The Implications of The Findings
The study may have potential broad implications for children to play with weapon toys and prevent aggression. First, children playing with weapon toys (versus non-weapon toys) display an increase in aggressive cognition and behavior, suggesting that guardians may reduce the number of times that 6-year-olds play with weapon toys. Second, boys playing with weapon toys display more aggressive cognition and aggressive behavior than those playing with non-weapon toys, suggesting that boys (versus girls) may receive more attention in real-life settings when playing with weapon toys. However, we may pay particular attention to avoid reinforcing gender stereotypes when discussing this issue. Finally, given that aggressive cognition partially mediated the weapon toy effects on aggressive behavior, educators may alleviate aggressive cognition to reduce children’s subsequent aggressive behavior. However, the fact that primed accessibility of aggressive cognition (or feelings of aggression) increases aggressive behavior does not necessarily mean that aggressive cognition always lead to violent acts due to the short-term weapon toy effects in the cross-sectional study.
It is worth noting that many Chinese children are also playing with weapon toys in daily life when they are not in the kindergarten. However, our experiment can not provide direct and definite answers to children’s aggressive cognition and behavior after playing with weapon toys when they are not in the kindergarten. Because the experimental study was conducted in the Big Hall of the kindergarten, and this experimental situation is different from the natural settings to some extent. This is just like Bandura’s experiment of aggressive models with BoBo dolls (Bandura et al., 1961). In other words, the present study cannot answer the question whether the findings in the context of kindergarten can be generalized to other places or not. Based on the findings from the present study, we can only postulate that children who play with weapon toys inside the kindergarten will be more likely to display an increase in aggressive behavior and cognition in comparison with those who play with non-weapon toys. Accordingly, we should challenge the use of these weapon toys for children as a result of our findings.
Consistent with Hypothesis 1, we found that playing with weapon toys lead to more aggressive cognition and aggressive behavior than playing with non-weapon toys. The results also supported previous research that weapons automatically primed aggression (Bartholow et al., 2005; Wolff, 1976) and aligned with the weapon effect on aggression (Berkowitz & LePage, 1967). According to the GAM and extant literature (Anderson & Bushman, 2018; Khoury, 2012), situational factors and personal factors have interactive effects on aggressive cognition and behavior. Why does playing with weapon toys increase aggressive cognition and aggressive behavior among children? On the one hand, perhaps weapon toys may decrease the level of empathy in children and increase hostile attribution bias (Gao et al., 2017; Holden, 2005; Strasburger & Wilson, 2002). On the other hand, playing with weapon toys may increase children’s cognitive biases towards weapon pictures and raise aggressive behaviors. The possible reason is that participants may associate weapon cues with aggression-related constructs in cognitive-associated networks (Berkowitz, 2017). Meanwhile, children consume cognitive resources to identify aggressive versus non-aggressive pictures due to their primed rehearsed knowledge structure (Bushman, 1998). In addition, prior researchers found that weapon pictures and weapon names automatically trigger aggression (Anderson et al., 1998). In view of this, parents and teachers may prevent children from playing with weapons toys or reduce the chance of playing with weapons toys, so as to avoid potential aggressive cognition and behavior.
With regard to Hypothesis 2, we found that boys in a weapon toy condition demonstrated more aggressive cognition and aggressive behavior than those in a non-weapon toy condition, whereas girls in a weapon toy condition only demonstrated more aggressive cognition (but not aggressive behavior) than those in a non-weapon toy condition. The finding was consistent with previous studies that boys behaved aggressively in comparison with girls (Boutwell et al., 2011; Card et al., 2008; Rose & Rudolph, 2006; Smith & Waterman, 2005). Why are gender differences emerged? Why do girls show increased aggressive cognition instead of aggressive behavior in a weapon toy condition? First, perhaps girls are better at restraining their aggressive cognition in order to inhibit aggressive behavior than boys in the context of weapon toys, whereas boys are more prone to take violent action in order to vent their anger than girls (Engelhardt et al., 2011; Giumetti & Markey, 2007; Yao et al., 2019). Second, perhaps girls are better at showing an increase in empathy than boys to decrease aggression after exposure to violence (Gao et al., 2017; Krahé & Möller, 2010). The finding indicates that parents and teachers should manage aggressive behavior for boys and girls in different ways when they are involved in weapon toy games. Third, we assume that possible socialization effects are appropriate to explain the gender differences in weapons effects (Eron, 1992; Gallina & Fass, 2014). Gender-differentiated parenting greatly affects children’s socialization from traditional Chinese cultures (Ngai et al., 2018). For example, prior research has demonstrated that parents are more likely to adopt strict strategies to discipline males even when they exhibit the same misconducts as females (Cui & Lan, 2020; Xing et al., 2019). Previous research has shown that direct aggression (e.g., physical) is more common in males than females across cultures, and aggression occurs during early childhood because of sexual selection and social role (Archer, 2004). In addition, the fact that females are less aggressive than males across cultures compels the serious consideration of a social learning basis, such as gender socialization, parents’ gender-role stereotypes (Endendijk et al., 2016). Thus socialization effects may cause the gender differences in aggression when children are playing with weapon toys.
