recorder, and asked her to share her thoughts on media, violence, and children. To the best of my ability I have transcribed our conversation -- but some parts were difficult to understand on tape due to normal barroom fights and a waiter who persisted in trying to clear Annie's plate before she was finished eating. Annie is a very mellow person, but she will not give up the house salad without a fight. Luckily it didn't come to that. She finished her salad, and I got an exceptionally interesting interview -- one which, I think, puts Part One of this column in perspective.


Thom: Do you know of any research that looks at how children respond to pro-social messages, as opposed to how they respond to anti-social messages? Yes, I do. When you really look at the research on children and media, you see that the age of the child is very important because their response differs enormously. The brains of little children do not work like adults'; their brains work differently. So, young children are going to get a very different message and do very different things with a message than older children will.

Annie: It's hard for me to answer your question about kids without considering them as groups, such as 2- to 4-year olds, 5- to 7-year olds, 8- to 11-year olds, and 13- to 17-year olds. Once we get to the 13- to 17-year olds, we actually don't know anything about how they process messages, and in fact, about 17-year olds, we are almost totally ignorant.

In terms of pro-social research, it is theoretically very similar to anti-social research. It uses the same theories: theories of imitation, theories of repetition, theories of response reinforcement, positive and negative reinforcement; and it finds pretty much the same effects. If you show kids people doing nice things and they are positively reinforced for doing nice things, then kids will imitate those nice things. And, if you show them people doing nice things but they are negatively reinforced, then they won't imitate those nice things. So, kids will imitate what they see, whether it is good or bad, and they are more likely to imitate it if it is reinforced. Also, the more the child finds himself in a situation which looks like what he saw, the more likely he is to imitate the behavior he saw.

Thom: Can you give an example of a positive situation that is negatively reinforced? It happens in TV and movies all the time, where someone does something good but something bad happens to them. So, the explicit message -- which, by the way, is never the message the writers are trying to send -- is that you shouldn't do nice things because something bad will happen to you. This is how dramatic story works, and it is obviously a good way to build a plot, but it causes children to receive a different message than the intended message.

Annie: In a normal dramatic situation, a good person does something good and terrible things happen, so they sink to a low point, and the rest of the show is about them rising out of their misfortune.

Right, so it is not that uncommon for positive behavior to be negatively reinforced in the media, which if you are a young child who generally doesn't follow the normal plot lines, you receive a different message. One of the things about looking at kids under age 7 is that they don't really get it a lot of the time. The story that you are watching as an adult -- which is the story that the person wrote that you were meant to get -- is not the story the child is watching. For really young kids, their attention is not driven by narrative; it is driven by stimulus features. So, things that are bright colored, vivid, loud, or different are the things that actually drive their attention, which means the narrative really doesn't.

If you watch something with a little kid and ask them to tell you the story, they'll tell you a story about something that happened in the background. They will have missed the entire story that you had shown them. They will say, 'Oh, there was a dog walking down the street.' This will be a dog you didn't even notice during the showing. You can go back and check, and sure enough, there will be a dog walking down the street.

Little kids are what is called 'perceptually bound' -- they are very drawn into what they are seeing. They are perceptually biased to the vividness in the background; children are not really driven by concept. The older kids get, the more they become like grownups and start to follow the narrative.

Thom: Do you think this is why children often imitate the behaviors of the Ninja Turtles and the Power Rangers, because they don't really see the story, just the actions of these characters?

Annie: Absolutely! Some things automatically draw attention. Even if you are not afraid of snakes, they are going to startle you if you suddenly see one in your garden. Loud noises, you are automatically going to pay attention to. But, there is also emotional content in messages that you can't ignore. Why does everybody slow down when there is an accident on the side of the road? They have to, they can't help it, it is hard wired, and you have to look over there and see what it is because it is something in your environment that might have an impact on you. A lot of the things in violent media are very powerful attention getters, including beating people up. It is not something you can not look at; you have to respond to it. And so do little kids. They see these things, and bam! You've got them. It's cool, it's colorful, it's bright, it's interesting, and the people engaging in those behaviors are rewarded -- they are the heroes. So when the kids go out to play, this media experience gives them a story line to play with. They do what they saw the Power Rangers do because kids are imitative beings.

As a society and as parents, we are always adding rules about things children are allowed to imitate and things children are not allowed to imitate. This is a very long and interesting process. Johnnie sees someone hit somebody, and he hits somebody back, and society comes along and says, 'Johnnie, you are not allowed to hit people.' And yet Johnnie does it again, and society comes back and tells him 'no' again, and it continues until the 'no's' outweigh the urge to hit -- and in the process, Johnnie becomes more social.

