War Toy Research
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NCTV's War Toy Bibliography

Thirteen out of 15 studies on war toys and toy guns have reported finding harmful effects in normal children from playing with violent toys when compared to non-violent toys. The studies have covered over 380 children. The studies have been done at the Universities of Pennsylvania, Miami, Utah, Kansas, Montana, and Wisconsin as well as by the National Coalition on TV Violence in Champaign, Illinois. Modern war toys included in the research include Star Wars, He-Man & Masters of the Universe, and Transformers.

The findings can be said to show "overwhelming" evidence of harmful effects, especially if combined with twelve additional studies on violent video games and 31 studies on violent cartoon programming. Increases in minor anti-social behavior in normal children were found in each instance and the most typical degree of impact was a 100% short-term increase in aggression due to the violent toys. This increase in not really so great as the average parent would be able to notice it without keeping careful records.

According to NCTV's experience from doing three research experiments in five different classrooms, the normal day to day variations in levels of playground fighting and anti-social behavior are quite large and hide the effects of war toy play. This could be partialed out only by doing research that lasted for 10-12 days and by detailed record keeping. Thus, although the impact may be quite significant, especially when millions of children across an entire nation are being exposed, the short-term impact on one child might be missed by a parent who is not sensitive to day to day fluctuations in his child's behavior and its various causes. Still, in informal interviews in Illinois, NCTV has found that a sizeable number of parents have noticed signs of harmful effects. According to Dr. Radecki, NCTV Research Director, his own experience in treating problem children in psychiatric practice is that many parents, often those whose children have the worst problems, ignore the evidence of harm. Their children develop behavior patterns high in violence which tend to get worse with time.

Although the long-term impact of war toy play is almost certain to be less than the short-term impacts found in these studies, excellent research has found that levels of minor anti-social behavior in childhood are fairly good predictors of convictions for juvenile delinquency and adult criminality later in life. In other words, the findings of these studies are quite frightening when we realize that the large majority of violent behavior is learned behavior and that violent toy play and the violent TV programs that now often accompany such toys are often the first role models that many young children are learning from the society beyond their own personal homes.

Dr Radecki: Children should never be allowed to play at being violent, e.g. pretending to kill each other or other types of play fighting, any more than they should be allowed to engage in play sex.  Both are very inappropriate.  Unfortunately, most of us have become so desensitized due to being brought up on a heavy diet of violent entertainment that we don't realize that having fun pretending to murder people is not healthy fun.  In fact, it is teaching children to be sadistic and I see many normal children who have a little bit of a sadistic streak.

With my own children, it has been extremely easy to keep them from playing with violence.  From before the age of two, they were taught how to recognize violent toys.  Our television has no antenna or cable, only a VCR.  The libraries have huge numbers of non-violent and educational videos to check out.  This way parents have very good control of the values their children are being taught.  An added benefit is that your children hardly ever pester you for the newest toy out on the market.  We teach our children that if someone gives them a violent toy as a gift that we will give them a free non-violent toy of equal or greater value of their choosing.  However, if they hide the violent toy and it is found, it is thrown away with no replacement.  This system has worked very well.  My children just don't find violent entertainment to be any fun.  They read huge numbers of non-violent books, both fictional and non-fiction (which I strongly encourage), and are extremely creative in their play.

Annotated Bibliography on War Toys (1956-1987)

Feshbach, S.(1956). The catharsis hypothesis and some consequences of interaction with aggressive and neutral play objects. J Personality 24:449-462.

A study of 61 second and third grade children in a university elementary school had the children divided into three groups with a block randomization method to assure an equal number of high and low aggression children in each. The two toy groups had a 50-minute play period during which they heard a record and a story and were then permitted to play with toys available fitting the themes. The aggressive toy themes were Indians, cowboys, soldiers, and pirates. The neutral toy themes were trains, circus, farm, and store. Aggressive behavior fitting the themes, e.e.g. sword fighting, wrestling, were not counted. Inappropriate aggressive behavior, such as taunting, striking another, or making derogatory remarks were counted. Fantasy aggression was inappropriate aggression directed at a toy, while peer aggression was directed at other children.

