What are the consequences of media violence? Communicate to your audience why they should care about this issue, what psychological science tells us about the effects of exposure to violent media, and a concrete way parents can reduce the impact on their children of exposure to media violence
It's no secret that the media's depiction of violence has grown increasingly graphic over the past few decades. Whether it is on TV when you are watching the news covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while playing the new Call of Duty game shooting down enemies, or even watching any of the Saw movies, graphic violence is everywhere in today's society. Yet, what can often go unnoticed are the consequences of all this exposure. Much of psychology is centered on determining how people learn basic behaviors. Are depictions of violence like Call of Duty teaching our children to be violent?
The issue of the depiction of violence in media has been a hot topic throughout the political sphere. Very recently, this topic came up when the game Mortal Kombat was released. The violence depicted in this game includes, but is not limited to, beating someone with their own spine, the complete skinning of a person, and even ripping someone in half vertically and watching their entire internal organs spill out. But why should we as a society concern ourselves with how graphic this video game is? The reason is simple: children of all ages are observing this material, and learning from all this exposure. Does this mean that fifth graders are going to start ripping each other's spines out? No, but the effects are still noticeable. When a child sees their favorite hero use weapons to gun down the "bad guy", the slowly start to accept violence as acceptable means to bring justice to their own world. The other major effect this mass exposure to violence has is it desensitizes these children to violence in general. They no longer have empathy for the victim; no longer think that what the victimizer is doing is wrong. They accept violence as a normal part of life. This mentality shift will cause their perceptions to become reality; when everyone feels that violence is a normal part of life, it is. When it becomes acceptable to solve problems with violence, the violent crime rate goes up. This is already apparent, as children are now 3.4 times more likely to die from a bullet wound than from poisoning (Rosenkoetter 2010).
Psychological science has done a lot of work in studying the effects of exposure to media violence. The first instance of such work was done by Alfred Bandura. Bandura (1961) conducted a famous experiment where two groups of children watched a video of an adult playing with a bo bo doll. One video displayed the adult playing with the doll in a non-aggressive manner, while the other video displayed the adult acting violently towards the doll. The children were then offered the opportunity to play with the doll. The children who were exposed to the violence in the video acted aggressively towards the doll, both physically and verbally, at a rate much higher than the group that was not exposed to the violence. This solidified Bandura's theory of social learning, which states that children learn how to appropriately act when in situations based on their observations of how others acted in the same situation (Bandura, 1961). This laid the groundwork for many other modern experiments.
One modern experiment related to Bandura's work was Robert Gentile's (2011) study relating to violent media. He conducted a study in which students in grades 3-5 were surveyed on whether they felt they were aggressive, which of their classmates they thought were aggressive, and on their three favorite movies, TV shows, and video games. Teachers were also surveyed on which of their students they thought to be aggressive. The results of this experiment further proved the truth of a subset of Bandura's original theory called the General Aggression Model. The General Aggression Model more specifically explains the effects of media violence on children. "In the short term, the General Aggression Model predicts that violent media exposure can affect arousal, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive feelings, which in turn can influence aggressive behaviors" (Gentile, 2011). Long term exposure can actually cause the learning and development of aggression related knowledge structures which include "vigilance for enemies, aggressive action against others, expectations that others will behave aggressively, positive attitudes toward use of violence, the belief that aggressive solutions are effective and appropriate" (Gentile, 2011). Other more modern work done in the field of psychology involves desensitization to violence. Barbara Krahï (2010) conducted an experiment where people were surveyed about their exposure to violent media. After, they were hooked up to a machine which measured their skin conductance level in order to determine whether they were affected, positively or negatively. The subjects were then shown several clips; some violent, some humorous, some sad, etc. The results showed that desensitization not only was apparent after exposure to violent media, subjects who indicated they had heavy levels of exposure actually displayed a positive reaction to the violent clip. Furthermore, the study proved that desensitization only occurred in the case of violent media.
A concrete solution to children being so heavily influenced by violent media is outlined in Lawrence Rosenkoetter's (2009) study. In the study, two groups of students participated in a survey, and then again took the same survey 1 year later. In the control group, nothing was changed in the curriculum in between the surveys. The experimental group added a 30 minute sessions of "REViEW" curriculum. In comparing the two sets of students, the attitudes of members of the control group remained unchanged, whereas the attitudes of the other group changed drastically. The experimental group had a significant decrease in the viewing of violent TV shows, and a marked decrease in identifying with violent heroes. The study also showed that these results were able to stand the test of time. The REViEW curriculum centers around five main ideas. "(1) Decide wisely what to learn from that important teacher, television, because all TV teaches. (2) Choose to turn off the TV sometimes and play outside, visit friends, paint a picture, read a book, or do another activity that requires action, not just passive viewing. (3) Distinguish between what is pretend and what is real, including effective problem solving strategies that really are better than hitting, shooting, or hurtful put-downs. (4) Choose good people to admire and imitate, that is, real heroes, not TV's, phony superheroes. (5) Talk to the TV in response to the bad choices it sometimes presents for use of time (critical thinking)" (Rosenkoetter, 2009). Though the experiment centers on the idea of classroom intervention, these same ideas can be taught at home by the parents of the child. This method is also more effective than censorship because when the child ultimately makes the decision to not watch violent media, they just don't watch it. That result is not guaranteed with censorship.
In conclusion, there are numerous instances of violence being depicted in many different forms of media. Long term exposure to this violence can ultimately alter the way children develop and learn; making these behaviors seem justifiable or even a normal occurrence in daily life. This has been proven through numerous studies and experiments conducted within the last 50 years. Ultimately, the most effective way to prevent this behavioral shift is by a classroom or parental intervention, where the child is taught to learn from adults and teachers instead of TV.