The above statistics alone should immediately indicate that the negative effects of media violence on the minds of young people cannot help but be substantial, and may in fact lead to social violence on the part of those exposed. However, the fact is that even after decades of ongoing research, there remains a debate as to whether media violence substantially contributes to social violence (Haugen & Musser, 2008).
To provide context to the ongoing debate, it is helpful to first define the two key terms discussed in this essay, namely ‘media violence’ and ‘social violence.’ As noted by North, Wallis and Weingast (2009), the term ‘social violence’ technically refers to violent activities engaged in by people as a group. This would include violence associated with riots, revolutions, and gang warfare. However, for the purposes of this essay, the term is defined far more broadly as behavior that is aggressive and/or abusive and which results in, or has the potential to result in, some form of injury to one or more others. This is the definition used in most of the existing studies of media violence and social violence.
Haugen and Musser (2008) note that there are differing views as to what precisely is meant by the term ‘media violence,’ but that typically it refers to various gradations of violence presented by differing forms of electronic or film media such as television programs, computer games, and movies. The gradations considered to be within the domain of media violence can and do differ from research study to research study. However, the authors inform that a good deal of the decades long debate over media violence and social violence is more political than scientific.
Specifically, Haugen and Musser (2008) state that there are two schools of sociopolitical thought as to whether or not media violence actually causes real-life violence—–and these are both trying to use research on media violence to advance their particular perspective. One school of thought blames media violence for social violence and wants to censor certain content in order to protect children. The other side views censorship, even if relatively weak in scope, as a slippery slope to increasingly levels of censorship not only of violence but many other types of expressions within society. It is important to keep this in mind when evaluating the existing research.
It can be noted here that the central thesis of this paper is that there is sufficient evidence of a substantial relationship between media violence and social violence; however, social violence is multi-causal and media violence is likely to exert maximal effects if additional causal and contributory factors are operative. This thesis is supported in this paper by an extensive review of the existing research on media violence demonstrating exposure to be followed by engagement in antisocial behavior and aggression.
The Connection Between Media Violence and Social Violence
Effects on Children and Adolescents
Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis (2005) compiled a comprehensive review of the literature on the effects of media violence on the social violence and aggression of both children and adolescents using the findings of five meta-analytic reviews and one quasi-systematic review, all of which were from North America. The studies covered television violence, film violence, and video and computer game violence. Some of the most important of their findings were:
1. In the average home, children’s television programming exposes a child to 20 to 25 violent actions each hour; moreover, violent offenders in children’s programming sometimes go without punishment and the offenders themselves seldom show any remorse for the violence.
2. During both childhood and adolescence, the amount of time watching television violence is positively related to several antisocial behaviors such as threatening aggression, assault or physical fights resulting in injury, and to robbery.
In general, the review presented by Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis (2005) led the authors to conclude that violent images in the media can substantially affect children and adolescents’ thoughts and emotions in a manner that makes them both more fearful and more aggressive. Browne and Hamilton-Giachritsis also reported that several other factors figure into the commission of social violence which makes the link between social violence and media violence significant but small. However, they point out that the effect sizes observed in meta-analytic studies of media violence and subsequent social violence show that even this small relationship exerts a substantial effect on the general public health in terms of the consequences of social violence to the victim and to the families of both the victim and the perpetrator of the violence.
Regarding the point made by Hamilton-Giachritsis (2005), it is helpful to briefly look at the statistics associated with social violence. In this regard, Santamour (2008) reports that acts of violence are associated with heavy human and economic costs. In his study, Santamour examined violence-related hospitalizations in the United States. He observed that hospital costs as a result of social violence totaled $2.3 billion dollars per year and were primarily the result of assaults and/or physical and emotional abuse. A clear gender difference was also noted which Santamour reports as follows:
Boys and men accounted for 82.4 percent of hospital stays resulting from assaults; girls and women accounted for 63.9 percent related to maltreatment and 58.5 percent resulting from self-inflicted violence. Young adults, 18 to 44 years old, made up 68.3 percent of assault-related stays and 62 percent associated with self-inflicted violence. (p. 1)
When considering that media violence contributes to statistics such as these, it is difficult to think of any connection between it and social violence is weak.
In another study of media violence and social violence, Bushman and Huesmann (2006) found that exposure to media violence was positively related to aggressive behavior, anger, and aggressive ideas in children, teens, and adults. It was also found that media violence had a negative effect on the helping behaviors of all groups, making them far less likely to help others in need. However, it was also found that the group most vulnerable to the effects of media violence were young children. This was said to be because young children were more easily impressionable; also, they had a harder time telling the difference between fantasy and reality. In addition, young children learn best by observing and then imitating behavior, making them more apt to engage in violent behavior.
