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Media Violence

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Media Violence as an Instigator of Aggression and Violence

You are what you watch. Easy to say, and not too difficult to imagine either. A little over a decade ago, two boys who later became household names in America, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Colorado and went on a mass murdering spree where they killed 12 students, 1 teacher and injured 23 others before shooting themselves. While their motives behind doing so can not be ascertained, one possible contributing element which did surface was the influence of violent video games. At the risk of oversimplifying what is possibly a complex psychological mindfield, Harris and Klebold did enjoy playing a game called Doom, which is licensed by the American military for the purpose of training soldiers to kill effectively. Harris had customized his own version of this game and put it up on his website, which was later tracked by The Simon Wisenthal Center. This version of the game had two shooters with an unlimited supply of weapons and ammunition, and their targets lacked the ability to retaliate. A class project required them to make a video of themselves similar to the game, and in it, they dressed in trench coats, armed with weapons, and conduct the massacre of school athletes. Less than one year had gone by when Harris and Klebold played their videotape out, in real life, and became the protagonists of the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history (Anderson & Dill 772). There is nothing new about the presence of violence in our tools of entertainment. Whether they were ancient Greek dramas, theatre in the Elizabethan era or the modern electronic dramas of today, a healthy dose of violence was never missing. In Macbeth for instance, Shakespeare showed Macbeth’s head being brought on stage at the end of the play. The Great Train Robbery, an 11-minute film directed by Edwin S. Porter was the first firm considered to tell a story in a systematic manner. In one scene, he shows an intense scene where a cowboy fires a pistol directly at the camera, which when first showed to audiences, had them running out of the theaters in disarray and fear (Bushman & Anderson 478). Since the advent of media itself, there have been countless studies on the connection between depiction of violence in media and its occurrence in real life. Discussions, debates, conclusions and grey areas have all been further examined and while television is the most prominent target of accusations, comic books, jazz, rock and roll music and video games have not escaped blame either. Research on this topic started as early as the 1960s when television was a recent entrant in the media fray and a causal connection has been derived between media violence and aggressive behavior. While the strength of this connection might still be debatable owing to the grey areas to be discussed later, this paper argues that media violence does play a part in instigating aggressive and violent behavior, making its occurrence much more likely in consumers of such media.

Opponents fuss over the definition and measurement of media violence, does actual physical bodily harm constitute violence or can a threatening statement also be deemed so? Then, does media violence cause aggression, or are the two simply associated? Consistency of the relationship also causes doubts over agreed upon data when the example of Japan is quoted, where violent media is extremely common, yet crime rates are significantly low. Then is media solely to blame for violence in society? Doesn’t that take the blame away from a lot of other contributing factors in society itself and make the argument generally unrealistic?

All these issues and thorny areas can be settled by the simple logic of the social learning theory which proposes that when people see that a certain behavior causes positive or desired results, there is a high probability of them imitating and enacting that behavior (in this case, violent) themselves (Anderson & Dill 774). So while the strength of the relationship and the presence of other factors and the measurement of violence itself can be debated till the end of time, the fact remains, when children view aggressive behavior and violence in cartoons, video games, movies, as well as on the internet, it encourages similar tendencies in them and these children are more likely to be aggressive as children and later as adults. Research started as early as 1956 when researchers analyzed and compared the behavior of 24 children, half of whom had watched an episode of the cartoon Woody Woodpecker with distinct depictions of aggressive behavior, while the other half were exposed to the cartoon The Little Red Hen which did not depict any violence at all. Later, it was observed that children exposed to the violent cartoon displayed a higher degree of aggression during play, by hitting other children and breaking their toys (Huessman et al. 202). Studies have also shown that the kind of violence which affects their psyche and causes them to model their behavior as depicted in media is when they can associate real life with the situation depicted, because they can identify with the character responsible for the violence and observe him/her/it getting rewarded for the violence. As Huessman et al. (218) wrote:

"Thus, a violent act by someone like Dirty Harry that results in a criminal being eliminated and brings glory to Harry is of more concern than a bloodier murder by a despicable criminal who is brought to justice."

Research conducted by Boyatzis, Matillo and Nesbit (qtd. in Gunter & McAleer 104) proved earlier theories about media violence getting encoded in the cognitive map of viewers and subsequently instigating violent thoughts and acts upon repeated viewings. The popular children’s series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was used to prove that after watching a single episode from this show, children incorporated more aggression into their play with other children. The researchers took fifty-two elementary school children between the ages of 5 and 11, girls as well as boys and divided them into two groups: a group which watched an episode of this show and a control group which didn’t. Observation before and after viewing was done as the children played in the classroom. Results showed that children who had seen the episode became significantly more aggressive at play the following day as compared to the children from the control group:

“Indeed, children who had watched the episode committed seven times as many actions classed as aggressive as did the other children." They tried to act out particular snippets from the episode they had seen. They wanted to be the hero with the gun because they found him impressive and “cool” (104).

