It has always been in question whether exposure to violent media has an effect on the behavior of those who watch violent movies and television, play violent video games and listen to violent music. The type of images, words and sounds that are found in media today are much more violent than those found in the past. Additionally, the popularity of the internet and the ability to access this media that much easier has made the issue of violent media (PDF) much more prevalent in the current climate. Many children spend large amounts of time on the computer, watching TV and playing video games and it is very difficult for parents to have complete control over what their children are watching. This does not only apply to children, adults are also affected by violent media, though studies have shown adults experienced greater short term effects (PDF) while children experienced greater long term effects.
The first studies and research in exposure to violent media began in the 1970s and was conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health. The general theory that was a result of these students were that some exposure to violent media during childhood increased the aggressive behavior in children. Throughout the 1980s this theory was widely held to be true. In the 1990s researchers began investigating the psychological processes (PDF) that were occurring due to the exposure to violent media. Incidentally it was shown that children behave in the same manner as being exposed to violence in the home as they do to exposure through violent media.
Effects due to violent media can be classified as short term and long term changes. Long term aggressiveness is thought to be due to the fact that exposure to violent media shows that aggressive and violent behavior is acceptable. Short term effects (PDF) to violent media are due to entirely different psychological processes than long term effects. Short term changes in behavior tend to occur because there is already aggressive behavior found in the child; the child mimics this violent behavior or the behavior is due to an emotional change which comes from viewing violent media. This short term behavior is temporary while long term effects can be permanent and may be very difficult to change.
Cognitive researchers have found that when watching violent television shows, the brain stores the information and then images or sounds that refer back to the media activate violent behavior. Human development (PDF) is based on imitation of those around and as children grow their behavior mimics what is observed in their environment. Therefore children will learn negative behavior rather than positive behavior. Violent media typically has an emotional impact on the viewers which can arouse emotions, experiencing elevated blood pressure and increased heart rate. This emotional response in children can make children volatile later on in life.
Long term effects also include emotional issues as anger and fear will become linked to exposure to violent media. Therefore anything that viewers experience in real life that is similar to what is viewed or heard within the violent media, will induce a similar reaction in the child. In many instances children can become desensitized (PDF) as the violent behavior and images and the emotional response become natural. Typically long term effects can be more dramatic in children due to the susceptibility of violent behavior to become imprinted in the mind. The mind of the adult is already formed and is much more difficult to change than a child’s.
The fact that children are more likely to be effected in the long term due to repeated exposure to violent media means that parenting is ever more important. In order to prevent long term changes due to violent media, psychologists recommended that parents limit the exposure of children to violent media, whether it is violent games, TV, movies or music. It is also found that parents that need to realize that the effects of violent media exposure will depend on how the child understands the violence (PDF). Children need to know what violence is realistic and when it is justified. Children need to explain the context of the violence as children may look up to action heroes or the “good guys” and despite the fact that the heroes are violent that this is not acceptable behavior and is not used in real life. So some exposure is not necessarily negative as long as parents can put the violence in context with their children. This will change how children perceive violence and decrease the effect that violence will have on the child’s behavior.
Several researchers have attempted to link violent media to violent behavior in real life. The claim that two 10 year old boys murdered James Bulger because they had watched the movie Child’s Play 3 was widely publicized. However no link could be found between the boy’s behavior and the film. Incidentally it was found that the boy’s homes were quite violent. However this report was very influential in the United Kingdom and caused more films to be censored. It also brought the influence of violent media to viewer’s greater attention. Interestingly enough there was no evidence that the boys had actually even viewed this particular movie. Some scientists believe that the cases that blame violent media are typically abnormal behavior, in which the individual’s mental state is already delicate and problematic. Therefore the violence is a catalyst to behavior that was eventually going to happen anyways.
Specifically research has found that violent media can increase aggressive behavior but does not cause humans to be copycats and commit crimes. Humans do understand what is right and wrong. Additionally those that claim links between violent media and crimes do not realize that research in this field is sparse and most studies do not use proper or widely accepted methodologies. Studies on psychology and behavior are always tricky because the the person being studied will have previous experiences that will effect judgement and everyone else will have different past experiences that will effect them differently during the study.
Hard scientific data is lacking and studies do not include the individual’s intuitions, opinions and musings. Many people link violent media to crime (PDF) as the rate of crime increased from 1965 to 1980, when violent media became more accessible. However the rate of crime has been stable since 1992 and the amount of violent media (PDF) and exposure to violent media has increased markedly since then. Incidentally the rate in violent crime has dropped significantly, so this would seem to suggest that violent media does not have as much of an impact as previously theorized.
Video games are of particular interest to researchers as many times these video games are even more violent and hazardous than other violent media. Not to mention, the player is typically in full control of the character’s actions, creating much more of a sense of responsibility for the violence displayed in these games. Games tend to reward players for killing and committing acts of violence and offer the player the ability to be the criminal or the hero. Some violent video games that are frequently cited include Mortal Kombat, Doom, Thrill Kill and Grand Theft Auto. Studies that have looked into the effect of violent video games (PDF) have found that those that frequently play violent games tend to display more aggressive behavior, increased arousal, less helping behaviors and more aggressive thoughts. Though it is only very high levels of exposure to violent video games that are linked to criminal behavior and increased drug use. Currently there is not enough data to determine which cultures are most at risk to the effect of video games, though it is thought that some cultures are more susceptible than others. Current research has not shown consistent results. Therefore, as with movies, violent video games are linked to aggression. Further research is needed that investigates human aggression.
Music is a different type of violent media (PDF) than others as there are no images, unless the listener watches the music video associated with the song. However music is very emotional and the same arousal or emotional response can be found. Most research investigates the effect of violent lyrics. Most people, including children, listen to music because it has a positive effect as the listeners enjoy the experience. It is interesting that so much concern is focused on lyrics as most adolescents do not typically listen to the lyrics, as they like the style or “sound” of the song. It is theorized that those individuals that see parallels in their own life to those in the violent music are those that are more likely to act on what they hear in the music, though this has not been studied and is considered an assumption. The effect of violent lyrics to the listeners is highly individual and does not have a mass effect. Typically those that already contain risk factors are affected by the content of lyrics. As with other violent media the listener’s psychological, social and physical conditions all must be taken into account. Children that do not exhibit any risk factors are typically not effected by violent music.
The actual effects of the exposure to violent media is quite mixed. Finding this relationship is difficult due to the complexities of child development and human behavior. While a positive relationship between many types of violent media and aggressive behavior has been found, the results that link violent media to crime are not conclusive. In fact, criminal behavior appears to be dependent on the individual’s physical and mental state rather than solely liked to violent media. Constant exposure to violent media is not recommended for children and parents should play and active role to their children’s exposure to such violence. But children that are healthy and understand the contexts of violence and what they are watching or listening to appear to suffer no ill long term effects. Much more research and study is required into aggressive behavior to determine the full effects of violent media on individuals and children.