I’m pretty sure I’ve heard “experts” give evidence for and against the role violent media plays in influencing violent or aggressive behavior in children. It probably comes down to semantics; how do you define violent media, how do you define aggressive behavior? Either way, my personal opinion is that whatever we take into our bodies and minds will later be expressed in our bodies and minds. The extent of the manifestation depends on a lot of different factors. I think it is likely that violent entertainment or news media doesn’t cause aggressive behavior, but is highly correlated with it. Violent media offers modeled behavior of how to express aggression. For the aggravated person this may be more influential than for the peaceful person. Humans by nature are empathetic, so seeing aggression and violence triggers the empathy response in the body and makes the viewer feel some of what they are seeing. For the emotionally immature, this can be dangerous. Children are often emotionally immature. Unfortunately a lot of adults are, too.
The way I see it we have two options: stop depictions of violence in movies, television and music, or teach emotional maturity and sound decision making. A combination of both would probably be optimal. I like action movies when there is a good story and the depictions of human depravity aren’t too heavy. I think the comic book themed movies of the last ten years are great, but they are at times rather aggressive. While I can handle the anarchist revolution themes of the newest Batman movie, I’m pretty sure it is the reason why our nine month old daughter now tries to squirm away whenever we try to change her diaper. She is revolting! That’s just a joke. Bane never modeled that type of rebellious behavior when Batman was trying to change his diaper.
One example of violent media influence aggressive behavior is found in the book Last Chance in Texas by reporter John Hubner. In the book Hubner follows two groups of youth through a State school run by the Texas Youth Commission, juvenile corrections. One of the boys recounts an event earlier in his life when he held a gun to his little brother’s head and said he was going to kill him. One of the counselors with the group asked where he learned that phrase, to which the boy said it was from a movie. Hubner makes the point that it was the fact that this boy had seen violence, and been victimized, his whole life, so violence was normal to him. It wasn’t the fictional violence that made him act that way, but rather the fictional violence fit with his concept of normalcy in a way that made the violent behavior he saw in a movie a valid expression of anger towards another person. Because the violent media fit with his violent concept of life it was easier for him to follow the modeled behavior.
Celebrities will star in excessively violent movies and then turn around and say there is nothing bad that follows. I don’t think they are just trying to excuse culpability, I think they honestly believe it. Most of us realize we aren’t going to repeat the things we see in violent media in real life. It doesn’t fit with our normal. But for those whose normal is not the same normal as the status quo, the media influence becomes more of a reality and less of a fantasy escape from reality. So the question comes up again, do we cancel the violent media or teach emotional maturity, and with it try to improve upon everyone’s concept of normalcy? The first option is easier, mandates and regulations are usually easier, hence the preference of governments to go in that direction. If people eat poorly, take away the food so they can’t eat it, ban large sodas. If people shoot other people, take away all of the guns. In neither case is the problem addressed, but if carried out fully the end result is the preferred result, to an extent. It is unrealistic, but if it were possible to remove all unhealthy foods from the American diet, and remove all guns from the face of the planet there it would follow that there would be no more obesity or shooting victims. Also gone would be free will and moral agency.
Does violent media effect children? Of course. Why do you watch anything? Because it effects you. We consume media because of what it does to us. It isn’t about if it effects or not, but rather what is done with the effect once it takes place.