Whodunit–the Media?

Whodunit–the Media?

It’s easy to blame cartoons for gun-toting kids. But the truth isn’t so tidy.


Will girls imitate the new, kickass heroines in the Japanese animé Cardcaptors? Will the impressionable 12-year-olds exposed to trailers for MGM’s Disturbing Behavior forever after associate good teen behavior with lobotomies? Did Nine Inch Nails and the video game Doom inspire the Trenchcoat Mafia’s bloodbath at Columbine? Thousands of studies have been done to try to answer variants of the question: Does media violence lead to real-life violence, making children more antisocial and aggressive?

Like most complex issues, discussions about the impact of media violence on children suffer from that commonest of media problems: fudge. Almost any simple statement on the subject obscures the complexity of the facts, half-facts and “results suggest” findings of the past forty years. The right-wing Parents Television Council, for example, announces that the per-hour rate in the United States of sexual and violent material and coarse language combined almost tripled from 1989 to 1999. But while PTC president Brent Bozell castigates the media for lowering standards of acceptable speech and behavior, he doesn’t mention that in the final years of this avalanche of dreck the juvenile crime rate dropped more than 30 percent. Or, again, in August 1999 the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Orrin Hatch, reported confidently that “Television alone is responsible for 10 percent of youth violence.” Given the overall juvenile crime count in 1997, the report implied, some 250 murders and 12,100 other violent crimes would not have been committed if it weren’t for the likes of Batman Beyond.

But this, of course, is deeply misleading. One of the reasons so many media violence studies have been done is that the phenomenon may be too complex to study conclusively. There’s no way, after all, to lock two clones in a black box, feed them different TV, movie and video-game diets and open the box years later to determine that, yes, it was definitely those Bruce Lee epics that turned clone A into Jesse Ventura, while clone B’s exposure to the movie Babe produced a Pee Wee Herman.

It has been hard, in other words, for media violence studies to shake the ambiguity of correlations. Several studies have shown that violent boys tend to watch more TV, choose more violent content and get more enjoyment out of it. But the studies admittedly can’t show exactly how or why that happens. Do temperamentally violent kids seek out shows that express feelings they already have, or are they in it for the adrenaline boost? Do the sort of parents who let kids pig out on gore tend to do more than their share of other hurtful things that encourage violent behavior? To what extent is violent media producing little Johnny’s aggression–or inspiring it, making it appear glamorous, righteous, acceptably gratuitous, fun or “normal”–and to what extent is it merely satisfying little Johnny’s greater-than-average longings for the mayhem, vengeance, superhuman power and sweet revenge that most people, at times, secretly crave?

According to James Garbarino, author of Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them, it makes no sense to talk about violent media as a direct cause of youth violence. Rather, he says, “it depends”: Media violence is a risk factor that, working in concert with others, can exacerbate bad behavior.

Like Orrin Hatch’s committee, Garbarino estimates the effect of violent media on juvenile violence at about 10 percent, but his ecology-of-violence formulation is far less tidy than the Hatch committee’s pop-psych model. Garbarino himself reports in an e-mail that he would like to see media violence treated as a public health problem–dammed at its Hollywood source the way sewage treatment plants “reduce the problem of cholera.” Nevertheless, his ecology model of how juvenile violence emerges from complex, interacting factors means that hyperaggressive, “asset poor” kids are likely to be harmed by graphic depictions of violence, while balanced, “asset rich” kids are likely to remain unscathed. A few studies have even found that a “cathartic effect” of media violence makes some kids less aggressive. This wide range of individual variance makes policy prescriptions a tricky matter.

The American Psychological Association’s Commission on Violence and Youth (1994) mentions violent media as only one among many factors in juvenile violence. It stresses that inborn temperament, early parental abuse or neglect, poverty, cognitive impairment, plus a deficiency of corrective influences or role models in various combinations will put a child at greater risk for violence, both as perpetrator and as victim. The APA found that many damaged kids’ lives can be salvaged with early intervention. By the age of 8, these at-risk kids can be identified. Once identified they can be taught skills that enable them to resolve conflicts peacefully. The APA adds that parental guidance along with reducing kids’ exposure to graphic violence can help keep them out of the correctional system. But for the kids most at risk, reducing representational violence is obviously no cure. So this past fall, when Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman ordered the entertainment industry to stop advertising its nastier products to young children or else face (shudder) regulation, it was fair of media critics to castigate them for exploiting the media violence problem for its bipartisan glow rather than attempting to find the least coercive, most effective ways of keeping children safe and sane.

