Behaviourism in Media

Looking at the theories that I have used in my first year studying Media, there are a few that cross into behaviourism. Previous posts featuring behaviourism are Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment and The Effects Model: Hypodermic Syringe.

The media is argued to be the most important cause of violence, bullying, addiction and the general decay of standards of taste and decency. Moral panics are said to be caused by the media: eating disorders, delinquency, sexualisation or ‘pornification’, online bullying, terrorism and paedophilia are a few examples. Not all moral panics are about the media, but the media is thought to play a role in circulating them.

The murder of James Bulger in 1993 was linked in the press to the film Child’s Play 3. However, there is no evidence that the murderers ever saw it.


Behaviourism has influenced researchers to see effects of media on children. B. F. Skinner and Pavlov’s dogs are well known in this field.

American advertisers were interested and some felt there might be advantages in using repeated messages or reinforcement in TV advertising. Bandura’s Bobo Doll Experiment is well known in this (click the above link to read more in a separate post).

The implications of the study were extended to violent media content. However, the research method ignores several basic problems: findings cannot necessarily be transferred across, and if people are likened to animals they will be assumed as passive.

Cognitive psychologists suggest children construct their own meaning from media.

Criticisms of this Effects Research: 

  • Ideas that violence is caused by the media are considered false and somewhat daft.
  • There is no evidence that harmful media is bad for audiences.
  • It is overly simplistic: poor methodologies do not consider media messages and assume that children are extremely passive, for a couple of examples.
  • It is often de-contextualised and therefore artificial.
  • Can be used as an excuse for more stringent and harsh regulation that could result in censorship.
  • It ethically undermines itself. If the media is bad, then doing experiments involving violent media is surely risky and unethical too.
Notes are from my semester 2 lectures and seminars as well as The Media Student’s Book by Gill Branston and Roy Stafford (P384).
I do not own the above image, it is from:

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