We have known for a long time that violence in the media is responsible for violent and other anti-social behaviors in young people. Now it is known to be a serious public health problem. The extent of violent crime committed by juveniles in the U.S. is at a shocking level compared to other countries around the world and in comparison to our past history.

Today, most homes have at least one television-often more-and most of the programs contain violence
in staggering numbers. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, cartoons how kids approximately 20 violent acts every hour. By 18 years of age, an American child will see 200,000 representations of violence in the media, including 16,000 murders, and will experience 812 acts of violence for every hour she watches the screen.

But televisions are not the only medium that deliver violence content. Consider the DVD player, computers, laptops, notebooks, handheld electronic devices-the list goes on. As far back as 1999, a Kaiser Family Foundation report aptly labeled an adolescent’s bedroom “media central.”

Today, almost all children play video games. Experimental studies have shown that playing a violent video game causes a marked increase in aggressive thinking. Studies have also shown that these games cause an increase in retaliatory aggression and a decrease in pro-social (helping) behaviors. Now that video gamers can design and personalize in-game characters, there is a further increase in aggressive responses.

The Main Issue: Juvenile Crime
In 2008, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported that 2.11 million juveniles were arrested. Youth arrests (individuals under 18) accounted for 16% of all violent crime arrests, 26% of property crimes, and 15% of total arrests overall. In that same year, 1,280 juveniles were charged with murder and another 95,000 with other violent crimes. With the U.S. continuing to rank near the top of the industrialized nations in violent deaths, those juveniles accounted for 10% of arrests for first-degree murder.

Lamentably, it is now considered normal for inner-city high schools to have security screening measures,
including metal detectors and security personnel. Are such steps necessary? Perhaps. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 2009 study of high school students revealed that:
•    15.1% of male students and 6.7% of female students had been in a physical fight on school property in the preceding 12 months.
•    5.0% did not go to school in the preceding 30 days because they felt unsafe on the way to or from school.
•    5.6% reported carrying a weapon (e.g., gun, knife, club) on school property on one or more days in the 30 days preceding the survey.
•    7.7% reported being threatened or injured with a weapon on school property one or more times in the 12 months preceding the survey.

The Media’s Role
What does juvenile crime have to do with the media? Media in all forms has proved to have a significant
influential role in the development of negative and antisocial behaviors. Decades ago, research that supported this idea was criticized and media executives denied that the industry caused harm, suggesting that people should turn off their sets if they found anything objectionable.

Public outrage resulted in the 1990 Children’s Television Act, which reminded broadcasters that the “educational and informational needs of children” was serious business, and the Telecommunications
Act of 1996, which required that all new television sets contain the “V-Chip” allowing parents to block violent or sexually explicit TV programs.

Yet American media is still considered the most violent in the world. Today, more than 1,000 studies show a direct correlation between television/film violence and real-life violence, confirming the original research studies that were so strongly dismissed.

Although watching television, listening to music, and playing electronic games comprise most of the hours
young people spend consuming media, TV is the most significant influence on their behavior. Still, half of all music videos portray violence and 75% of them contain sexually suggestive material. Movies are more violent than TV programs, and the eventual release of movies for home viewing on DVDs or VCRs means that children can easily access R-rated material. Should we be surprised that 20% of 5- to 7-year-old children have watched the horror movie Friday the 13th?

Violent TV content may greatly influence children’s behavior, but video game content certainly also has an effect. How can it not?

Boys in 7th and 8th grades play video or computer games more than four hours a week, and electronic
game sales number in the billions. Forty-seven percent of the most popular games have a violent theme. Longitudinal studies validate that the interactive nature of these games contributes to increasingly
aggressive behaviors in children and that those behaviors continue into adulthood.

In testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee, Craig A. Anderson, professor of psychology at the Iowa State University of Science and Technology, noted four reasons for strong concern in the impact of video gaming on aggressive and violent behaviors in children:
1. Identification with the aggressor increases imitation of the aggressor
2. Active participation increases learning
3. Rehearsing an entire behavioral sequence is more effective than rehearsing a partial one
4. Repetition increases learning

Even though research has shown that a direct correlation exists between exposure to media violence and violent behavior in children, how exactly does media violence affect children, and how do we prevent it? Equally important, how many parents actually exercise control over their child’s use of media?

