Science Fair Project on Media Violence – Science Fair Research Paper

The Physical and Psychological Effects of Watching Media Violence

You can read the abstract on Violent Video Games here…


Scientists now understand that during the stress response an important chemical system becomes activated. Researchers have labeled this system the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). When a situation is perceived as stressful, a deep brain structure called the hypothalamus releases a hormone called CRF, which triggers the nearby pituitary gland to release the hormone ACTH.

ACTH then travels through the bloodstream to the adrenal glands located on top of the kidney. The adrenals are then stimulated to release the stress hormones known as corticosteroid and catecholamine. These hormones then initiate the “flight-or-flight” response. By increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, and organism is ready to either fight or flee from a threatening situation.

In order to understand the role of the hypothalamus in the “fight-or flight” response, one must understand its function in the broader brain structure called the limbic system. The limbic system, which includes the hypothalamus, thalamus, amygdala, and other structures, is not only important for the “fight-or-flight” response. It is also an essential part of the complex circuitry needed for learning, integrating past and present experiences, controlling aggressive behavior, and feeling or expressing emotions. The limbic system receives information from the cerebral cortex, the outer surface of the brain which integrates information about the environment from our senses. On a molecular level, scientists understand that the limbic system is mediated by two neurotransmitters called nor pinephrine and serotonin. Brain stem neurons containing nor epinephrine signal neurons containing serotonin, which then connect to the hypothalamus of the limbic system creating the “fight-or-flight” response. This complex system is therefore in place so that an organism can react when its survival is threatened.

Understanding the stress response if also important, because chronic stress has a detrimental effect on an organism. Chronically elevated corticosteroid levels can precipitate high blood pressure leading to heart disease. Stress hormones can also over stimulate and weaken the immune system, leading to frequent infections and illnesses known as autoimmune diseases. Stress hormones can cross into the brain and shrink the hippocampus, a brain structure important in memory and learning. And lastly, chronic stress deregulates the brain neurotransmitters, leading to illnesses like anxiety and depression.

Now that we understand stress and the complex stress response, we can step back and review the literature on the effects of media violence. We already know by work from Johnson and others that there is a link between violent television exposure and aggression in children and young adults. Bryant has determined that violent television leads to anxiety, mistrust of others, and fear of personal safety. Potter has concluded that women report more frightening reactions to media coverage than men. However, Cantril has suggested that one’s personality determines his reaction to frightening TV content more than any other factor. This personality factor has been called the ”locus of control”, and can be measured by a psychological survey. Locus of control is the term used to describe the extent to which a person feels he is in control of his environment. Those with an external locus of control are more fearful and thus more affected by the media.

They only felt more anxious of becoming a victim of a terrorist attack. Females did react more strongly than males, but more importantly, personality traits such as locus of control had more of an impact on a person’s response to media violence.

In conclusion, Congress and the medical community have had ongoing concerns about the effects of media violence on our society. Research on stress and the stress response reveal than an organism reacts to threatening stimuli with a complex system of neural and hormonal responses. Chronic stress produces damaging effects on multiple body systems. Research on the effects of media violence indicate that some people react with anxiety or aggression. On a molecular level, scientists are still uncovering how neurotransmitters ricochet around the brain and transmit what threats we see with our eyes to what we feel with our emotions We may always be bombarded with violent images in our society, but further studies are still needed to understand its impact on our well being.

Project Research

The Physical and Psychological Effects of Watching Media Violence

Violence is pervasive in American media. It is estimated that 60% of television material contains violent images and information. Studies have determined that during their school years children witness 180,000 TV murders, rapes, assaults, and armed robberies. Concerns about the negative effects of prolonged exposure to violent media prompted the U.S. Surgeon General and the American Medical Association to conclude that violent television has an adverse effect on society and causes aggression in children. There have even been congressional hearings to legislate what is appropriate material to be viewed by TV and film audiences. But what exactly are the physical and psychological effects of media violence on an individual? What studies have been done and can these effects be measured?

To begin to understand the effects of media violence, one must understand the concept of stress. Stress, as defined by engineers, describes how forces put a strain on an object. In 1936, Hans Selye adopted the term stress to describe the impact of various “noxious agents” on a biological organism. Selye believed that many different factors can put strain on an organism leading to the same phenomenon of stress. In addition, the term stress response refers to the series of neurological and hormonal events that affect the brain and body.

During the 1960’s, John Mason studied the stress response by measuring stress levels when patients were subjected to various stressors. Mason determined that the stress response was more likely triggered by situations that were perceived as novel or unpredictable. Other studies have revealed that the most important factor in determining a stress reaction was the individual’s sense of control over the situation. This would explain why studies have show that up to 30% of elderly people have higher levels of stress hormones. For this population, coping with chronic illness, loss of loved ones, and lack of sense of control increases stress.


I hypothesize that women have a stronger psychological and physical stress response to violence than men, but that after repeated exposure, that responses of both groups will lessen as they become desensitized to repeated viewing of violence.

Materials Used

Electronic blood pressure and heart rate monitor
Watch with a second hand for measuring respiratory rate
Clips from the following 3 movies: “Jaws”, “Swordfish”, and “Psycho”
TV with DVD player
Pencil and paper to record data
Graph paper and markers
Locus of Control survey

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