I'd just gotten home from the movies -- "Die Hard 5" -- and was going through my mail. The lead story on the newsletter I picked up first caught my attention with this headline: "Clear link shown between violence on screen and in real life."
The article went on to detail a number of studies conducted since 1972 that, taken together, seemed to prove rather conclusively that there was a direct link between children and young adults viewing of violence on television or at the movies and their violent behavior in other situations.
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Some experiments showed children violent scenes and then monitored their behavior in subsequent interactions. Other research explored what already violent children had in common. But whatever way social scientists could devise to study the problem, the results came out the same.
This was not a new idea, of course, but what struck me was that I had just seen a rather violent movie, in the company of my own teenager, and neither of us were at all violent people.
In fact, I grew up on all sorts of action/adventure television programs and movies, and still enjoyed them. But that had not translated into my being violent.
My guess is that one reason it is so hard for us to believe there is a connection between violence portrayed on the screen and violence acted out in real life is that most of us have had experiences similar to mine. I think, then, we probably need to dig a bit deeper into the research to understand exactly what is going on here.
Research suggests that television and film violence encourages aggression in a number of ways. First, it provides specific examples of violent acts that young people can copy.
Second, it suggests situations in which violence seems to work to get people what they want.
Third, it seems to show that we can be violent with little consequence to ourselves -- the good guys don't get hurt or in trouble when they use violence.
Fourth, it desensitizes us to violence; we can see so much of it that we become immune to its effects.
Fifth, among the very young it may actually stimulate aggressiveness and emotional or physical arousal. And finally, it can lead us to see the world in general as a more threatening, less safe place that is dominated by violence.
Such viewed video violence can lead to an increase in pushing, shoving, hitting, or even more dramatic violence, such as that involving the use of weapons and criminal acts. The research is clear on this. (Interestingly, research has yet to substantiate the idea that there is a similar correlation between video game violence and such aggression.)
But most of us still don't seem to be all that aggressive just because we see violence on TV or in a movie. What's the catch?
I think one of the differences has to do with the way we are taught by our parents and other significant adults to understand aggression and violence. If we are given clear messages that violence is not acceptable, that it doesn't pay, that we will get hurt too, then we look at the make-believe violence on the screen in a different way.
This is especially true if we get these messages when we see such video violence. If we hear from adults we respect about the violent TV or movie we've just seen (and hopefully that they have watched with us), then we are likely to understand it differently.
A second difference has to do with age. Younger children are simply not mentally or emotionally able to understand the difference between the world as portrayed on TV and in the movies, and the world they must live in.
They are not able to deal with the emotions generated by video violence. Nor are they able to understand our efforts as parents to explain it to them. We have to use our common sense understanding of our children's developmental age to judge what is OK-- and not OK -- for them to see.
As with much of what children encounter in this world, the crucial element in how it affects them is very often us: the adults responsible for them. Maybe now is the time to start a conversation with your children about violence -- real and pretend -- and how destructive it can be.