Huessman et al. (204) took research to another level by conducting a 15-year longitudinal study of 329 youth, their aim being to delve deeper into the long-term relations between exposure to media violence in childhood and young-adult aggressive behavior. They found that adult agression had a strong correlation with children’s watching violence on TV when they are between 6 and 9 years old. Furthermore, and these results were true irrespective of gender, adult aggression also had a strong correlation with children being able to relate or identify with same-gender, violent TV characters; and their view that the violent situation on TV was relevant to real life “just like it is”. These researchers also conducted regression analyses which adjusted the effects of early aggression, i.e., how aggressive the participants of the study were in childhood, and resulted in the finding that childhood TV viewing habits and adult aggression are not just correlated, but that the former can predict increases as well as decreases in violent streaks and aggressive behavior in adults.

TV is not the sole culprit in this regard. Other mediums and tools of entertainment have an equal role to play. In “Effects of Video Games on Aggressive Thoughts and Behaviors During Development”, Koojimans explains the General Aggression Model - the name coined for the phenomenon which explains how video games and their depictions of violence influence people and make them more susceptible of indulging in violent behavior themselves. This model elaborates on how various situational and personological factors combine to influence a person’s internal state which includes his thoughts, feelings and physical arousals. These three in turn affect one another and impacts how an individual perceives or interprets an aggressive act:

“During adolescence there is a general increase in the aggression. This aggression combined with the exposure to violent media will reinforce and increase aggressive cognitions, affects and arousal. This interaction has a negative affect on the internal state, leading to increased aggression”

Research conducted on video games by Nicoll and Kieffer, presented to the American Psychological Association as “Violence in Video Games: A Review of the Empirical Research” found that youth upon playing a violent video game, if only for a short while, displayed more aggressive behavior than before. Participants of one particular study who played a violent video game for under 10 minutes rated themselves with violent qualities as well as aggressive actions a little while after playing. Another study was conducted with more than 600 students of 8th and 9th grade as participants and showed that children who played more video games also had more of a tendency to get involved in arguments with their seniors and other teachers, and they would also be more likely to get into physical rows with their peers. They did not perform well in their studies either. Not only that but it was also found that children who spent more time watching video games imitate the characters they acted out in the video game and their moves while playing with their friends.

Anderson, Carnegy & Eubanks (969) conducted 5 experiments to investigate the effects of songs with violent lyrics on thoughts and feelings of college students. Their study proved that participants who were exposed to a violent song felt and displayed more hostility, and thought more aggressive thoughts, than the group of students who had heard a non violent but similar song. The results of these experiments can not be disregarded as according to Anderson, “Aggressive thoughts can influence perceptions of ongoing social interactions, coloring them with an aggressive tint. Such aggression-biased interpretations can, in turn, instigate a more aggressive response – verbal or physical – than would have been emitted in a nonbiased state, thus provoking an aggressive escalatory spiral of antisocial exchanges." All consumers and parents of children and young adults in particular, need to be mindful of the most consequential conclusion from studies on media violence: content matters.

Another interesting research was conducted by Paul Boxer, at Rutgers University Newark where he put the ‘other contributing factors’ point to rest by showing that even when other elements such as emotional problems, socioeconomic deprivation, interaction with community violence and academic failings are taken into account, “childhood and adolescent violent media preferences contributed significantly to the prediction of violence and general aggression.” Boxer acknowledged that while research in this regard is not a new phenomenon, most of it has been conducted in a laboratory setting, with little or no consideration given to linking media violence and actual instances of aggressive or violent behavior. Also, most research fails to incorporate the other elements mentioned earlier (Boxer et al. 417). Boxer’s research differed from others’ because his team collected data on other risk factors known to lead to violent behavior, as violence is a “multiply determined behavior” (425). They interviewed 820 young adults from Michigan (430 were high school students from rural, suburban and urban communities, and 390 were juvenile delinquents held in county and state facilities) as well as parents or guardians of 720 of these, and teachers/staff of 717 of them. The interviews required them to answer questions relating to preferences in TV shows, movies and video/computer games, from childhood as well as current and their social interaction habits and specific antisocial behaviors. The parents and teachers were interviewed in order to delve deeper into exposure to aggression, other risk factors as well as observed behaviors. The results of this study showed that even when other factors were accounted for, media violence did in fact enhance violent behavior, and that at average, the adolescents who did not consume such media were not as likely to indulge in violent behavior as were those who did. Those participants who rated lowest on other risk factors, but preferred violent media did have a tendency to be more violent and generally aggressive in their behavior (Boxer et al. 425). The debate continues, even after the above-mentioned studies among countless others, because researchers focus more on causality versus relationship. Ferguson (446) tries to make a case for ‘miscast causality’ by comparing media violence and violent behavior with the smoking-lung cancer debate, “Unlike lung cancer, which is rare outside of individuals not exposed to cigarette smoke or other inhaled carcinogens, violent behavior is common in the absence of violent media, whereas many who are exposed to violent media demonstrate no violent behavior. Violent media, then, are not sufficient to cause violent behavior.” What he forgets is that while causality might not be the nature of the relationship, it is correlation which is being stressed, and because of the serious nature of the predicted outcome, must not be ignored at any cost.