Perhaps the biggest problem in mitigating the effect of media violence on children is that it’s hard to nail down just what “violent media” means to actual kids. As with adult pornography, we all think we know what it is until we have to define it. That’s because kids not only process content differently depending on their temperament, background and circumstances, they seem to process it differently at different ages, too.

A series of often-cited studies known as Winick and Winick (1979) charted distinct stages in media processing abilities. Fairly early, from about 6 until about 10, most–but not all–kids are learning to deal with media much as adults do: interactively rather than passively. In her 1985 book, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination, Ien Ang of the University of Western Sydney in Australia showed that different adult viewers rewrote the “messages” of shows to suit their own views. So a wise little girl whose parents discuss media with her might enjoy Wrestlemania as an amusing guide to crazy-guys-to-avoid, while an angry, abandoned, slow-witted child is more likely to enter its world of insult and injury with uncritical awe.

At first blush, measures like content labeling would seem to make more sense for the 2-to-6 set because young kids do get confused about reality, fantasy, information and advertising. But again, what constitutes “violent” content isn’t always obvious. The Winicks found that young children whose parents fought a lot responded with more distress to representations of people yelling and screaming–because it seemed real–than to blatant violence for which they had no frame of reference. Should there be a label for “loud and emotional”? And if so, should we slap it on La Bohème?

Because representational violence is so hard to define, the recently reported Stanford media effects studies, which focused on third and fourth graders, ducked the problem. The study team, headed by Thomas Robinson, simply worked with teachers, parents and kids to help children lower their overall media use voluntarily. As a result of the six-month program, which involved classroom instruction, parental support and peer pressure, kids used media about 30 percent less than usual. And, they found, verbal and physical aggression levels subsequently dropped 25 percent on average. These numbers are being taken especially seriously because they were established “in the field” rather than in the lab, so that the verbal and physical aggression measured was actual, not simulated by, say, asking a child to kick or insult a doll. As media violence studies predicted, the more aggressive kids were to begin with, the more their behavior improved when they consumed less of whatever it was they normally consumed.

Although the Stanford study–perhaps to stay popular with granters–is being promoted as a study on media violence, it is really a study of media overuse, self-awareness and the rewards of self-discipline. Its clearest finding wasn’t that media violence is always harmful but that too much mediated experience seems to impair children’s ability to interact well with other people. Follow-up studies at Stanford will show whether the remarkable benefits of its media reduction program last over a longer period. If they do, such classes may be a helpful addition to school curriculums in conjunction, perhaps, with courses in conflict resolution. But in any case, its results demonstrate less the effects of specific content than what could be called “the rule of the real.”

The rule of the real says that however strong media influences may be, real life is stronger. Real love, real money, real political events and real-life, unmediated interpersonal experience all shape kids’ lives, minds and behavior more powerfully than any entertainment products. Even media seen or understood as real–news, documentaries, interviews–will have more impact than that which a kid knows is make-believe. As the Winicks found, kids understand early that cartoon violence is a joke, not a model. Even wrestling, once kids figure out that it’s staged, gets processed differently from, say, a schoolyard beating.

Without belittling the importance of media research, it’s time that the rule of the real governed policy as well. After all, boys whose dads do hard time tend to end up in jail, while boys who see Fight Club tend to end up in film clubs; it’s more likely that the Santana High killer decided to shoot up his school after seeing the anniversary coverage of Columbine than because he watched The Mummy. Abused young women don’t kill their battering husbands because they grew up watching Charlie’s Angels, and teens who hear no criticism of the Gulf War tend to want another. Given limited energies and resources, if our politicians really wanted to reduce youth violence, they would push to reform prison policies, provide supervised after-school activities for teens and get early, comprehensive help to high-risk children. As a community, we would do better to challenge the corporate conglomeration of news outlets than to legislate the jugs ‘n’ jugular quotient in Tomb Raider, its labeling or ad placements–and this is true even though the stuff kids like is often quite nasty, and even though the better part of the scientific establishment now agrees that such excitements are less than benign. But setting priorities like these is hard because, while the real may rule children’s lives as it rules our own, it’s much more fun to imagine controlling their dreams.

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