The children playing with the aggressive toys were found to exhibit a dramatic increase in inappropriate aggression, i.e. over 300%, with the impact slightly greater on the older children. Teachers also noted an increase in classroom aggression amongst the boys originally low in aggression (Univ of Pennsylvania).

Mallick, S.K. & McCandless, B.R.(1966). A study of catharsis of aggression. J Personality Soc Psychology 4:591-596.

Boy and girl 3rd graders were annoyed or not annoyed by a 6th grader who through clumsiness prevented them from finishing a block-construction task resulting in them losing money. The 6th grader also made sarcastic comments that the 3rd graders were being greedy. Afterward, the 3rd graders (a) were told by the experimenter that the 6th grader had been sleepy and upset, (b) chatted with the experimenter about unrelated topics, or (c) shot at a picture of student with a toy gun.

The explanation (a) by the experimenters decreased hostility, but the target practice (c) resulted in particularly intense hostility.

Wright, Sara Frances(1967). The effect of military toys on peer aggression. Unpublished master's thesis. University of Iowa.

Six groups of 4-year-olds, eight in a group, were either given a toy rifle, helmet, and cartridge belt or a hammer, screwdriver, flashlight, wrench, and pliers. On a subsequent play session the conditions were reversed. There was no difference in the amount of pushing, threatening, grabbing, hitting, or destruction between the groups. The children were filmed by a hidden camera in a playroom.

Berkowitz, Leonard(1968). Impulse, aggression and guns. Psychology Today, 2, 18-22.

Berkowitz of the University of Wisconsin reviews research showing that when subjects see a weapon, they are more likely to be aggressive than when they do not see a weapon. A study with a group of children given toy guns to play with were more willing to knock down a companion's toy blocks than were those who had not had the toy guns to play with. The preplay with the toy guns lowered the children's threshold of aggression.

Mendoza, A.(1972). The effects of exposure to toys conducive to violence. Doctoral dissertation, Miami.

Mendoza found that 40 5-6-year-old children (12 black, 26 white, one Oriental and one East Indian) engaged in more aggressive play when exposed to assorted war toys, e.g. toy guns, tanks, and soldiers, than when they played with neutral toys. Children had been videotaped during a 20-minute play period with markedly more aggressive behavior counted after playing with the violent toys [p at the .001 level]. A harmful impact was noted for both boys and girls.

Turner, C.W., & Goldsmith, D.(1976). Effects of toy guns and airplanes on children's antisocial free play behavior. J Experimental Child Psychol 21:303-315.

Turner completed three studies in all on violent toys. The first use 16 4-5-year-old children and found that the presence of toy guns increased the number of children's physical and verbal aggressive behavior [p less than .001].

A second study of 10 4-5-year-old children in a University of Utah preschool compared the effects of introducing toy airplanes and toy guns into the children's play time and regular toy play. This was to try to control for the possible effect of the simple introduction of a new toy. Observers noted any verbal or physical antisocial behavior, e.g., curses, insults, critical comments, bossiness, threats to hurt, hits, kicks, bites, pushes, grabs, damage to property, and teases. Thematic play, such as, "Bang, bang, you're dead," was not counted. The rate of anti-social behavior was considerably (roughly 100%) higher on the days children had toy guns to play with compared to toy airplanes.

A third study with 13 4-5-year-old boys had the observers hidden behind a one-way mirror and introduced the toy airplanes on days before the days the toy guns were introduced. Only physical anti-social behaviors were recorded. Again, a significant 110% increase in physical aggression was noted with the toy guns compared to the toy airplanes. Inter-rater reliability was high. Turner notes that violent toys may provide cues to children to rehearse violent behaviors they have seen on television.

Wolff, C.M.(1976). The effects of aggressive toys on aggressive behavior in children. Dissertation Abstracts International Vol. 37, Order No. 76-25, 706.

A University of Montana study of six kindergartners playing with neutral toys or aggressive toys during four alternating five-day periods. The boys showed an increase in aggression in the playroom during the aggressive toy days, but the girls did not.