A very emphatic longitudinal study conducted by Hopf, Huber and Weiß (79) showed that violent criminality has its most potent risk factor in electronic games. Also, aggressive emotions, experienced in real life as well as those stimulated by media, and which are linked with the motive of revenge are important risk factors of not only violence in school but also violent criminality. Their study proved that children who watch horror and violent movies when they are younger, and are exposed to violent video games (including computer games too) as they grow older will be more violent, even more prone to delinquent behavior, by the age of 14.

Phillips (560) understood the need for a study which took the natural context into account rather than being carried out completely in a laboratory setting. It investigated the impact of mass media violence in a real world setting but in an interesting manner: this paper provided evidence of an increase by 12.46% immediately following heavyweight championship prize fights between 1973 and 1978. Even after extraneous variables were corrected, these findings still held true and was distinctive because it focused on a mass media audience which did not consist exclusively of college students and children.

The plethora of research knowledge available about the effects of violence in the media definitely supports initial concerns about media violence as well as the efforts to control its harmful effects. While causality can be debated till time eternal, what can’t be denied and what should absolutely not be brushed under the carpet for any longer is that a steady diet of violence does in fact instigate violent tendencies in viewers, be it through violent television programs, movies, cartoons, video games or any other forms of entertainment which incorporate violence in various forms. Media today plays a key role in nourishing children’s minds, and for the larger case of public health and societal betterment, we need to ensure that we provide more nourishing fare for our children and youth. Reducing their exposure to violent media is definitely the first step in the right directon, with the potential to yield positive benefits. An intervention is needed before we start reaping the seeds of aggression and rebellion that have been planted in young minds owing to careless media policies.

Works cited

Anderson, Craig and Karen Dill. “Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78 (2008): 772-790.
Anderson, Craig, Nicholas Carnagey and Janie Eubanks. "Exposure to Violent Media: The Effects of Songs with Violent Lyrics on Aggressive Thoughts and Feelings" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2003): 960-971.
Boxer, Paul., Rowell L. Huesmann, Brad Bushman, Maureen O’Brien and Dominic Moceri. “The Role of Violent Media Preference in Cumulative Developmental Risk for Violence and General Aggression.” Journal of Youth & Adolescence 38 (2008): 417-428.
Bushman, Brad and Craig Anderson. “Media Violence and the American Public: Scientific Fact Versus Media Misinformation” American Psychologist 56 (2001): 477–489.
Ferguson, Christopher J. “Media Violence: Miscast Causality.”American Psychologist (2002): 446-447.
Gunter, Barry and Jill McAleer. Children and Television (second edition), Routledge: London, 1997.

Hopf, Werner, Günter Huber and Rudolf H Weiß,. “Media Violence and Youth Violence – A 2-Year Longitudinal Study.” Journal of Media Psychology 20 (2008): 79-96.

Huesmann, L. Rowell, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryll-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard Eron. “Longitudinal Relations between Children’s Exposure to TV Violence and their Aggressive and Violent Behavior in Young Adulthood: 1977-1992.” Developmental Psychology 39 (2003): 201-221.
Kooijmans, Thomas. “Effects of Video Games on Aggressive Thoughts and Behaviors During Development”. Rochester Institute of Technology. 2004
Nicoll, Jessica and Kevin M. Kieffer. “Violence in Video Games: A Review of the Empirical Research.” Presentation to the American Psychological Association, August 2005.
Phillips, David P. “The Impact of Mass Media Violence on U.S. Homicides”. American Sociological Review 48 (1983): 560-568.

Works Consulted

Freedman, Jonathan L. Media Violence and its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2002.

Huesmann, Rowell and Laramie D Taylor. 2006. “The Role of Media Violence in Violent Behavior.” Annual Review of Public Health 27 (2006): 393-415.…...

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Violence in Media

...Violence in Media As young adults, we experience the exposure of violence in all mediums of communication, such as TV shows, movies, video games, and music lyrics. We may have stopped counting how many crime investigation shows are in primetime or how many ways of killing people are in the Saw series. We just keep consuming those materials and even look for more violence as excitement. As we become so obsessed with the genre, we may have forgotten the importance of awareness to the issue. Statistics give us a better idea about the big picture. According to Media Education Foundation, researches indicate that about 89 percent of the top-selling video games contained violent content, almost half of which was of a serious nature. Two-thirds of Hollywood films released in 2001 were rated “R.” (Media Violence Facts, 2005) In September 2000, Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reported that 80 percent of “R” rated movies, 70 percent of restricted video games, and 100 percent of music with “explicit content” warning labels were being marketed to children under 17. With this amount of exposure, researchers estimated that by the time the average child is eighteen years old, they will have witnessed 200,000 acts of violence and 16,000 murders. (TV-Turnoff Network, 2001) Those numbers reminds us to think about the issue. Is it too much? What effect does it have on our life, especially for children and adolescents? As we are still looking for the correct answers, multiple cases have......

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