The Impact of Media Violence on Children and Adolescents
In today’s dizzying world of media and media-related technology, a great deal of concern has been expressed by both everyday observers and specialists in social-psychology over the possible negative impacts that media, and in particular media portrayals of violence, may have upon small children and adolescent children. One of the most complex facets of the issue is the still-unknown impact that new technologies such as 24 hour a day cable programming, widespread Internet access, and the “digital age” in general will have on the generation of young people who are presently the first to be so overwhelmed by such widespread media and media technologies.
As a case in point, as the following example illustrates, the modern media climate differs vastly from that of twenty or even ten years ago : “The Smiths and the Joneses are two hypothetical families living in upper-middle-class, suburban America. They own wide-screen television sets with superlative picture and sound quality. They receive 175 television channels, plus have access to over 500 additional individual movies and programs that are available 24 hours a day at the touch of a button. They can pause and rewind any program, even live programs, and they can skip past commercials. Without leaving the sofa, they can send and receive e-mail, order pizza, and play along with their favorite game show,” (Palmer and Young 2003, 27); such an immersive and nearly all-pervading sense of media exists in modern homes that, in fact, the presence of media can be said to form a basis of “reality” for many people. It is this exact kind of blurred distinction between perceived reality (based on media models and information) and reality (those aspects of life which stand apart from media and media-based models). The distinction between media-reality adn reality is not always clear, particularly to small children and adolescent children: “The boundaries between reality and unreality are especially permeable for small children. They are unable, through at least the age of three or four, to distinguish fact from fantasy. Even older children rarely manage to keep “real life” and vicarious experience in watertight compartments” (Bok 1999, 38) as we will see in the following discussion.
Those who view media-violence as purely a form of entertainment without any long-lasting or even short-term impacts on viewers, are the most vocal opponents to the idea of media-violence being possibly damaging to children and young adults. Those who support the freedom of media usually equate any examination of the potential harms of media with censorship:
the labeling of media materials as ‘bad influences’ is not the innocent process it proffers itself as being. Histories of censorship, for instance, show how repeatedly the censors act in self-serving ways to limit or bar materials which might embarrass them. Yet, in attacking them, they always do so by calling them ‘harmful’.
(Barker and Petley 2001, 35)
Still, such protestations aside, there exists both “common sense” evidence and hard scientific research to support the claim that repeated exposure to media violence results in a measurable, damaging impact on the psychological and emotional development of children and adolescents: “”the coming abundance of new media options may have very different impacts on the way people consume media and interact with others. It may also impact the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of children in both positive and negative ways,” (Palmer and Young 2003, 27).
The main impact repeated viewings of media violence seems to exert over small children and adolescents is the conflation of media-violence with organic psychological processes, many of which exist at such a deep, primitive psychological level in humans that manipulation of these emotions, and psychological dispositions remains, for the most part, beyond the conscious perception of the viewer. Studies have observed that : “The three main classes of effects—aggression, desensitization, and fear […] involves a cycle from viewing TV violence through a script-based set of cognitions to aggressive interpersonal responses. This then leads to more violent viewing, either via a greater identification with TV characters or through social and school-based intermediaries like decreased popularity and lowered academic achievement,”(Palmer and Young 2003, 12); and as though that were not in itself, frightening enough, the study also concluded that: “There is evidence, which is provided here, that video violence viewing selectively activates the right hemisphere. This evidence, taken altogether, suggests emotional processing of video violence,” (Palmer and Young 2003, 12) which demonstrates conclusively that exposure to media-violence does, in fact, exert an emotional, psychological, and physical impact on viewers.
In conclusion, although the idea of media-responsibility regarding the impact of violent programming on children and young adults is often cited by critics as a form of censorship, ample scientific evidence and research exists to establish media-violence as a certain source of negative influence on young people. The fact of the matter remains despite the right of free speech that media-reality adn actual reality are non-distinct at some deep, organic level in human psychology: ” weeks earlier the Los Angeles police officers whose roadside beating of motorist Rodney King had been shown on TV screens the world over had been acquitted by an all-white jury[…]In that crisis, the boundaries between movies and reality blurred, not only for the public but also for Hollywood producers, directors, and actors who were seeing smoke rising beneath their hillside residences and hearing sirens echo up and down the canyons,” (Bok 1999, 36); with such a confusing and agitating impact of adult professionals, what can we expect when we expose our children to the same cultural ambiguities through media?
Barker, Martin and Julian Petley, eds. 2001. Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate. New York: Routledge.
Bok, Sissela. 1999. Mayhem Violence as Public Entertainment. Reading, MA: Perseus Books.
Palmer, Edward L. and Brian M. Young, eds. 2003. The Faces of Televisual Media: Teaching, Violence, Selling to Children. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.