xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Violent times. Why are we so surprised?

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Violent times. Why are we so surprised?

Recent violent and tragic deaths have once again focussed our attention on the increasingly violent society in which we live. Apart from stabbings, there are “glassing” attacks with broken bottles. One punch killings are commonplace. Deaths by shooting are becoming more commonplace. Violent youngsters bash the elderly, they bash the police, they bash their teachers and they even bash their parents. In fact it seems that they will bash anyone who upsets them in anyway. Each weekend our police battle drugged and drunken youths at out of control parties.

After each violent episode, talk back radio goes into meltdown as caller after caller blames the schools, the teachers and or the parents for the increasing violence in our society. TV news programmes continue the sad story, accompanied by graphic pictures of the deceased, the grieving relatives and the wreckage.. There is a call on politicians to give the police and the courts stronger powers to punish the violent.

But why are we so surprised that violence is rampant? Why are we so surprised that parents and schools seem to be producing more and more violent citizens who have no respect for themselves or others?

We should not be surprised at all. The writing has been on the wall for thirty years.

In 1982 the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health reported that “violent programmes on television lead to aggressive behaviour by children and teenagers who watch those programmes.”  This was a confirmation and an extension of what the Surgeon General of the United States had warned of in an earlier study.

As a result of these and other research findings, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution in February 1985, (that is right, 1985, twenty seven years ago) informing broadcasters and the public of the potential dangers that viewing violence on television can have for children.

What did that 1985 research by APA show? It stated that the three major effects of children seeing violence on television are:

Children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.
Children may be more fearful of the world around them.
Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.

It also showed that children who watch a lot of TV are less aroused by violent scenes than those who only watch a little. In other words, those who watch a lot of violent behaviour  are less bothered by violence in general and less likely to see anything wrong with it.

A Continuing Debate
 In spite of this accumulated evidence, broadcasters and scientists in the 1990s continued to debate the link between viewing TV violence and children's aggressive behaviour. Some broadcasters believed there was not enough evidence to prove that TV violence was harmful; a bit like those cigarette sellers who said smoking was good for your health. 

However, scientists who studied this issue said that there was a link between TV violence and aggression, and in 1992, the American Psychological Association's Task Force on Television and Society published a report that confirmed this view. The report, entitled “Big World, Small Screen: The Role of Television in American Society”, showed that the harmful effects of TV violence do exist.

Field studies, showing the long-range effects of televised violence, supported this APA research. Dr. Leonard D. Eron was a well respected psychologist whose 50 years of research led him to warn society that children who watch violent television shows tend to show aggressive and destructive behaviour later in life.
"We found that youngsters at age 8, who were not aggressive at school but who were watching violent TV at home were, by age 18, significantly more aggressive than youngsters who at age 8 were aggressive at school but not watching violent TV at home," Dr. Eron told the Washington Post in 1995.
"The kids who watched violent TV at age 8 are significantly more aggressive by the time they reach age 30 --- more criminal convictions, more abuse of spouses, more drunk-driving convictions," he said.
He also found that as these aggressive subjects grew up and had children, their own children were more aggressive than their peers. He ran similar long-range studies of children in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park and of children in Finland, Australia, Israel and Poland, all with similar results.
Dr Eron’s findings have been widely cited and duplicated over the years and he testified multiple times before the U.S. Congress. He published seven books and more than 100 professional articles and was chairman of the American Psychological Association's Commission on Violence and Youth.

Violent video games
It can be reasonably argued that violent content in television and films has increased markedly since those findings were made back in the 1980s and 1990s.  Also, since those days, television and the motion picture screen have now been joined by extremely violent and interactive video games.

In April, 2000, the American Psychological Association announced that video games can increase aggression. It quoted psychologists Craig Anderson PhD and Karen Dill PhD, saying, “One study reveals that young men who are habitually aggressive may be especially vulnerable to the aggression enhancing effects of repeated exposure to violent video games.”
These two researchers, who worked with 437 U.S. college students, went on to say that, “Another study reveals that even brief exposure to violent video games can temporarily increase aggressive behaviour in all types of participants.”

In essence, their studies showed that “violent video games may be more harmful than violent television and movies because they are interactive, very engrossing and require the player to identify with the aggressor.” (APA Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. April, 2000)

In November, 2006, the U.S. National Institute on Media and the Family issued a Fact Sheet, supported by research evidence, announcing that
  • By the time a child is eighteen years old, he or she will witness on television (with average viewing time) 200,000 acts of violence including 40,000 murders
  • Children, ages 8 to 18, spend more time (44.5 hours per week - 6.5 hours daily) in front of computer, television, and game screens than on any other activity in their lives except sleeping. 
  • Since the 1950s, more than 1,000 studies have been conducted on the effects of violence in television and movies. The majority of these studies conclude that: children who watch significant amounts of television and movie violence are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviour, attitudes and values (U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 1999).
  • Media violence affects children's behaviour. This was reported jointly by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Paediatrics, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the U.S. Congressional Public Health Summit in 2000.
  • Children are affected at any age, but young children are most vulnerable to the effects of media violence
  • Young children
    • are more impressionable.
    • have a harder time distinguishing between fantasy and reality.
    • cannot easily discern motives for violence.
    • learn by observing and imitating.
  • Young children who see media violence have a greater chance of exhibiting violent and aggressive behaviour later in life than children who have not seen violent media (U.S. Congressional Public Health Summit, 2000).
  • Violent video games can cause people to have more aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviours; and decrease empathetic, helpful behaviours with peers. Children who watch more TV and play more video games are not only exposed to more media violence, but are more likely to act more aggressively with peers and tend to assume the worst in their interactions with peers.
  • Violence (homicide, suicide, and trauma) is a leading cause of death for children, adolescents and young adults, more prevalent than disease, cancer or congenital disorders
What’s happening?
Six prominent medical groups (American Academy of Paediatrics, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Psychiatric Association) warn of these effects of media violence on children:
  • Children will increase anti-social and aggressive behaviour.
  • Children may become less sensitive to violence and to those who suffer from violence.
  • Children may view the world as violent and mean, becoming more fearful of being a victim of violence.
  • Children will desire to see more violence in entertainment and real life.
  • Children will view violence as an acceptable way to settle conflicts.
    (Congressional Public Health Summit, 2000)
How much more evidence do we need? Although the above data is based on U.S. research, the situation would be much the same in Australia. We are all too sadly aware of the increasing reports of violence in our homes, our schools and the wider community.
It is interesting to note that girls also, are now much more violent than thirty years ago. This is no doubt due to the influence of strong and aggressive female role models such as Charlie’s Angels, Lara Croft, Xena, The Warrior Princess and others. 

Despite the overwhelming research evidence there are still many who maintain that violence in the media does not influence behaviour. These people should go and talk to the moguls who control the advertising industry. These high powered executives spend billions of dollars world wide each year putting various images on our screens because they firmly believe those screen images will influence our behaviour.

In 1969 The US Surgeon General warned that smoking was a health hazard. Since that time much has been done to reduce the use of tobacco in society. Cigarettes in Australia now come in plain packaging with highlighted health warnings. On the other hand, despite the overwhelming evidence of its damaging human and social consequences, nothing really has been done to curb media violence.

And the violence continues. Given the vast amount of research data available since the 1980s as to the causes and the effects of violent behaviour in our society, the really surprising thing is that we are surprised by it at all.

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