Horrific incidents such as the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings illustrate how extreme the effects of desensitization can be. While there were undoubtedly other factors at play in each of those tragic events, media violence also played a significant role in impacting the shooters’ behaviors.
The next time you sit down to watch some television, even if it is just for 10 minutes, try to keep track of how many acts of aggression and violence you view – you’ll definitely be surprised!
Whether it is in movies, cartoons, comics, games, advertisements, books, the internet, or even children’s toys, we are all exposed to violence from a very young age. According to the American Psychological Association, a person views 8000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on TV during their childhood years!
But what exactly is an “act of aggression and violence”? An “act of aggression” is the intent to hurt or gain an advantage over another person (psychological), while an “act of violence” is the actual force used against another person (physical). By those definitions, much of what we observe in the media is violent and aggressive.
The Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry gives the details to a study conducted by two Laval University professors about violence on television. They found that the average person views 7,636 physically and psychologically violent acts every year. Taking into account the amount of television that people watch, that breaks down to 83.05 acts of violence per hour – staggering, isn’t it? And we don’t even notice that the number is so high!
The ever-surrounding media has drastically increased the amount of violent content over the years. In the same study conducted by the two professors, the data showed that aggressive content increased by 325% in just two years!
Keeping in mind the “six-pocket” phenomenon – the idea that since families now have fewer children, there is more money to give the youth – the media specifically targets the younger generation since they have more capital to spend on the products of the media.
From such tender ages as three years, exposure to various forms of media is initiated. As children get older, violent content begins to seep into their cartoons and toys. Although they seem harmless, technically even the world of Bugs Bunny would be considered violent – all the instances in which anvils are dropped over characters’ heads and the constant threats of one character pursuing another would be counted as acts of violence and aggression.
In the 1950s, an experiment took place in which 12 children of the age of 4 were divided into two groups. One was shown a cartoon of The Little Red Hen, while the other was shown a cartoon of Woody Woodpecker. As innocent as these cartoons seem to be, Woodpecker is technically the more violent one in comparison to Red Hen. After viewing the cartoons, the group that watched Woodpecker displayed more aggressive behavior than the other group.
A more well-known experiment conducted by psychologist Alfred Bandura took place in the 1960s in relation to his “social learning” theory. 72 boys and girls ranging from ages 3 to 6 took part in the study; the study divided the children in numerous subgroups based on gender and tendencies. They went through a series of stages in which the first group would be exposed to violent surroundings, while the second group would be exposed to more peaceful surroundings. One of the main studies in the experiment involved someone being verbally and physically violent to an inflatable clown. When the children later had an opportunity to play with the clown, they instead imitated the violent behavior they had previously observed. The other group of children observed someone playing with the clown, so they did the same when presented with the toy. Another part of the experiment involved the children picking from an array of toys – the ones who were exposed to aggressive behavior chose mallets and dart guns, while the other children chose things such as crayons and tea sets.
The experiment supported Bandura’s theory of social learning that posited different behaviors can be learned from one’s surroundings, even if one was originally just an observer and not actively involved. Keeping that in mind, youth also get influenced by the tastes of their peers – if violent video games are what everyone is playing, then that would add to the exposure to and influence of media violence, whether or not one joins.
After years of exposure – not necessarily by seeking out violence, but rather by being surrounded by it – the result is habituation and desensitization. While desensitization refers to a lack of appropriate response when viewing violence, habituation refers to the eventual unawareness of the violence. Despite their differences, both are dangerous, especially when brought about in a young age.
Horrific incidents such as the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings illustrate how extreme the effects of desensitization can be. While there were undoubtedly other factors at play in each of those tragic events, media violence also played a significant role in impacting the shooters’ behaviors. The Columbine shooters said that they were influenced by the games “Doom” and “Quake”, the shooting scene from the movie The Basketball Diaries, and various music groups such as KMFDM as well as Marilyn Manson. The Virginia Tech shooter was influenced by similar means, as well by Stephen King’s Rage. (The book is not in print anymore because of the numerous shootings it inspired.)
Other examples include incidents that were inspired by video games. A 17-year-old carjacker shot an officer and killed two others, later saying that “Life is like a video game, everybody has to die sometime.” An example of how violence in the media brings out irrational and dangerous behavior in children as well was apparent when a six-year-old child – claiming he learned how to drive from video games – started a car and eventually crashed it. Examples such as these are always occurring, and violent media is undeniably a source of inspiration.
Despite all the research however, not everyone becomes violent just because of their exposure, right?
Defenders of violent media cite reasons such as inoculation and catharsis. The theory of inoculation promotes the idea of building resistance to something by exposure to that same element. The concept of catharsis points out the fact that violence in the media is not real – one can take out their anger in a video game rather than harming someone. Catharsis would help a person develop into a healthy person who does not express aggressive and violent behavior towards other human beings.
There are also a number of criticisms pertaining to the process of the experiments conducted: unlike in everyday life, the children in the lab were focusing purely on the experimental activity; the attitude of the experimenters may suggest certain reactions from the children, prompting them to do “what is expected” of them; children are aware of the differences between acting violently towards fellow human beings and toys; the children from the experiment do not necessarily accurately represent the public. Generally, the experiments had biases that affected the outcome.
Another argument is that of reality: violence is all around us – even if the violent content from TV shows, movies, the internet, and games are abolished, what about the news? The reports of war and murders that appear would still give everyone exposure to violence. In that sense, it seems pointless to condemn the viewing of violence when it is inescapable.
Violence is definitely a presence even in children’s cartoons, but that’s not to say that they should be banned – not everyone is affected by the media in that they would become violent themselves. The problem arises when children are left to watch whatever they want and play whatever they want, or if what they view is not discussed.
Nowadays, cartoons, movies, and games encourage violence as the focal point. Many forms of media show violent actions without the consequences: the cartoon character is pushed off a cliff, only to return alive and well in the next episode – neither the victim nor the perpetrator has suffered. Naturally, one is able to differentiate between fantasy and reality, but if one is constantly exposed to acts of violence without pondering over it, one may fall prey to desensitization. Therefore psychologists suggest that the simple habit of a parent commenting on the violence in a cartoon can significantly affect the child’s reaction to it.
By following the rating systems on various media forms, by making sure to consciously and vocally differentiate between fantasy and reality, and by ensuring that we realize there are consequences for violent actions, the chance of developing a violent personality is extremely low. Violence in the ever-surrounding media is inescapable, and we cannot control it – but what we can control is how we choose to view it, and that makes all the difference.