Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Violent Images Have Impact On Youth

August 16, 2004

It stands to reason - whatever you do a lot does a lot to you. Television, a medium that is one sixth of our environment on planet Earth, influences us both good and bad. Writers and producers in the entertainment media claim that the steady diet of violent shows is harmless, escapist fantasy.

Television, films and video games. Television, films and video games have become a potent force in shaping values. They rank up there with parenting, religion, school and peer relationships. The facts are startling. Portrayal of gratuitous violence and sex does have a harmful effect on society.

Like it or not, television itself has become a substitute teacher, preacher and parent for children who lack values, discipline and love. Is it any wonder that vulnerable children exposed to too much sex and violence are becoming too sexual and too violent?

Even if the overall story line is good and moral, it gets lost among the exploitative sexual and violent scenes.

Heavy viewers affected the most. A 30-year research project shows a relationship between TV and aggression. The results are unequivocal: The amount of violent television 8-year-old boys watch is associated with their aggressively delinquent behavior at age 19. Current studies show a significant increase in violent behavior among girls.

This is not true for light viewers. Other findings show heavy viewers to be more desensitized to violence and see the world as more hostile.

This isn't the whole story on youth violence but it does comprise a small but significant factor. The root causes of violence have to do with the decline of the family and community in shaping the moral values and character of children.

Some children are immune. The good news is that violent entertainment has little effect on children raised with respect and love. Children who are empathic, helpful, self-disciplined, responsible, successful and have strong values are more immune to our media culture.

One would suspect that they did not get to be that way by being heavy viewers of television. The bad news is that our media environment interacts negatively when children are exposed to child abuse, spouse abuse, alcoholism, poverty, discrimination and especially when children are exposed to parenting that lacks nurturing and empathy but rather full of blame and hostility.

What is the interaction effect between negative parenting and media violence?

Hostility bias. Children raised with aggression, blame and hostility have an inner world filled with aggressive thoughts and fantasies. They interpret events around them with a bias toward seeing attacks, provocation and hostile intent.

They over-interpret neutral events as hostile to match their internal world. Violent youths see other people's innocent actions as intentional and unjustified - worthy of retaliation.

Heavy viewing of TV and film violence reinforces this hostility bias. The world is seen as more dangerous than it actually is.

Aggressive fantasies. Research shows that children who watch violent TV subsequently have more aggressive fantasies. Children who experience child abuse and are heavy TV viewers commit more violent crimes than those without heavy TV viewing.

Children who experience aggression in the home see TV violence differently than other children. When confronted with real or imagined threats to their integrity or safety, the boundary between reality and fantasy collapses. Loss of control over violent impulses is a result.

Television and film show aggression is legitimate. Death is grisly but sanitized. Scenes are graphic, stylized, choreographed and in slow motion. Victims do not suffer; they either deserve or ask for aggression. Life is cheap. The body count mounts. The hero quickly moves on to new targets.

There is no mourning, no effects on family life. There is no negotiations, no problem-solving, no conflict resolution, just solutions by direct aggression.

Coercion gets results; TV, film and video games show aggression to be normal, acceptable and legitimate.

Television, film and video games reinforce retaliation. Media portrayals show retaliation as legitimate and honorable. Machismo is glorified as heroes respond with fists and guns to provocation and insults.

These portrayals reinforce real world street logic that being respected by one's peers and getting a reputation as a fighter is valued over death.

The biggest reason given for teen violence is retaliation for insults and harm. Violence is closely tied to a culture of toughness, a culture of honor. To survive in violent neighborhoods, it is essential to project an image of strength. One must be vigilant for threatening acts, respond with enough anger and force to intimidate or frighten offenders away. Their reputation protects them.

Youths with backgrounds of school failure and conflict at home try to find masculine identity and self-esteem in their peer group. They prove themselves by defending their honor, dominating others and retaliating when offended.

When heroes in action/adventure films and video games react with quick and automatic aggression to insults and threats, they reinforce a destructive code that is the core cause of violence among teens.

Parents take charge. Parents need to establish guidelines for light viewing, use movie reviews and whatever flimsy rating systems there are to limit the range of viewing and to help children become savvy consumers.

Don’t depend on Hollywood, TV advertisers, cable networks and game retailers to be responsible for the social consequences of their product. They are too busy making a buck at our children’s expense.