Adding to the idea that media violence is directly related to social violence, Haugen and Musser (2008) report that the connection between media violence and social violence has already been accepted as fairly substantial by six major medical groups. These groups are the: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association. Further, the authors also noted that each of these medical organizations hold that media violence leads children to increase their levels of antisocial behavior and to become less sensitive to violence as well as victims of violence.
Haugen and Musser (2008) also states that these medical groups warn that children exposed to long-term and frequent media violence are likely to develop a view of the world as violent and mean and to become more fearful of being a victim of the world’s violence than children who are not exposed to frequent/long-term media violence. Even more alarming is that the children who are exposed to frequent media violence over a lengthy period of time often show a desire to see yet more violence in their entertainment as well as in real life, and they come to see violence as a legitimate way to settle conflicts. These desires and attitudes, in turn, make them more likely to engage in social violence both as children and as adolescents and, in some cases, even as adults.
The foregoing literature provides fairly strong support for the idea that even a weak causal contribution between media violence and social violence can be viewed as substantial in terms of its costs and its escalating effects on people over time. However, this effect does have to be considered in light of all of the factors that drive people to commit violent acts against others. The next section of this essay considers the effects of media violence in relation to the other contributors of social violence.
Multifactorial Nature of Social Violence and Contribution of Media Violence
Kirsh (2006) reports that many factors are involved in the commission of social violence and as just demonstrated in the above review, one of these factors is media violence. However, its effects can vary depending upon the manner in which the violence is presented. If the violence presented in the media lacks consequences and/or is justified, and/or is associated with reward, it can have a very negative effect on children and teens, making them more likely to engage in such behavior. However, if the presented media violence shows that the offender is punished for the violence, then it can lessen children’s tendencies toward aggressive behavior.
In addition, the type of character or personality that engages in the presented violence can also have an effect. According to Kirsh (2006), if the violence is undertaken by an attractive person or by a charismatic hero——and the child or adolescent identifies with the perpetrator—–then it is likely that the negative effect of the violence will be stronger, making the viewer more likely to engage in similar behavior. Furthermore, Kirsh reports that if the child’s full attention is focused on the screen presenting the violence with minimal or no distractions breaking this focus, the impact will be greater. Finally, if the child views the show and its violence as realistic and reflective of ‘real life,’ then the effects will be stronger.
In what is now considered a ‘seminal study of media violence,’ the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Surgeon General (2001) concluded that there is a relationship between media violence and some social violence including homicide, forcible rape, aggravated assault, and robbery. However, it was also noted that there is a problem with the research that makes knowing whether there is a causal connection between media violence and social violence difficult to scientifically report. Regarding the nature of the problem, it is stated that:
Although there is clear scientific evidence of a correlation between exposure to media violence and some violent behaviors, randomized experiments-the research methodology best suited to determining causality-cannot ethically be used in studies of violent behavior. (p. 1)
It was stated that the best that could be done is to study the effects of media violence and how it affects certain aggressive behaviors in children and adolescence. These studies were said to provide at least indirect evidence of causality. For example, the Surgeon General (2001) reports that longitudinal studies reliably show that if children are exposed to media violence, as they grow older they become more likely to exhibit aggressiveness due to the increase in the amount of media violence exposure. This connection makes it seem very reasonable to believe that there is also some causal contribution of media violence to social violence in various forms of violent antisocial behavior and crime.
But if there is a causal connection, how strong is it and what other factors also contribute to social violence? According to the Surgeon General’s (2001) early study of youth violence, as well as a more recent study by Coyne (2007), what makes media violence likely to impact on any given child is its relationship to a host of several social violence risk factors. These risk factors include: individual risk factors; family risk factors; school risk factors; peer group risk factors; and neighborhood and community risk factors. Specifically, to the extent that one or more of these factors is present in a child’s life, they are likely to make the child more prone to both violent behavior as well as the negative effects of media violence.
The social violence risk factors discussed by both the Surgeon General (2001) and Coyne (2007) can be delineated as follows:
1. Individual factors – A child and/or adolescent is most likely to be at risk for the negative effects of media violence and social violence if the child is male, if there is substance use, if the child’s personality or temperament is already somewhat aggressive possibly as a result of a health condition such as hyperactivity, if the IQ is low, and if the child is generally antisocial in attitudes and beliefs. One point that can be noted here is that the Council on Communications and Media (2009) states that individual factors can also protect a child from the negative effects of media violence. These protective factors include the child having a high IQ, and a positive social orientation. Further, if the child shows a low tolerance for deviance and views transgressions as usually punished, this also would reduce or even eradicate any negative effects of media violence.