The Way it Works
Not all violence portrayals in the media influence children’s behavior to the same degree. A 1991 study suggested TV violence influences a viewer in four ways:
1. Efficacy (Is the portrayed violence rewarded or punished?)
2. Normativeness (Is the portrayed violence justified?)
3. Pertinence (Is the portrayed violence similar to the viewer’s social context?)
4. Suggestibility (Is the viewer predisposed to arousal or frustration when viewing violence?)

Context, therefore, is critical. A viewer is more likely to learn violent behavior if the perpetrator is attractive, there is moral justification for the aggression, the repeated violence is either rewarded or not punished, the repeated violence appears realistic and includes a weapon, the victim experiences no consequences or the violence occurs within a context of humor.

A viewer is more likely to become desensitized to violence from watching episodes with repeated graphic violent behavior or a context of humor. A viewer is more likely to become fearful of being a victim from watching episodes with violence toward an attractive victim, unjustified or undeserved violence, repeated realistic graphic violence, or violence that goes unpunished.

Another consideration is age. Younger children, especially under 7 years of age, are more vulnerable because they cannot distinguish fantasy from reality and may imitate what they see. They may also experience nightmares, anxiety, and feelings of a lack of safety.

Showing the use of firearms as a way to resolve conflict, along with the availability of guns in the home, can also create a deadly formula for children. Half of all households in the U.S. have a gun and 4,000 teenagers are killed by handguns each year.

In a quest for sensational news stories, the media seeks out and dwells on every gory detail of violent
real-life events. A direct correlation exists between the amount of news coverage given to a teen suicide and the number of imitative suicides.

Other Effects
Ironically, a comprehensive national analysis of children’s media use found that children who use the media the most are the least content. Children who spend more than 10 hours a day using media scored significantly lower on a contentedness index than other children. High media use is also associated with not getting along with parents, unhappiness at school, and getting into trouble. The study also found that children with lower grades spend significantly more time with media.

What Can You Do? A Practical Guide
In 1999, Representative Henry Hyde said, “Parents ultimately bear the responsibility for the environment
in which their children are raised. We can pass laws to keep this garbage out of the hands of kids, but parents have to guide their children away from the polluting environment the greedy purveyors of violence are eager to sell.”

Many parents are unaware of the risks of media violence and do not understand the rating systems designed to shield children from violence. Therefore, many organizations (e.g., American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Psychological Association) have developed guidelines for parents and educators, which include:
•    Do not make television the focal point of the home.
•    Limit television use to no more than one to two hours per day. Do not allow the television to dominate a child’s social life. Schedule after-school activities as an alternative to watching TV or playing video games.
•    Keep television off during meals.
•    Do not use television, videos or computer games as an electronic babysitter.
•    Watch TV with your child and discuss any content viewed as not acceptable. Point out the difference between fantasy and real life.
•    Know which shows your child watches and which electronic games she plays. Recognize that certain violent cartoons and popular games pose a high risk for learning aggression. Check Internet sites to determine the violence level of electronic games. Create a viewing schedule for the acceptable
programs and a list of “parent-approved games.”
•    Ask your child who his heroes are. Younger children identify strongly with superheroes and cartoon characters and not only learn from them but also imitate their behavior.
•    Be cautious about what your child watches or plays before bedtime.
•    Learn and use the rating systems. Obtain as much information as possible about the content of programs before deciding what your child watches.
•    Support regulation of children’s television and gaming. Encourage legislation that promotes non-violent programming. Express your opinions about media violence to schools, TV/cable stations, local newspapers and local and state government representatives.
•    Since the entertainment industry aims marketing at children, encourage local school boards to adopt a media literacy program in the school curriculum.

The incidence of violent crime by juveniles in the U.S. ranks as one of the highest in the world. Media violence is a major contributing factor and a public health problem that must be addressed by all available resources in the community, the schools, and the home. Good parenting, however, is the greatest defense against the effects of media violence. It is parents who can monitor their child’s daily use and make their voices heard in the community so that the media industry, public health practitioners, legislators and educators will be proactive in mitigating the media portrayal of violence to protect children from this escalating public health issue.

You may also be interested in:

From issue: 27/05-06