Yesterday we reported on the results of studies on the impact of media violence. Today we’ll discuss theoretical implications and responses to those studies, as reported by Craig Anderson et al. in their report “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth.”
Given the fact that there is a significant correlation between media violence and aggression, Anderson and his colleagues believe there are several possible causes. Since humans (and chimpanzees, for that matter) learn a great deal simply through observation and imitation, children may simply be “learning” violent behaviors when they see them on TV or in video games. They are more likely to imitate a behavior when they admire the person doing it, and since kids typically watch shows they like, the impact is exaggerated.
Another cause may be “priming,” the activation of a memory associated with a particular person or object. For example, a child may have seen a baseball bat used as a weapon in a TV show, and then later, be primed to behave aggressively towards an innocent person carrying a baseball bat. If a certain cue is associated with violence often enough, then a person may favor violent solutions when exposed to that cue. Studies have shown that people will behave more aggressively when a weapon is visible to them, even if they are not threatened directly.
Finally, repeated exposure to graphic violence may “desensitize” viewers to the impact of violence or aggression. Desensitization is a physical and emotional response: when people initially are shown violent scenes, they react with unpleasant symptoms, such as nausea or cold sweats, but after repeated exposure, these symptoms diminish. Desensitization is commonly used to treat phobias such as fear of snakes: after repeatedly seeing others successfully handle snake encounters, the unnatural fear response can completely vanish. But when desensitization to violence occurs, it may make people more prone to violent acts.
There has been comparatively little research on the impact of environment and other factors on response to media violence. Age and gender appear to have mixed impacts, and although children with lower IQs appear to view more media violence, the correlations exist for all IQ levels. Parents do appear to have a significant role in the child’s response to media violence: if parents express disapproval or restrict children’s exposure to it, those children are likely to display lower levels of aggression.
One thing is certain: children are exposed to massive amounts of media violence. Nearly all American families with children have a TV, 70 percent have a video game system, and perhaps most surprisingly, more than half of all children have a TV in their bedroom. Children average 4 hours a day at the TV or computer screen. Sixty-one percent of all TV programs feature violence (not including TV news, which would probably raise that figure), and three-quarters of violent scenes depict no negative consequences for violence. The average child will witness 8,000 TV murders by the time he or she finishes elementary school (and perhaps even more video game murders, though no research has quantified this).
Though there have been hundreds of studies demonstrating the link between media violence and aggression, surprisingly little has been done to investigate how to mitigate its impact. One study by Nathanson did find that if parents discourage or disparage violent TV, kids became less aggressive, but if parents watched TV with their kids and said nothing, then aggressive behavior increased. There have been a few systematic efforts in schools to educate children to the impact of television with lessons stretched over the course of the school year, culminating in a 10-day “TV Turnoff” period. This reduced peer reports of aggressive behavior, but not aggression observed by parents or independent observers. However, this effort wasn’t specifically directed at violent TV, so the question remains open.
It’s clear from the research we have discussed in the last few days that media violence is a significant problem. What’s less clear is precisely what to do about it. Aside from the research on parental intervention, little has been done to determine the best way to address the problem. If the goal is to reduce aggression and violence in the greater society, then more resources should be devoted to finding solutions, rather than only adding to the voluminous literature indicating that a problem exists.