Etaugh, Claire & Happach, Arlene(1979). Effect of aggressive play on children's subsequent aggressive behavior. Psychological Reports 45:656-658.

Bradley University researchers in Illinois had two groups of six preschoolers from 21-months to 32-months-old from a university nursery school either hit a punching bag toy or draw on a chalkboard for 5 min. during 19 1-hr. free-play sessions. The treatments were administered in different corners of the same playroom shielded by screens. Aggressive behaviors recorded for a five-minute period after the treatments included hitting, pushing, throwing an object at another child, pulling an object away from another child and verbal expressions of aggression. There was not a significant difference in increased aggression between the two groups. However, the experimental groups did show sizeable increases in aggressiveness during the treatment period of 87% while the control group showed an increase of only 43% compared to baseline. If these differences had been maintained using a larger sample size, there is no doubt that the difference would have been significant. Also, there may have been a contamination effect since the children drawing on the chalkboards mixed with the punching bag children each day in the same play area after the punching bag treatments. The increased aggression in the chalkboard group may have been due to retaliatory and instigated aggression effects caused by increased aggressiveness by the punching bag children. Both the authors of the study and Brian Sutton-Smith, an opponent of the efforts against war toys see the Etaugh study as relating to the war toy controversy.

Gribbins, Mary(1980.) Granny knows best. New Scientist Nov., 1979, pg. 350-351.

This report was the only one brought by the Toy Manufacturers of America representative to a TV debate on Good Morning America with Dr. Radecki of NCTV. Actually, the toy industry apologist brought a clipping from the National Enquirer dated 11/18/80 and entitled "Playing with toy guns can prevent children's violence." The observational report is so faulty that it serves to show the biased point of view of the Toy Manufacturers of America and the tendency of some news reporting to focus on the bizarre and sensational. No published study of war toy research has ever been the focus of a news article with the exception of NCTV's work which NCTV vigorously promoted. The toy industry has felt obligated to play the role of the defenders of violence.

The New Scientist is not a research journal or a refereed journal. It is more a conversationalist pop science magazine. The article is an observational report of two different pre-schools in Brighton, England done by Sussex University staff. At one nursery school, children was allowed to play with toy guns indoors and under strict adult supervision. In this group there were strict rules of acceptable behavior with a "naughty corner" for anti-social behavior. The toy guns were available, but were seldom used in even a mock-violent way in this group. In the other pre-school, children played outside without violent toys, but did it so in a totally permissive environment. In the permissive pre-school, Gribbins notes that some of the children used Legos and other objects as guns, tanks, and swords. When adults did intervene it was to give attention to children who had been bullying in the philosophy that this was a sign that they needed understanding and not punishment according to Gribbin. The toy gun-strict supervision group was involved in only five verbal threats and no acts of physical violence, but the non-violent toy-permissive environment group was involved in 41 verbal threats and 90 acts of physical violence. Supposedly 36 of the violent acts were "extremely violent incidents." In the National Enquirer article, but not in the New Scientist, Gribbins came out in favor of the toy guns. Unfortunately, the Gribbin's report is hopelessly confounded by having very different play environments, one with very strict adult supervision and the other without.

Actually, Gribbin's article could be taken to support concern about violent role-playing. It will be noted above that it was the group where children were playing war, albeit with Legos, that had the higher level of violent behavior. The children who had the toy guns apparently did not play with them as toy guns because such violent behavior was strictly forbidden. The bizarre interpretation that Gribbins gives her observations in the National Enquirer article is simply incredible.

Slife, B.D. & Rychlak, J.F.(1982). Role of affective assessment in modeling aggressive behavior. J Personality and Social Psychology 43:861-868, October, 1982.

Viewing adults playing violently with various toys was found to markedly increase aggressive play in 32 normal 1st and 2nd grade children when compared to 32 children who did not see the aggressive models. The adults were viewed on television videotapes for 10 minutes spanking with a tennis racket, strangling with a jump rope, etc. Children who liked the toys used and the violent actions involved were more strongly affected, although those who disliked the violence were still harmfully affected to a lesser extent. Univ of Santa Clara. (Ed.-This study reminds us of the G.I. Joe and Transformer war toy ads where children are taught to persecute and kill the enemy while engaging in everyday play with their friends.)

