For many parents, trying to assess the ways in which media violence may affect their children leads to a great deal of worry and confusion. Caught between alarmist headlines and the assuaging claims sent out by big media to counteract them, then inundated with conflicting evidence, parents have discovered that there seems to be no easy answer to the question, “Does violence in the media cause young people to commit serious acts of violence?”
Much of the evidence surrounding the impact of violence in the media is conflicted due to the constraints of research methodology; it is simply impossible to, for example, select a random group of children and strictly control their doses of violent media (so that some witness less while others witness far more) and return 15-20 years later to see which children wound up committing the most acts of senseless violence.
The negative effects of media violence may therefore only be studied using methods similar to those researchers use to measure the health impact of habits like smoking, e.g. correlational studies and animal studies (both of which tend to be somewhat imperfect, but when combined, yield reliable data). Typically, media violence researchers begin by assessing the level of media violence a given group of children has been exposed to, then (after controlling for other factors) analyze the kind of behaviours those children engage in over time, checking for possible correlations. They then compare their results against more short-term studies which investigate how recent exposure to violent media changes the attitudes of young people; for instance, they may assess how a group of children feels about using violence to solve problems before and directly after viewing a violent cartoon program.
Additionally, researchers occasionally get the chance to observe “natural experiments” wherein a specific form of violent media is introduced to a new audience, as was the case in Israel in the mid-1990s when World Wrestling Foundation programming made its debut. After a rash of complaints about “imitation violence” in school playgrounds (sometimes leading to hospitalizations), Dafna Lemish of Tel Aviv University conducted a nationwide survey which showed that WWF-style fighting had indeed created a wave of problems in schools. What made this case particularly interesting was the fact that surveys also revealed the children participating in this imitation violence were doing so despite being fully aware that WWF fights are “faked” for the camera.
However, even with the above research at our disposal, and even knowing that children undeniably learn through imitation, it is still difficult to draw a direct link between young people viewing violent media and committing acts of criminal violence later in life. While incidents like the one above are certainly troubling and potentially injurious to the young people involved, the vast majority of those Israeli children who chose to imitate the WWF likely will not go on to become murderers or spousal abusers; however, this does not mean the effect of viewing such violence is negligible. To fully understand the harm posed by violent media, we must broaden our horizons and consider the myriad and often far-reaching ways in which media violence is unhealthy for young people, whether they go on to become criminally violent adults or not.
The Psychological Impact of Violence in the Media
The combination of short and long-term studies researchers use to analyze the impact of violent media on children and adolescents have turned up a wealth of data which suggests that exposure to media violence from a young age has the following negative effects:
Desensitization. Today, desensitization is a very well-understood process which has been successfully used in a variety of clinical settings, most notably in the treatment of phobias. Someone who has a phobia of spiders, for example, can overcome their physical reaction to a spider’s presence through being exposed to spiders repeatedly in a safe, controlled setting. Desensitization therapy helps the patient to overcome the body’s innate “fight or flight” response so that he or she no longer reacts powerfully and immediately when confronted with something harmless, like a house spider.
Exposure to media violence works similarly, but to far less productive ends. Over time, children begin to learn to “ignore” the fight or flight response that would normally be triggered by scenes depicting bitter hostilities or graphic injuries, to the point where their reactions are noticeably delayed when they witness such violence in “real life”. This leaves children ill-equipped to deal with everything from schoolyard bullies (studies reveal that desensitized children wait longer before calling an adult to intervene in playground violence) to domestic abuse (desensitized children show a marked reduction in sympathy for the victims of domestic abuse).
Interpersonal hostility. One of the greatest problems with media violence is not that it “makes” children engage in violent play-acting (indeed, some degree of this is normal and has been used by young children since time immemorial to better understand conflict and issues of morality, e.g. “good and evil”), but rather that it stunts and warps the natural play they might otherwise engage in so that they learn the wrong lessons from it. Because the media tends to represent concepts like violence in a very “black and white” way, children who witness media violence often grow up lacking a nuanced understanding of conflict. For example, research shows that playing violent video games directly leads to what is known as “hostile attribution bias” in school-aged children, causing those children to assign hostile motives to individuals whose actions are ambiguous. In a real world context, these children are more likely to, for example, assume malicious intentions are behind accidental errors made by other children. This, of course, creates a higher risk of interpersonal conflict. It can also lead to uncontrolled anger and aggression.
The effects of a heightened hostile attribution bias have been shown to last into adulthood; according to a 1999 experiment, college-aged adults experiencing this bias were more likely to undermine the job prospects of a randomly-assigned colleague, regardless of how that individual treated them. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense: In a society where everyone is deemed to be a potential threat, the natural response of the brain is to become far more competitive in order to survive.
Sleep disturbances. Sleep, we know today, is essential to the emotional well-being of children and adults alike, as well as being a key facilitator of academic success. Unfortunately, children who are exposed to a great deal of media violence often miss out on the many benefits that sleep provides. They frequently develop chronic fears and anxieties (and, in extreme cases, go on to experience the symptoms of psychological trauma, including depression and post-traumatic stress) which prevent them from achieving restful slumber. Any parent whose child has developed a recurring nightmare after watching just one scary movie has witnessed some of this effect in action, and would no doubt attest to its disruptive power.
These media-induced fears also tend to haunt a child’s waking life in a lasting and deeply troubling way; a study conducted at the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan revealed that students who had witnessed a particularly frightening television show or movie during their younger years (six years earlier, on average) not only had trouble sleeping afterward (52%), they went on to dread the situation depicted so much that they became preoccupied with avoiding it in “real life” (35%). Fully one-fourth of these students reported feeling like the impact of the terrifying scenes they had witnessed was still very much with them.
Combating the Effects of Media Violence
The depiction of violence has become so widespread as to be “normalized” in modern society, and as such, preventing exposure can feel like an impossible task—and to some degree, it is. There are, however, measures which parents can take to effectively mitigate the negative effects of violent media. These include:
– Removing young children from the source of violent imagery and reassuring them that they are safe should they seem distressed (physical affection and warmth is key). If the child does not seem distressed, try to remove his or her attention from the source of violent imagery with a pleasant distraction; if you react with shock or horror and snatch the child away, the negative effects of the violent media are likely to be compounded.
– Explaining to older children why the troubling events they have witnessed in the media either cannot occur or are very unlikely to occur in “real life”. Additionally, give these children strategies on how to react in the event their fears did come to pass (e.g. telling them how and when to contact a police officer).
– Building children’s ability to empathize. Research has shown that children who are taught to empathize with the victims in violent cartoons are less likely to endorse violence as a way of solving problems vs. children who are not taught to do so.
– Teaching media literacy skills. Children who are taught to analyze media critically, picking out its deeper messages and deconstructing its potential harmful effects, have been proven to be more resistant to imitating media-depicted acts of violence.
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