Power Rangers, wrestling, all those things are very perceptually interesting stimuli. They tend to be very positively rewarded in the situations kids see them in, and they are very available to kids to imitate. Kids can do the things they see. Wrestling is a great example. The number of injuries to kids playing wrestling is going up as more and more kids watch wrestling. Wrestling is a very available thing they can do. You and I can't imitate wrestling very well because I can't pick you up, but if you take 2- to 5- or 7-year olds, their strength-to-weight ratio is such that they can pick each other up and slam each other down, just like in wrestling. So they do it because they saw it, and they can imitate the wrestlers, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Most of what you have been talking about is research on very young kids ... Perceptual boundedness, the 'not following the narrative' that is in young kids. One of the things which is really interesting is how much young kids don't get, because we assume that kids are getting the message content.

It is very hard for us to know what message the kids are getting when they see a violence that is outside their abilities to understand. People often say that the message is animated, so kids know it is not real. No way! That simply isn't true. Kids have a real hard time distinguishing fantasy and reality when they are small. Children under 4 years old, if they see one of their parents on TV, they will talk to that parent and get very upset when Mommy or Daddy doesn't respond. They think their parent can hear them. There is a real 'not understanding' that the person on TV is not the real person. There is a lot more confusion about fantasy and reality with young kids than most adults acknowledge. That is what the research suggests.

Thom: How long do you think the effect of being exposed to violent media lasts? Do you think it is a cumulative effect?

Annie: Yes ... some of the effects are cumulative. People clearly desensitize. If you show them bad things on Monday and bad things on Tuesday and bad things on Wednesday and keep showing them bad things, pretty soon the bad things don't look so bad, and you have to show them badder things to make it look as bad as the first bad thing on Monday. So, just in terms of judgments and physiological responses, they don't respond as strongly over time with exposure.

Now, that is a cumulative effect -- it is going to go on all the time across your entire life, and you can observe it. If you talk to people who watch a lot of movies compared to people who do not watch a lot of movies, what they consider bad seems to be very different. The amount of violence it takes to freak someone out who does not watch a lot of movies is much lower. So, people clearly desensitize in terms of their judgments and responses, and they need more violence to get the same effects.

In terms of violence, take your typical adolescent who has just been watching some really freaky show. You've read the statistics that the average adolescent has watched so many million murders by the time he reaches age 18. Take this person who has been accumulating more and more violence over the course of his life while watching media, and there is some effect of seeing violence presented in a fairly positive light and perhaps positively reinforced and probably not negatively reinforced.

Stacked up against that are all the messages society is sending: you shouldn't hit, you shouldn't fight, you shouldn't do this, you shouldn't do that, this is good, that is bad -- they are counter messages, so he is getting both all the time. It is kind of a balancing act. Hopefully, both are building up; hopefully, the good ones are building up faster than the bad ones. But, a lot of the things which predict whether kids will be more affected by media violence are things like single parent families, lack of a parent who watches TV with his kids, all those sorts of things. A problem could be that the good messages aren't building up as quickly as the bad messages. So, then when a stimulus comes in or when there is a situation in which you can choose a violent alternative, which is the bigger reinforcement: the violent alternative or the message not to do violence? Over time and in different situations, that ratio changes. That is a cumulative effect.

Thom: I was looking at a longitudinal statistic that traces violent behaviors from 1955 to today, and it is a seriously increasing slope from left to right, with violent actions increasing. Where do you think media violence fits into an equation, one that includes guns and drugs, single parents, and economic inequalities?

Annie: Media violence is a contributing factor. Is it the major contributor? Probably not. But it does interesting things to people's judgments, and it gives people a lot more bad alternatives to choose from. Between ages 9 and 17, when life is changing rapidly for a child, it might be nicer to have fewer choices of how to respond in certain situations. The big problem of media reality is that it is so clean. It gives you the impression of reality without any bad stuff. Even if the story ends and the bad guys go to the gas chamber, this negative outcome is so small compared to the sensations and experiences of all that led up to that final negative retribution as to not exist in the child's mind.