Consistent with Hypothesis 3, we found that the weapon toy effect on aggressive behavior is partially mediated by increased aggressive cognition. In addition, the finding supports the GAM and extant related-researches that media violence increases aggressive behavior through aggressive cognition and aggressive thoughts (e.g., Anderson & Bushman, 2001; Anderson & Bushman, 2018; Carnagey & Anderson, 2005). The explanation is that children’s cognitive networks of aggression are likely to be primed by playing with weapons toys, which consequently leads to follow-up aggressive behavior. Therefore, we can help adults be aware of weapons effects and limit the access that young children have of toy weapons.
Strengths, Limitations, and Implications
Although prior researches indicated that media violence begets aggression in Western nations, little researches touched on the weapon toy effects on children in Eastern nations. Thus, our study may contribute to the existing literature. First, we used an experimental design to test the salience of the weapons effect on children in an Eastern sample, and it illustrates a relation between weapon toys manipulation and aggression-related variables. A major strength of the study was that the independent variable of weapon toys was a true experimental variable. Second, we used a non-Western sample of children in Eastern cultures, and the ability to examine gender differences in weapon toy effects. The cultural facet and the fact that it was performed in China could be of value to this field. This could also be regarded as a strong point in our study. Third, the potential strength of this study was that it gave us an insight into the weapon toy effects on aggressive behavior through increased aggressive cognition.
Of course, given that previous researchers have tested the weapon effects using Western samples (Anderson et al., 1998; Berkowitz & LePage, 1967), thus the finding using non-Western samples may not provide a novelty in this field, and some limitations should be noted. First, the sample is relatively small and homogeneous. As such, generalized validity will be questioned when applying conclusions to other age groups, and we should include a discussion of broader societal issues to elevate its potential impact in future. Second, children’s interests in these weapon toys may not be the same, future research should allow the them to choose toys which are rated in terms of interest, pleasure, excitement, difficulty, violence, and so on. In other words, gender differences could be explained by acceptance of traditional gender roles. Because boys may be more interested in playing with some types of weapon toys than girls, and therefore selecting weapon toys also attracting girls is necessary. Third, the lab-based aggression paradigm (white noise blasts) may not be generalizable to physical aggression and relational aggression of children in real-world settings. Actually, the label of aggression is often associated with acts of physical aggression (e.g., pushing, hitting) or bullying (e.g., relational aggression, threats). While the noise intensity task is interesting and is an ethical way of measuring “aggression” in the laboratory, it really only infers aggressive behavior. Thus, it may be an overstatement to suggest that playing with weapon toys “leads to” realistic aggression. In this regard, more cautions are needed when interpreting the findings related to “aggressive behavior” in the noise intensity task. Because few studies have proved that this noise intensity task is related to observed or self-reported physical or relational aggression in the real world. We may specifically address this potential lack of ecological validity between lab-based aggression and realistic aggression in future directions. Fourth, although children in the playgroups might know each other from their classrooms and did not have previous history of serious aggression, we did not specifically test whether the combination of children with previous history together (whether good or bad) had contributed to the types of play exhibited. Finally, this study lacks of reporting from an older person like kindergarten teachers for the validity of research results. Future work should consider adopting the reporting from older persons to improve the validity.