Media Violence: What if we Changed the Question?
An overview of the issues and five guidelines for action.
When Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith, assistant dean of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, begins one of her speeches on the growing crisis of violence in society, she often tells the story of a young gunshot victim she treated in a Boston hospital emergency room. He expressed surprise that his wound actually hurt.
"I thought, boy, he’s really stupid, anybody knows that if you get shot, it’s going to hurt. But then it dawned on me that on television, when the superhero gets shot in the arm, he uses that arm to hold onto a truck going 85 miles an hour around a corner. He overcomes the driver and shoots a couple of dozen people while he’s at it."
For decades, the media industry has been trying to tell us that the violence seen on TV and in movies also doesn’t hurt, that is, that despite its glamour and impact, it plays no role in making a more violent society.
This is not to say that violence on the screen is the sole cause of violence in the streets. But media violence does reinforce the myths and images, beliefs and attitudes of a culture of violence. It is a messenger for violence as a way of life.
Even if we don’t become more aggressive ourselves, we are all affected by the way others behave toward us. And by seeing violence over and over, we also learn to accept and tolerate violence as "the way things are."
At the very least, media violence influences our kids (and us, too) by modeling and glamorizing the use of deadly force as a first choice to solve conflict between characters.
We will never totally eradicate violence from our lives or from the media. That is unrealistic. As long as there are human beings on earth, there will be violence among some of them. But enough questions present themselves about the cumulative impact of violence as entertainment (ie. violence portrayed without consequences or violence as funny) in television, movies, videogames, music and even advertising, that I believe we must, as parents and teachers, as citizens and community leaders, look more closely at the issue of media violence and find ways to reduce it, especially in the lives of our children.
No responsible person advocates that violence in the media is desirable. So how does it happen that the media continue to be filled with escalating amounts of violent imagery?
One reason is that for 40 years, American society has been engaged in a "circle of blame" about media violence. The "circle of blame" results from a complicated web of ratings and economics that combine to create a system in which each party feels powerless because "somebody else" has created the problem and, therefore, "somebody else" should solve it:
Another reason is that for those same 40 years, the "circle of blame" has been fueled by one unanswerable question: Does watching violence cause someone to become violent?
Although there is clear evidence that some children imitate Ninja kicks and that occasionally someone will "copycat" a crime seen in the media, we all know from personal reflection that for most viewers most of the time, the watching of violence does not itself cause people to commit criminal violence — or we would all be murderers!
Thus it is easy to deny that media violence is a problem. And it is easy to continue pointing fingers, waiting for "somebody else" to "do something."
But suppose we asked different questions? What if we asked: what does watching violence — over many years — do to our minds? To our hearts? Yes, to our souls? Is the long-term cumulative impact of violence as entertainment transforming our personal worldview? Our collective psyche as a community and as a nation?
Children have always learned how to be and behave as adults from the stories of their childhood. Mass media today are society’s storytellers. What kinds of stories are we entertaining our children with? Most importantly, what values and world views do these stories communicate?
In the past two decades we have become deeply concerned about the physical environment we are passing on to our children. The cultural and spiritual environment they are inheriting is equally, if not more, important.
It is these questions that now challenge us today as individuals, as parents and as a society. And it is these questions that can help us break the "circle of blame" by encouraging each of us to accept responsibility for reducing media violence wherever we are. What can we do? Here are five ideas.
We will continue to have a problem with media violence until a majority of the American public understands why it is harmful and decides to change their own behavior — recognizing that their behavior, along with others, cumulatively adds up to widespread social change. Just like we have all come to believe that every single pop can we pick up is one small step in saving the environment.
It’s time to break the "circle of blame" by engaging millions of people in a national movement that leads from awareness to action, from passivity to engagement, from denial and blame to accepting responsibility for what each of us can do as individuals, as parents, as citizens in today’s media society.