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The Impact of Media Violence on Children

Media activist Kalle Lasn (1999, p. 12-13) observes that the fundamental reason why society collectively does not worry about the effects of media on individual psychology and physiognomy is that, despite an abundant amount of research that has been conducted, there is a general lack of consensus in terms of results and findings. Nonetheless, the effects of media cannot be dismissed simply because of aggregate inconclusiveness.

Lasn cautions that just under two decades ago, society never questioned the levels of chemicals in consumer goods, dismissively assuming that they were within acceptable limits. However, the subsequent ‘uncooling’ of manufacturer claims reversed this attitude. Similarly we cannot let media consumption go unquestioned by judicious application of skepticism. Such caution has never been more important than it is now and will continue to be. As Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin (2002, p. 12-20) notes, there is a sheer plenitude of media that engulfs our way of life.

This is equally as distressing as its content, for Gitlin remarks that media has swelled from a “mere accompaniment to life” to become a “central experience of life. ” He urges that we consider the place of media in the lives of children, who are uniformly exposed to an abundance of it in the form of television, film, music and the Internet whether they are black or white, Hispanic or Asian, girls or boys. As such, it becomes difficult to believe that we can mitigate whatever effects media have upon our youth by controlling their effects.

Their sheer ubiquity and ability to penetrate all manner of spaces, public or private, electronic or print, means that perhaps the only fundamental aspect we can control in this arena is how the youth interact with and receive media. This is perhaps best accomplished by way of a critical and responsible engagement with the consumption of media, rather than presuming that some individuals are less impressionable than others or that some media are more harmful than others. Make no mistake: exposure to media, particularly violent media, has its effects.

As mentioned above, the consensus on the effects of media is not universal, but the fact is that such effects actually exist. In the case of violent video games, Dr. Craig Anderson & Dr. Karen Dill (2000, pp. 772-790) examined their link with aggression in the youth by conducting studies on college students and asking them to appraise their levels of aggression. From the results they concluded that young men who are habitually aggressive may be significantly affected by continuous exposure to violent video games.

In the second part of the same study, they asked 210 college students to play either Wolfenstein 3-D, a violent video game that revolves around shooting down Nazis with chainguns and automatic rifles, or Myst, a non-violent game that revolves around puzzle solving. They conclude that brief exposure to violent games can lead to a temporary increase in aggression. However, Anderson notes that violent video games also “provide a forum for learning and practicising aggressive solutions to conflict situations.

” Depending on the circumstances and context, this may not be entirely a bad thing. Anderson’s primary concern with video games is the potency of exposure to be derived from the active participation the medium demands, and it is specifically in this regard that video games have dangerous potential. In the case of the effects of film with violent content, Albert Bandura demonstrated its powerful implications for observational learning or modeling in a series of experiments of what is now known as the Bobo doll experiments.

Bandura filmed one of his students beating up a Bobo doll, an inflatable egg-shaped balloon that bobs back up after being knocked down. The woman punched and kicked it while shouting various aggressive PG-friendly expletives. He then presented the recording to groups of young children who quickly emulated the behavior shown in a playroom that contained another Bobo doll. The results were interesting in the sense that the children’s behavior did not match contemporary learning theories of the time which posited that reinforcement and rewards were necessary to instill new behaviors.

(Boeree, 2007) With such potent effects being documented from violent film, then even more can be said about violent video games. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a professor of psychology and military science responsible for coining the neologism “killology” to represent research into the psychological underpinnings of violent crime and war-time kills as well as the psychological effects of violent conflict on victims and perpetrators, argues that violent video games teach youth the skills necessary to kill in a fashion identical to military conditioning.

Grossman (2000) argues that violent video games utilize the basic mechanisms of “brutalization, classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and role modeling” which boot camp engages in to prepare recruits for battlefield conditions and establishes the ways in which the in-game interactions that players engage in neatly parallel these techniques. The results, he argues, are evident in “pseudo-sociopaths who kill reflexively and show no remorse,” citing the example of a West Paducah, Kentucky shooting in which the killer managed five head shots, which is remarkable insofar as the targets were screaming, scrambling schoolmates.

Grossman adds that the use of role models to shape soldier behavior is mimicked in the form of on-screen avatars, whose potency lies in making players the initiators of violence, thereby increasing identification. In any case, Anderson insists that “There really shouldn’t be any debate any more about whether there are harmful effects,” which result from the violent contents of media. Instead he stresses that the focus of scientific debate should be on theoretical refinements such as which characteristics are more harmful or less harmful.

(LaRouche, 2007) What is of more fundamental import is the extent to which we engage with media and the manner by which we interact with it and the responsibility we take in consuming it and exposing our children to it. The simplest form of responsible media consumption comes from a reduction in exposure to it. Granted, the increasing ubiquity of media in forms beyond television, film, Internet and video games – consider for example, the numerous billboards lining the horizons of cities and the quantity of television sets which populate airport lounges and billiard halls – makes it impossible to assert total control over media consumption.

It would also be dishonest to say we aspire to a complete abolition of media. Similarly, it would be false to say that the youth can be completely shielded from media in areas outside of the home, nor would they find it desirable to be completely shut out from a key aspect of modern living. Those points notwithstanding, limited exposure to violent content can help mitigate some of its effects. This is achieved through responsible parental controls over what kind of content they see at home. In the case of television, the VCR can become a useful tool in recording parentally-approved content.

Thoman (2008) suggests that those concerned about exposure to television advertising can use recorders to skip over commercials. However, regulation of content exposure also prevents the youth from developing a healthy relationship with media that could prove to be crucial to their development when they begin making their own choices in media consumption. As such, it is important the educators and parents engage the youth in serious dialogue about the media content they consume, violent or otherwise.

They should attempt to develop a critical understanding of the implications of violent behavior depicted on screen, not just on the levels of physical harm but in psychological turmoil. They should be able to distinguish the ways in which violence is depicted – e. g. the degree to which it veers towards realism or skews towards fantasy – and used to communicate certain ideas – e. g. to reinforce particular stereotypes, to advertise a moral world view – and its relationship to conflict resolution – i. e. whether or not violence effectively solves certain problems that are depicted in media.

Additionally, they should be asked about their personal relationship towards the consumption of violent content, such as how and why such violence is appealing or repulsive, and the extent to which they are desensitized or not to it. Such questioning dialogue should be applied not just to fictional narratives on television or film, or in vicarious experiences imbibed through video games, but even towards news and current affairs programming which also chronicle violence and may utilize reports of violence to reinforce a certain cultural map of the world.

Media is not, by definition a corrupting influence on society, but a means of communicating ideas across a broad demographic. Furthermore, violence cannot be successfully expunged entirely from the sea of media without drastically reducing the dimensions by which media can represent the world. Rather, violence is the simplest form of depicting conflict between individuals and groups in fictional narratives and in remote current affairs and media is the simplest means by which we can abstract the nuances of the world.

The real solution to the problematic effects which violent media have upon society and the youth then is critical consumption. By limiting exposure and engaging in a critical appraisal of media consumed, we can teach the youth how to properly absorb violence in ways that healthily contribute not just to personal development but to a superior cultural understanding of the world around them.

REFERENCES

Lasn, K 1999, Culture Jam: how to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge – And Why We Must. Available from: Eagle Brook. Gitlin, T 2002, Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives. Available from: Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Anderson, C & Dill, K 2000, ‘Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior in the laboratory and in life. ’, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, vol. 78, no. 4, pp. 772-790.

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