Exposure to Violence Begets Violence?

As some blame Hollywood for mass shootings, this writer cautions against jumping to conclusions.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Unlike many cultural-studies-based media scholars, psychologists often insist that the link between exposure to violence in media increases aggressive behavior in society. A 2003 collaborative study conducted by eight universities entitled “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth” concluded:

Research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts. The effects appear larger for milder than for more severe forms of aggression, but the effects on severe forms of violence are also substantial when compared with effects of other violence risk factors or medical effects deemed important by the medical community.

While the findings of this study are valid, it is still very difficult to control for other factors. For example, is a child who plays violent video games more likely to be violent or antisocial because of the video game or because of the lack of socialization with other groups, including peers, outside of the home? The idea that children will become more violent by exposure to violence in media suggests that children are passive consumers and unable to distinguish the difference between right and wrong.

Zurawik, who also serves as media critic for the Baltimore Sun, disagrees with this notion. He offers, “When you look at the latest research in the media-studies field, children have tremendous resistance to what they see on the screen. They talk back to the screen, compare it to their family and church situations and often resist what is being shown to them on the screen.”

Proving the link between exposure to violence in media and violence in society is not easy and is complicated on many levels.

What isn’t complicated is that storytelling is a major part of any society and stories are not always “positive,” pristine or benign. If someone is mentally unstable, then it is not surprising that he or she would inject himself into a story that has been told a myriad of ways since the 1940s. It is the mentally unstable person who is the common denominator in such acts, regardless of which side one falls on in this argument.

This is not an attempt to bash mentally unstable people; it is a plea to not just settle for the popular argument — it’s the media! — and to instead think long and hard about what can be done to ensure the safety of the public.

According to recent reports, Holmes was under the psychiatric care of Dr. Lynne Felton at the University of Colorado, where he was a doctoral student. Felton reported his behavior to the threat-assessment team at the university but apparently the threat-assessment team, of which Felton was a member, never met to discuss his case because Holmes had withdrawn from the university and was no longer a member of the community.

Perhaps we should be discussing how to better support students with mental-health issues on college campuses, particularly those who reach out, which is what Holmes did by seeking psychiatric counseling from Dr. Fenton. People are up in arms when the Catholic Church tries to manage criminals within their system — which, by the way hasn’t worked. Why aren’t people up in arms over colleges and universities that use in-house means of handling criminal behavior (sexual assault) and dangerous behavior instead of immediately reporting the behavior to professionals (police, mental-health units) outside of the college or university — professionals who are trained to support and handle these types of situations? What about gun control, for that matter?

The willingness to blame the media and unwillingness to figure out how to best avoid an incident like the one in Aurora is just as scary as walking on a college campus and going to the movies has become.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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