2. Neighborhood and Community Factors – Living in a deteriorating community or neighborhood can put a child or adolescent more at risk for the negative effects of media violence. For example, poor neighborhoods where drugs and gangs are present increase the risk. High crime areas also place a child at risk for social violence that is exacerbated by exposure to media violence.
3. Family Risk Factors – If the child’s family is poor, he or she is more at risk for the negative effects of media violence. If his/her parents are antisocial and/or have a poor relationship with the child, these factors can also increase the risk. Other family factors that place children at risk for the negative effects of media violence include: parental separation (broken home), abusive parents, neglect, harsh discipline and/or a lack of discipline, poor mental health of parents, and the presence of a good deal of conflict in the home.
As with individual factors, there are some familial/parental factors that can give the child some protection from the negative effects of media violence (as well as other forms of violence). According to Ferguson, San Miguel and Hartley (2009), these protective family factors include having good relationships with parents, and positive evaluations from peers. Steady and consistent, but not overly harsh, parental monitoring and discipline can also be protective.
4. School Factors – How a child feels about school can also affect the impact of media violence on the child. If his or her attitude is positive, the child will be less likely to be impacted; but if the attitude is negative, the risk is increased. Academic performance operates in a similar manner. School failure and low grades make a child more vulnerable to the negative effects of media violence, while good school performance has the opposite effects. Lee and Kim (2004) points out that one of the strongest school risk factors is bullying. If a child is bullied, he becomes very vulnerable to seeing some form of retributive violence as the answer to his problem and this tendency can be strongly exacerbated by media violence.
5. Peer Risk Factors – The nature of a child or adolescent’s peers can have a significant impact on the effects of media violence. If the child has strong ties to antisocial peers, then the impact is more negative. However, if most of the child’s friends behave in prosocial ways, then this will act as a protective factor.
Media Violence and Crime
The foregoing section of the review indicated that media violence operates conjointly with other factors to elevate a child’s risk for social violence. However, there are many forms of social violence, one of which is violent crime. This section of the essay examines the question: Is media violence directly related to the commission of violent crime? According to Coyne (2007), while many studies of media violence and violent crime do show at least a weak connection, they suffer from the fact that they are, in large part, laboratory-based investigations. Furthermore, such studies primarily rest on studies of aggressive urges or tendencies rather than examining real criminal behavior to see if those engaging in it have a history of watching violence in the media.
Coyne (2007) attempted to remedy the forgoing problem by examining longitudinal research with offender populations. It was stated that, “When integrated with other long-term studies on the development of crime, it is concluded that the link between media violence and crime is weak after other environmental factors are taken into account.” However, the fact remains that until there can be some good control for other contributors to criminal violence, it will remain difficult to know the extent to which there is a direct causal relationship between media violence and criminal violence. Failure to definitively establish a causal link is due to the fact that in studies which are significant statistically, these other factors often act as confounding variables. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to state that the ongoing, now decades long, findings of elevations in aggressiveness in relation to media violence strongly suggest that there may be more than a weak connection.
The central thesis of this essay was that media violence substantially contributes to social violence where social violence was defined in the broad sense of aggressive and/or antisocial behavior that results in or can result in injury to one or more others. The key question that must be asked is whether the reviewed literature on media violence supported this thesis?
The answer to the above question is somewhat complex. The literature clearly indicated that media violence can lead to children and adolescents engaging in aggression and violent behavior. Moreover, it also showed that the degree to which said behavior is engaged in can differ depending on length of media violence exposure. The reviewed literature also demonstrated that the nature of the violence presentation and the strength of distracted focus can both operate to make it more likely that social violence will be engaged in by children and/or adolescents. This indicates that there is a real effect being exerted by media violence on children. However this conclusion needs some modification.
Social violence, as defined in this essay, is multi-determined which means that there are many contributors which, taken together or in part, operate to make a child and/or adolescent engage in social violence. Media violence is one of these and indications are that it can substantially contribute to social violence in the sense that it exacerbates the effects on social violence caused by other factors such as having conflict in the family, living in a gang ridden and poor neighborhood, doing poorly in school, and so forth. Media violence not only exerts a substantial contribution to social violence in this manner, it also exerts an effect in terms of the negative outcomes of social violence on the lives of the people who are involved in it. Thus, it seems reasonable to conclude that based on all of the reviewed findings, media violence does exert a substantial effect on social violence even though it is not the only contributor.
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