What are the messages of our violent media culture?

In case you are confused by comments in the media this week: There is in fact no doubt about whether media violence contributes to real life violence and aggression, such as that seen in Newtown a few days ago. The preponderance of evidence, and reason, tell us that this is so. The American Psychological Association thinks so. The Center on Media and Child Health thinks so. The American Academy of Pediatrics says so. The latest meta-analysis confirms it. The United Nations agrees.

The fact is, the quantity of media violence is extreme, likely to get more so, and, furthermore, is inescapable.

Call of Duty, popular first person shooter video game among youth

Call of Duty, popular first person shooter video game among youth

Whether any particular event was caused by media in general or video games in particular would be difficult to say. It’s like determining that any particular weather event was caused by global warming. But a violent media culture contributes to a culture in which a young person arms himself with automatic weapons and shoots children.

Some have even gone so far as to suggest that violent media and especially video games, help to relieve pent up aggression in some way, and so contribute to a reduction of violence in society. This is pure nonsense, according to Jacques Brodeur of Edupax, an organization seeking violence prevention through media education, in Quebec:

“Studies about the cathartic effect of violent imagery have led to a unanimous conclusion: Media violence does not heal, it increases violent behaviors and attitudes. After watching it, you feel justified to be aggressive, frustrated, and therefore to do your own justice.”

To be sure, while media is a factor, it’s not the only factor in the mass murder of children in schools. Simply playing Call of Duty or Halo or Grand Theft Auto is not going to turn a person into a mass murderer. There are millions of people playing, but not every one of them decides to try out the real thing. Very few do. There are other contributing factors to any particular event.

So, conservative commentator Joe Scarborough and I agree that it’s a three-part problem: This week he said the Newtown shooting and other massacres were the result of “violent popular culture, a growing mental health crisis and the proliferation of combat-styled weapons…”

There’s a crucial point to be made. The issue is not just violence in the media, but the messages around the violence: The way the media’s messages serve to socialize males to solve problems through violence, and that the way to be masculine is to be violent. As several have noted, these mass shootings are perpetrated almost exclusively by boys and young men, and so, clearly, we need to examine the gender aspect of the phenomenon.

This, from an article by Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally published in the Boston Globe, in 1999, explains the problem with the messages:

“From rock and rap music and videos, Hollywood action films, professional and college sports, the culture produces a stream of images of violent, abusive men and promotes characteristics such as dominance, power, and control as means of establishing or maintaining manhood.

The right way to ask the question is: “How does the cultural environment, including media images, contribute to definitions of manhood that are picked up by adolescents?” Or, “How does repeated exposure to violent masculinity normalize and naturalize this violence?”

Mr. Brodeur would add to this the culture of revenge in violent movies. “The Terminator, Spiderman and Rambo are typical examples. The male heroes suffer for well over an hour (in a typical 1½ hour movie) before deciding to do their own justice. Being the good guys seems to give them permission to hit and kill the villains.”

Today, there are many very young children spending many hours playing first-person shooter games – that is, games where the player has a weapon and shoots other people. These games are very engrossing. The graphics can be highly realistic. There doesn’t seem to be much known about how the combination of being very young and playing hours of this kind of game affects the brain. We do know that young children are not always the best at separating reality from fantasy. This is where we could use some more research.

So some continue to be so doggedly attached to the notion that while media of all other forms has a powerful effect on young people, influencing so many things from tobacco use to food choices to body image to relationships, despite all that, somehow, magically, violent imagery and messages do not influence behavior.

I believe there is a deep seated fear that if we admit that the overwhelming amount of violence in the media contributes to violent behavior by some, that we will then have to take some action to ban the video games that are so adored by some, and to regulate what can be shown in movies and on television.

This would be a tall order. However, acknowledging the truth that media contributes to these horrible events does not necessarily require new regulation or an attack on First Amendment rights. What is the answer? Well, how about education? Media Literacy education has been shown to enhance students’ critical analysis by increasing knowledge of the media, awareness of the influence of the media, and the ability to assess the realism of the media representation of reality. It is a proven way to help children find their way through harmful messages, including violent messages, and the message that violence is the way to resolve problems, every time.

Children are being subjected to a huge weight of media violence. Hardly ever do the movies and the video games portray the aftermath of a violent event. Young kids just take it all in, with little or no education about what it means, with hardly any chance to discuss the issue of violence in the media they see, why it’s there, who profits, what story is not being told. There is no deconstruction going on. Just shoot ‘em up and move on. No consequences. No aftermath. No grieving children and parents. Older kids, teens, should have a chance to learn about the studies that have been done on video games and their affect on the brain, research that has found both beneficial and harmful effects. Teens should be given this information to use to make decisions about their own use of games.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. How to pay for it?

An interesting concept that I’ve been hearing lately is the notion of media companies paying for Media Literacy education, based on the concept that if a private company is profiting from something that harms society or has a societal cost, that company should pay the full cost of their activities. Just as chemical companies were required to pay into the Superfund, and as tobacco companies have been required to pay for anti-youth-smoking marketing efforts. Media companies who profit from violence should pay for prevention. Let’s not ban violent media, let’s demand that those who profit, pay the full cost.


  1. Well said Erin. Kids desperately need the kind of media literacy education you are talking about so they can learn to be critical thinkers, especially in the media-saturated environment that surrounds so many of them.

  2. Here’s a rebuttal from the gaming community



  1. […] another perspective, talking particularly about the role of media. One is from Erin McNeill at Marketing, Media and Childhood who argues for more media literacy education for kids, paid for by the media companies that make […]

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