Studies conducted for over 30 years all point to the same conclusion: exposure to media portrayals of violence increases aggressive behavior in children. The National Institute of Mental Health has reported, “In magnitude, exposure to television violence is as strongly correlated with aggressive behavior as any other behavioral variable that has been measured.”1 In addition to increased aggression, countless studies have demonstrated that exposure to depictions of violence causes desensitization and creates a climate of fear. So what do we continue to see on television? The most banal and despicable acts of violent behavior the media producers can drum up during their in-house brainstorming on new television programming.
As far back as 1993, the American Psychiatric Association wrote this position statement on violence. “The American Psychiatric Association joins with other professional organizations in advocating for a significant decrease in violent programming on network and cable television. Television violence has been shown to be a risk factor to the health and wellbeing of the developing child, adolescent, and to the stability of their families. The APA has encouraged voluntary restraint on the part of the TV industry to decrease TV violence. Since voluntary restraint has been ineffective in protecting our young people from the escalating harm and intrusive assault on TV violence, reasoned regulatory action should be pursued, consistent with constitutional guarantees.” (APA Board of Trustees Approved 12/93). That was 20 years ago and it has only gotten worse.
In 1996, the National Television Violence Study found that the majority of all entertainment programming contained violence. Especially disturbing was that the perpetrators of violence went unsanctioned in 73% of these violent scenes, since the most effective way of reducing the likelihood of young viewers imitating violent behavior is to show such behavior being punished.2
Ignoring consequences of violence (including the pain of victims, the victims’ families, and the families of perpetrators) or portraying the consequences as if it is “no big deal” sets in motion a destructive encoding process. Viewers become desensitized and fearful and begin to identify with aggressors and the aggressors’ solutions to problems.
Corporations that produce and distribute media depictions of violence cannot be allowed to state that they are simply “giving the public what it wants.” In a survey commissioned by the American Medical Association, two-thirds of all adults and 75% of adults with children have walked out of a movie or turned off the television because the content was too violent.3
1 American Medical Association: Physician Guide to Media Violence, Chicago, AMA 1996
2 Psychiatric Effects of Media Violence, American Psychiatric Association, html version