The Payne Fund Studies
Between 1929-1932, a series of research studies was performed
to examine movies and their effects on children. There was a total
of 13 studies financially supported by The Payne Fund, a private
foundation. Each study fell into one of three main categories
of research: film content, audience composition, and effects on
children. The researchers found that there were impacts on children
moviegoers ranging from learning and attitude change to emotion
stimulation and behavior influence. This milestone research built
the foundation for more recent studies involving the effects of
movies, television and video games on children.
At the time of the research, information sources were limited, and the movies were still a novelty. The experience of sitting in the movie theater activated multiple senses unlike other media at the time, such as radio or newspapers, which are dominated by only one sense. Also, during this postwar period, there was a continued "legacy of fear" of the power of the media to influence the masses. The controlling power behind propaganda had recently been exposed, and was still fresh in many minds. Finally, this was a time of a perceived erosion of moral standards. Children, who regularly attended the movies unsupervised during the Saturday matinee, were seen at risk from the influences of this powerful medium. The unknown effects of movies (a new technology) on the next generation frightened many grownups, and researchers set out to discover the truth about movies and children.
The methodology for each of the Payne Fund studies varied based
on the specific research question being addressed. Qualitative
analysis of the movies was used to determine the categories of
movie content. Census and survey data was used to determine the
actual audience attending these movies. Effects were measured
using experimental design, questionnaires, case studies and personal
interviews. Emotional stimulation was measured using laboratory
From the actual attendance of more than fifty Ohio communities, the researchers projected the national movie attendance figures. It was found that children attended the movies more frequently than adults, and between 1929-30 children went to the movies on average once a week.
The content of the movies being shown at this time (1920-1930) was derived from an analysis of 1500 films. Ten categories of content were determined: crime, sex, love, mystery, war, children, history, travel, comedy, and social propaganda.
Studies of effects included the effects on children's information acquisition, attitude change, emotion stimulation, health, and behavior. Children acquired and retained information they received in the movies. Attitudes concerning ethnic, racial and social issues were changed by movie viewing. Emotions were stimulated, especially those related to fear and tension. Health effects were measured by looking at the sleep patterns of children after watching movies, and certain movies disturbed healthy sleep. Children who attended movies regularly were found to behave poorly in school compared to those who attended less frequently. Children imitated favorable behavior they saw in movies, but movies also appeared to play a direct role in delinquent careers. Overall, researchers found that movies influenced both children's attitudes and behaviors. These effects were cumulative and persistent over time.
According to Lowery and De Fleur, critics of the Payne Fund studies "pointed to their lack of control groups, problems in sampling, shortcomings in measurement, and other difficulties that placed technical limitations on their conclusions" (1995, 382). But, to the general public, the Payne Fund studies confirmed their fears of the movies' negative influences on children.
More than half a century later, however, the findings of this research are not necessarily significant. Movies are no longer a novelty, and today, information sources are virtually unlimited. Children in the 1990s are media savvy, raised on the joystick, remote control, and mouse. Kids have easy access to an ever expanding world of media, the effects of which still concern parents. Therefore, research continues into the effects of mass media on children. Mortal Komat, Beavis and Butthead, Power Rangers, Teletubbies, and subliminal messages in Disney movies are just a few recent examples of media being criticized for their ill effects on children.
One recent media research project to study the effects of mass media on children investigated the effects of watching the Power Rangers television show on children's behavior (Boyatzis, Mattillo, and Nesbitt 1995). The researchers claim that this was the first study to assess the influences of the Power Rangers on children's aggressive behavior. Grade school students were observed after watching an episode of this overtly violent show--the researchers counted 140 aggressive acts in the half hour episode shown. Compared to the control group of children who did not view the videotape, the children in the study committed seven times as many acts of aggression immediately after the viewing.
The researchers in the Power Rangers study also noted that
children who generally watch more television than their peers
exhibit "a variety of negative development outcomes that
contribute to greater aggression," such as criminal behavior
and abuse (Boyatzis, Mattillo, and Nesbitt 1995). This finding
supports the Payne Fund study conducted by Blumer and Hauser that
found a similar connection between motion pictures and delinquency
Although the Payne Fund studies were conducted nearly seventy years ago, their research is still noteworthy today. As new technologies emerge, research based on the Payne Fund studies will continue to be developed to ease (or fuel) the public's concerns with children and media effects.
Boyatzis, C., G. Mattillo and K. Nesbitt. 1995. Effects of The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on Children's Aggression with Peers. Child Study Journal 25:45-57.
Lowery, S., and M. DeFleur. 1995. Milestones in Mass Communication Research: Media Effects. 3rd ed. New York: Longman.
Rebecca L. Ash