All armies have done this for years: put people in situations where they have to do stuff they have been taught all their lives not to do, and they have them do it over and over, again and again, until they will do whatever theya ret old, including to kill people. This is progressive desensitization. We know it works. It works if you are scared of spiders, it works if you are scared flying, and it works for lots of other things. We do know that the percentage of society actually involved in violent actions is not very big -- but to double this percentage can create enormous changes in society. There is one study that looked at the introduction of television into South Africa. It used regression analysis, which uses the number of television stations or the number of broadcast hours to predict the murder rate, and it shows them increasing together in an amazing way. Before TV comes in, the murder rate is stable; and then TV comes in, and the rate increases. Now, lots of other thing change when television is introduced in terms of societal and economic changes, so there is conflicting multiple causation -- but at the same time, I don't think it makes sense to think that media isn't a significant contributor. A lot of the research shows a 4- to 5-percent change, and that is high. A 5-percent change in crime is significant.

Thom: Around 1953 TV appears, and that seems to mark a steady increase in violent behavior. But around the mid-1980s, the violent games start to appear. I'm wondering if anyone has noticed changes beginning at that point, because it is one thing to watch someone get killed on TV, but it is something else to actually be the cause of that media death.

Annie: I don't think there is any research of a longitudinal nature that has looked at penetration of violent video games compared to crimes committed by an age group. There have been a number of studies which compare kids who play a lot of violent video games with kids who play fewer violent games. There are some problems with this research, though. For instance, it was done in the mid-1980s, when most games were not very violent compared to today's first-person shooters, such as Doom, Quake, Thrill Kill, etc. But, even those studies found some effects by looking at dependent variables such as delinquency, teacher's assessments of aggression, and parental assessments of aggression.

Thom: What would you expect the imitative effect would be today with the ultra-realistic violent games and the player able to do the violence, as opposed to just watching violence happen on a screen?

Annie: Theoretically, I don't see how there couldn't be a difference. I don't see how you can have the experience over and over again, playing with a joystick and pushing a button or pulling a trigger, blowing people up and feeling really good about it -- how you can do that over and over again without changing your inhibition to do that. Now, sure you are getting all those messages telling you not to do this or that, but these messages aren't nearly as emotional, as arousing, as packed with physical sensation as the experience of playing the game. I think of the computer game experience as a possible powerful disinhibitor effect, which means that if a kid who plays a lot of those games found himself in a situation with a gun in their hand and a bad guy coming for them, they would shoot faster than a kid who didn't play video games. Now, this is a very different thing to say than to conclude that they will therefore go get a gun and shoot all their friends. But on the one hand, you have disinhibited something, which as a society we try to inhibit very, very strenuously -- and on the other hand, is it really very different from running around with your spud gun on your bicycle and shooting each other in 1950 in Middle America?

In the research we have done with first-person video games, one of the most interesting things we found is that the emotional state the player enters while playing is extremely positive. They are way out on the positive end of valence and very aroused. Most other media -- TV is a great example -- are sort of negative. By and large, people never move. If you show them a really happy thing on TV, they will say they feel good, but TV watching itself as a long-term experience is actually not too powerful, and a slightly negative emotional experience. It can be arousing for moments but not for long, sustained periods. Whereas with these video games, the kids get going and their arousal is up, both physiologically and in terms of self-report. The player records feeling very happy, very positive, so you are pairing a positive emotional state with the act of watching and doing blood and guts. Reinforcement -- that is how we get people not to be scared of things. Disinhibiting those acts but not necessarily disinhibiting the planning required to commit that act.

Thom: What role do you think story plays in this new medium? Television is extremely moralistic -- there are good guys and bad guys, and bad guys usually get it in the end. Video games to date really don't have the plot-driven story lines of other media. Do you think this has any impact on how kids of varying ages interpret the violence and might imitate what they see and do?

Annie: Yes. Actually, this is the topic of the dissertation of one of my students. He had subjects play four games, two of which had story lines and two of which didn't. In the story-line games, you are shooting people to help your character achieve a goal; and in the non-story-line games, you're just shooting people. My student expected that women would like games with stories better than men, which didn't turn out to be true. Everybody liked the games with story lines better than the games without them. They were more aroused, they had a sense of being there, they felt more positive, so the story added to this 'wow-I'm-really-having-a-good-time' feeling, compared to the other games. It also did interesting things to the labels people reported they were feeling in terms of their motives for playing the games. It was interesting, because this was one place where there were sex differences. The women always, regardless of whether there was a story or not, reported that their primary motivations were to help their character to achieve his or her goals. But for men, when there was no story, their motivation was to overcome all, kill all, shoot anything that moved; but when there was a story, their reported motivation switched to helping out their character.

