The case of Kenneth Weishuhn Jr. from South O’Brien High School in Paulina, Iowa raised serious concerns over the effectiveness of state’s 5-year old anti-bullying law, following the 14 year-old’s suicide in April this year. It is not always possible for school officials to identify the bullies until it is too late.

Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State University associate professor of psychology has conducted a new study published in July’s edition of Psychology of Popular Media Culture, which may offer a new approach for schools to help profiling students who are more likely to commit aggressive acts against other students.

Gentile’s study involved 430 children between the ages of 7 to 11 years (grades 3-5) from 5 Minnesota schools. He found that exposure to media violence is one of six risk factors to predict later aggression. The other five risk factors include low parental involvement, gender, bias toward hostility, physical victimization and prior physical fights. Knowing which students have a risk of aggression can help school officials to identify which students might have a higher tendency to fight or bully others later in the school year.

Gentile, who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State, explains:

“As you gain risk factors, the risk of aggression goes up disproportionally. Having one or two risk factors is no big deal. Kids are resilient – they can handle it. You get to three and there’s a big jump. When you get out past four risk factors, risk is increasing at a much higher rate than you would expect.”

He continues: “If we are concerned about bullying in schools, then this approach has real world implications for helping to target the kids who are at higher risk for bullying behavior so we could use our limited resources more effectively to reduce bullying in schools. We could profile kids by measuring their risk factors. In fact, I can get over 80 percent accuracy knowing only three things — are they a boy, have they gotten in a fight within the past year, and do they consume a lot of media violence? When you get out to having six risk factors, then we can predict with 94 percent accuracy, which kids will get into fights in the coming year. We just can’t predict which day.”

Gentile and Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and a former Iowa State psychology professor who works at The Ohio State University faculty state that the effects of media violence exposure may actually be underestimated by previous scientific measures in combination with other risk factors. Their study is a first to combine various risk factors to predict future aggression in students.

Gentile states: “This new statistical approach [relative weight analysis] actually allows us to get probably the most accurate assessment of how much each variable [risk factor] contributes to likely aggression, in combination with the others. It becomes clear that media violence is very similar to other known risk factors.”

Gentile and his team surveyed students and their teachers twice a school year, with the longest break between surveys consisting of 6-months. They measured physical aggression by using self-reports, peer-nominations and teacher reports of actual violence.

Participants were asked to list their three favorite TV shows, video games and movies in the self-reports, rating the frequency of watching or playing their favorite show/movie or game and its violence. The team used a system of calculating the overall violence exposure score for each participant that was successfully applied in other children and media violence studies. They multiplied the violence rating by the frequency of viewing/playing, averaging the results across nine responses.

Gentile highlights that high exposure to media violence is just one of the risk factors for increased aggression and should neither raise special concern or dismissal relative to other risk factors. The only difference between this risk factor and the others is that it is the easiest one for parents to control. Gentile commented:

“Most of the risk factors for aggression are really hard to change. You can’t easily change whether your child has previously been in a fight or bullied. That’s what makes this [media violence] different is that it’s actually fairly easy to control compared to most of the other risk factors. But how it acts as a risk factor is exactly the same as all others. It’s not the biggest, it’s not the smallest, it’s actually right there in the middle of the pack.”

Although researchers established that the impact of being exposed to media violence on a child’s later aggression is potentially underestimated, Gentile argues that it is the combination of risk factors, which ultimately proves the most vital in predicting which children will act aggressively in the future.

Written by Petra Rattue