If there was some doubt in the early days of TV, there is now almost universal agreement among social scientists that media violence contributes to a more violent society. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) claims by age 18, the average young person will have viewed an astounding 200,000 violent acts on television alone. Add music, movies and video games to the mix, and it's clear society has a whopping big challenge on its hands.
The Numbing Effect
For some, repeated exposure to violence has a numbing, or desensitizing, effect. Violent scenes normally elicit certain cognitive, emotional, physiological and behavioral responses. It's normal and proper, for example, for a person to feel fear, anxiety and repulsion -- and for his blood pressure to rise -- when exposed to a horrifically violent scene. However, a person who is regularly and repeatedly exposed to media violence can become "desensitized." As a result of his overexposure, his reaction to violence changes, possibly dramatically. When he views violence, he might be notably underwhelmed; he might even experience pleasure. More significantly for society, as a result of his desensitization, he loses his ability to make sound moral judgments. He no longer considers the moral implications of violent behavior and he becomes less sympathetic to victims of real-world violence.
Exposure to violent media wreaks havoc on our thoughts, feelings, and perhaps most importantly, our behavior. "The Influence of Media Violence on Youth," a report appearing in the December 2003 edition of "Psychological Science in the Public Interest," points to strong evidence that exposure to media violence causes short-term increases in physically and verbally aggressive behavior in children, teens and young adults. Of course, violent media -- including TV, movies, video games, music and cartoons -- can and does affect different people differently. The International Society for Research on Aggression (ISRA) points out that sometimes the effects are more subtle -- but no less insidious -- than outright aggression. These include an increase in defiance and disrespect among kids and a less helpful or empathic attitude among adults.
Media violence seems to set the stage for violent crime. "The Influence of Media Violence on Youth" report notes that large-scale longitudinal studies -- those that track trends over long periods of time -- demonstrate a link between repeated childhood exposure to violent media and an increased likelihood of physical assault, spousal abuse and other serious physical crimes in adulthood. Researchers at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research published the results of their 15-year study in a 2003 issue of "Developmental Psychology." They found that kids exposed to a lot of TV violence when they were 8 were more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for criminal acts as adults. The AAP estimates that as much as 10 to 20 percent of real-world violence may be attributable to media violence.
It's important not to overstate the case against media violence. True, media violence likely makes us callous to the pain and suffering of others and might encourage us to view violence as a legitimate approach to problem solving, but violent programming is not solely to blame for society's gravest ills. After all, watching a violent movie doesn't typically lead a person to commit a violent act when he steps out of the theater. Similarly, although some have suggested that violent video games are the primary cause of school shootings, ISRA argues there is currently no research to support such a claim. While media violence is a risk factor for increased aggression and criminal behavior, it is only one risk factor among many.