Motivations do matter. Is it worse to kill to help somebody? This is a really interesting question. The violence in kids and media research with TV shows that kids are much less likely to imitate violence if it is negatively reinforced or if they are told it is a bad thing to do. A lot of violence is justified on television, and kids perceive it that way; they buy into that justification. It fits with children's ethical and moral development between around ages 6 through 12. 'It's okay that I hit him because he hit me' -- that is right where kids live. Their level of moral development is not to say that it is never okay to hit back. Eventually, they understand, and you hope that they eventually learn to not do it.

So when media start to add reasons for why something can be done, will this make it easier for you to actually plan to do it? Actually doing it to help someone achieve a goal -- now you are adding something new into the mix. You are training children to achieve goals through violence. And this is [First Name?] Gerbner's research, where he says that it is not that a child sees violence over and over again on TV, it's not the repetition, it's not the imitation, it's the constant message being sent that you can solve problems quickly through violence because they are all solved in an hour. The story doesn't matter, since all problems are solved quickly through violence. That is also what video games do. You find a way to achieve success with a violent solution. You are encouraging violent solutions to problems as a motivational tool, and that is a different question than simple imitation or simple disinhibition, an interesting question. It opens up violence as a possibility to solve problems. So, if you are one of these high school kids and everyone hates you and you hate them and life sucks and you are depressed because your hormones are kicking in, then one possible solution -- that you can just blow everybody away -- might be more likely to occur to you.

Thom: Given that interactive media is becoming more ubiquitous, what do you think will be the emerging research areas?

Annie: Interactive media has all the problems of studying any kind of media. There are multiple causation problems, which you cannot control. It is going to be just as hard to look at as violence on television. But, many of the approaches will be similar to television research: surveys about how much interactive media is used related to outcomes in their lives, experimental research with kids playing violent video games and then putting them into a room with other kids to see if they act out or are more likely to be aggressive than kids who don't play violent games. Some of this is already being done and showing similar effects to earlier media research.

Thom: Suppose someone came to you and said they wanted you to look at the effects of violent computer games on 13- to 18-year olds, how would you approach this problem?

Annie: Very carefully ... I'd feel very disinclined to do a good study in this area because I think I would have an ethical problem with taking a 15-year old who does not play violent video games and make him play a lot of them. I think I would be doing that child a disservice. But, I think someone needs to do that and watch what changes over time. I'm a parent, I've got a boy, and he plays violent video games. I generally don't think that removing media from kids works. I think the only way you can fight media is by building up the opposite, pro-social messages, and building critical consumers of media because your kids are outside your reach at vulnerable ages. By the time they hit ages 13 to 17, they are gone; you can't keep them from watching media or playing video games or anything else. So, if a kid has made a choice not to do that, I don't really want to bring that kid in and require it of him for research purposes. I don't think I could even get human-subjects approval at a university, and I don't think I would want to do it if I could. As soon as you get into comparing kids who play a lot with kids who don't play a lot, you get into considering what made one kid want to play a lot and another not want to play. Maybe that is the critical causal effect.


The issue of media and violence is both clear and cloudy at the same time. It is clear that there is no hard research which proves that most kids who watch violent movies or play violent games will march, trance-like, to their dad's closet, lock and load the family 30-30, and re-enact the opening scenes from the movie Natural Born Killers or the opening sequences of the games Doom, Quake, or Unreal. What is very cloudy is the well-documented effects of violent media over time: disinhibition and progressive desensitization.

The solution Annie Lang offers is the hard one in which parents must make a concerted effort to be involved in the media-consumption habits of their children. The job of the parent is to build up the "good messages" to counteract the positive reinforcement of negative behaviors often found in violent media. As Annie says, "By the time they [the kids] hit ages 13 to 17, they are gone." Parents have no time to waste.

Two other groups also must share responsibility in our society. One is the media designers who create the messages. They must understand that parts of their messages -- which they might not even consider as "the message" -- can have a long-time impact on the development of any child or person who might consume their messages. In some cases, the depiction of violence is part of the truthfulness we demand of art: King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Medea, Saving Private Ryan, A Clockwork Orange all spring to mind. Others do not seem as honest.

The other group that shares a responsibility are the folks in American society who think that 270,000,000 licensed guns in the year 2000 make us free and safe.

The problem isn't one group or another group. The problem is societal. We all need to come together on this issue because, like it or not, there will always be the one person who walks a thin line and just needs a nudge in a society brimming with violent messages and guns at easy access.

Sincerely, Thom , your Maitre d'Igital for the Cafe TECHNOS
Cafe TECHNOS is online at
Thom can be reached at
Annie Lang can be reached at