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:

  • Viewers blame those who write and create the shows;
  • Writers/directors say the producers require violence in programs in order to get them financed;
  • Producers blame network executives for demanding "action" in order to get ratings.
  • Network executives say competition is brutal and blame the advertisers for pulling out unless a show gets high ratings;
  • Advertisers say it’s all up to the viewers!

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.

  1. Parental/adult responsibility for managing media in the lives of children is fundamental.
    Parent/teacher organizations, churches, libraries and community groups that sponsor classes and programs to help parents learn to set and enforce age-appropriate viewing standards provide a valuable service for families — and society. When children watch less television, they will see less violence.
    Young fathers, uncles and older brothers especially need to get the message that too much media violence can truly harm children. Most violent media is targeted at adult males, 18-49. They must be challenged to examine their preference for "action-adventure" especially when children are present.


  2. But parents also have a right to expect that society and its entertainment industries accept responsibility for not harming children by allowing the creation of a cultural environment which can endanger children in their formative years.
    Teddy bears and children’s pajamas are subjected to more safety standards than are the TV shows that entertain our children for hours each day. An African proverb states: "It takes a whole village to raise a child." We are all responsible for the cultural environment in which today’s children are growing up. That includes the media makers and media owners who control what goes out over the public airwaves or floods our cultural landscape in the images of pop culture. They must behave responsibly as good corporate citizens. And they need to be steadfastly challenged when they do not.


  3. Research indicates that the effects of viewing media violence can be mitigated in all age groups by learning and applying critical viewing and media literacy skills.
    Media literacy curricula provide a variety of teaching tools to deconstruct the techniques used to stage violent scenes and decode the various depictions of violence in different media genres — news, cartoons, drama, sports and music. It is important for children to learn early on the difference between reality and fantasy and to know how costumes, camera angles and special effects can fool or mesmerize them. Research shows that critical skills of media analysis can be taught from the earliest years and, through guided practice, can become everyday habits for both children and adults.
    Media literacy education is a necessary component of violence prevention for young people. It must become a community-wide initiative in cities and towns throughout North America.


  4. There is much denial about the impact of media violence because accepting it as a problem means we might have to make changes in our own lives and values.
    Accepting it as a problem challenges those adults who unconsciously — or consciously — take pleasure in violent entertainment. Accepting it as a problem means we may have to face the shadow side of our human nature which most of us want to avoid. Accepting it as a problem means we might have to admit our own complicity in the greedy callousness that can corrupt the human spirit.
    Media critic Elayne Rapping notes that if there is more media violence today, it’s partly because, yes, we live in a more violent world. But that violent world was created not so much by Rambo films as by our own tax dollars which support multinational arms dealers and international corporations that make billions of dollars on military technology. Unfortunately there is a healthy profit to be made by escalating fear and hatred into ever-more sophisticated ways to maim and destroy human lives.


  5. Finally, there is no one solution to the problem of media violence in our time.
    But there are many steps that each of us can take, wherever we are, to reduce the amount and impact of violent entertainment in our lives and in the lives of children. And, as in so many other movements, it is the accumulation of those individual actions that adds up to create an unstoppable force of public opinion. "I’m willing to be a pebble," says the poster at my nearby Ben & Jerry’s, "if I’m also part of an avalanche."

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.

Author Bio: 

Elizabeth Thoman, a pioneering leader in the U.S. media literacy field, founded Media&Values magazine in 1977 and the Center for Media Literacy in 1989. She is a graduate of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and continues her leadership through this website, consulting, speaking and as a founding board member of the Alliance for a Media Literate America (AMLA).