Radecki, T.E. & Canevello, P.(1985). A comparison of the effects of HeMan and Transformer war dolls and cartoons vs. non-violent Cabbage Patch and Fraggle Rock dolls on young children. NCTV News 7(Supplement):1-4.

In the first of two studies, 20 4-5-year-old boys and girls at a Champaign, Illinois middle-class preschool either played with their usual toys, or HeMan and Masters of the Universe dolls, or Cabbage Patch dolls on different days. The research format was essentially a replication of the second Turner study noted above. The findings were that when the children were playing with the HeMan dolls they showed twice the level of anti-social behavior as the children playing with the Cabbage Patch dolls. Interestingly, both boys and girls enjoyed playing with the Cabbage Patch dolls. Girls role-played mothering behavior, while boys appear to use the dolls more as playmates in their role-playing behaviors. The authors noted that according to the research findings, giving a doll a gun or a sword doesn't turn the doll into a boy's doll. It rather turns to doll into a violent doll.

In a second study Radecki and staff compared the effects of playing with Transformer fantasy military dolls and Fraggle Rock dolls. both are tied to TV cartoons although the Fraggle Rock cartoon is non-violent in nature (HBO). The Transformer cartoon was developed by a toy company to help sell the war dolls, while the Fraggle Rock cartoon was developed as a positive children's TV program with the toys being added afterward. In this study, the children also watched a 15-minute segment of cartoon programming of the same theme before the open play periods. The children again showed twice the level of anti-social and aggressive behavior when playing with violent dolls, than when playing with the dolls of a non-violent nature. In both studies the level of violence, although doubled, was still not so marked so as to be noticeable until data were tabulated. Children played with each type of toy for three days in both studies.

Potts, R., Huston, A., & Wright, J.(1986). J Experimental Child Psychology 41:1-17, 1986.

The University of Kansas researchers looked at a number of programs and toys and their impact on the play of 3- to 6-year-old boys. The violent toys used were Star Wars dolls. They found increases in both fantasy aggression and in fighting and other forms of physical aggression in the children.

Thomas E. Radecki, Neva Sheehan, Dianne Zdunich, & Sujin Rhee (1987). Effects of interactive war toys vs non-violent construction toys on anti-social free play behavior in normal children. NCTV News 8:Supplement. (National Coalition on Television Violence, Champaign, IL, U.S.A.)

Thirty-three children in a secular pre-school, a Christian school 2nd grade and a Christian school 4th grade were observed during 10-12 sessions in which they did their usual school work, played with age-specific construction toys or played Captain Power. The Captain Power game involves shooting an interactive toy military weapon at the TV set during the Captain Power Television Show in an attempt to kill the bad guys. In two of the three groups the interactive war toy video game led to a significant increase in minor antisocial playground behavior--hitting, hair pulling, aggressive chasing, etc. In the third group there was a trend toward increased aggressive behavior. There was an average of 80% more playground aggression on the Captain Power days.

College Students Rate War Toys

Patricia Owen of St. Mary's University in San Antonio had 88 college students rate various war toys on their visual impact. Ratings of the 28 war toys for their degree of apparent anti-social (intended to frighten, injure, or damage others) or pro-social qualities. 79% were rated as high or very high in anti-social qualities. These included Thundercats (Mumm-Ra and Lion-O), SuperNatural (Skull and Lion Heart), Rambo (Rambo and General Warhawk), Chuck Norris (Chick Norris and Ninja), Bravestar (Tex-Hex and Bravestar), Visionaries (Leoric and Cindarr), Rocklords (Magmar and Boulder), Masters of the Universe (Skeletor and HeMan), G.I. Joe (Cobra Commander), Silverhawk (Mon-star), Galvitron (Transformers).

Offending toy companies were Hasbro, Mattel, Tonka, LJN (MCA), Kenner, and Coleco.