It is amazing how Hollywood just doesn’t get it. There appears to be no end to how cavalier Hollywood can be on the subject of the possible relationship between violence in the media and violence in society. The latest faux pas comes to us courtesy of the former Governator himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Promoting his newest film “The Last Stand” opening on January 18, Schwarzenegger told a press gathering according to an article appearing on Yahoo! that “one has to keep (the two) separate. By “the two” it would appear he was alluding to media violence versus societal violence.
“This is entertainment and the other thing is tragedy beyond belief,” said Schwarzenegger. “It’s really serious and it’s the real deal.”
It would appear that the action star is living in a world of denial. Young people are without a doubt influenced by the media. They will copy hair styles, clothing choices, the music they listen to and so much more from what they learn in the media.
Getting back to Schwarzenegger himself, doesn’t he realize how some of his famous movie lines such as “Hasta La Vista Baby” and “I’ll be back” were repeated mantra like by millions of his fans?
As of this writing Hollywood has at least three big budget films out that are chock full of violence. There is Tom Cruise’s “Jack Reacher,” Schwarzenegger’s “The Last Stand” and the one whose title alone really sums up Hollywood’s devil may care attitude, Sylvester Stallone’s “Bullet to the Head.” Yikes!
It is also interesting to note that the Columbine mass murderers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were said to have remarked prior to their shooting spree that “Someday Hollywood would make a movie about us.” If that doesn’t show how young people perceive the link between movies and violence consider this. Prior to the shooting the twosome made a video for a school project that contained violent language, scenes of them shooting pretend guns and “snuffing” out students in the school hallway. The short film was entitled “Hitmen for Hire.”
Personally, I agree with Schwarzenegger’s observations that we need tighter gun laws, better mental health guidance in place and most importantly proactive parenting, this last one being the most important. Parents need to get involved with their kids even if things get messy.
However, there are studies by respected people in psychology numbering in the thousands that overwhelmingly point to a connection between violence in media and violence in society. Two that stand out are as follows:
In a Fall 2004 report titled “Violence in Media” written by Ed Donnerstein, then Dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona the message is loud and crystal clear.
Donnerstein writes “There is absolutely no doubt that those who are heavy viewers of (media) violence demonstrate increased acceptance of aggressive attitudes and increased aggressive behavior.” He qualifies this claim by adding that if a film shows the consequences of violence it is less likely to influence violence amongst its viewers than a film that glamorizes, sanitizes or even makes violence seem routine. Films such as the latter will often make viewers see violence as acceptable and maybe even desirable.
Another study entitled “The Influence of Media Violence on Youth”done in 2003 for The American Psychological Society and authored by such notables as Donnerstein, Craig Anderson of Iowa state University and Leonard Berkowitz of the University of Wisconsin echoes the message of the Donnerstein report.
I interviewed Dr. David Wilder, Area Coordinator for the Social Area of the Rutgers Psychology Department. When discussing the mass media to behavior connection he speaks in measured tones. He sees a definite correlation between violence in media and violence in society but says we shouldn’t finger point at Hollywood alone.
“With social aggression, there are likely to be multiple causes – these include exposure to media violence, frustration, personality traits (temperament), past history (habits), cultural acceptance of aggression, and more.”
Dr. Wilder goes on to say “Exposure to media violence (whether films, television or video games) has been shown to be correlated with interpersonal aggression. This seems to be stronger for men than women (perhaps because men are generally more aggressive than women – which may be due to some combination of biological and cultural factors). Also the relationship between the exposure to media violence and aggression seems to be larger for children than adults (…children have more difficulty in separating the pretend from the real). But you may say correlation does not prove causation – people who are “naturally” violent may be drawn to violent media.” What Dr. Wilder is saying here is that the blame cannot be placed squarely on makers of violent movies because some viewers who watch these movies would have been violent anyway.
Dr. Wilder continues “This is where laboratory studies of aggression come into play. In these studies (kids or adults) are randomly assigned to watch either violent media (or play violent games) or watch nonviolent media (or play nonviolent games). Then their behavior is observed when they get an opportunity to act aggressively (eg. Interact with another child). Most of these studies have shown that exposure to violent media increases the aggressiveness of the subject and since the subjects are randomly assigned to conditions, one must conclude that the observed differences in behavior are due to the different media that the subjects were exposed to. Based on this research, I am convinced there is a causal link between exposure to violent media and aggression.”
The Rutgers professor acknowledges that many of these studies may be skewed in favor of violent behavior due to the fact that interaction is measured a very short time after exposure to the violent media. As such the studies are not an accurate barometer of long term behavior by the subjects who viewed violent media.
Dr. Wilder concludes “Finally, establishing that there is a link between media violence and aggression does not, of course, mean that media violence is the only or most important cause of interpersonal aggression. My take on this is that media violence is a cause but there are other potent causes, including the stress and frustration of our lives, the coping strategies we have developed (or more importantly failed to develop), the permission giving beliefs to solve problems with violence that society may provide us (some of which come from the models we see in the media) and the availability of weapons such as guns that make it easy to behave violently.”
There were rumors circulating for many years that some children who watched “Superman” movies tried putting on a red cape and jumping out of windows. For the most part these stories were just that – rumors. However the shootings in Newtown, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora and Columbine just to name a few are not myths. Were they influenced by media? The debate will continue ad infinitum.
However consider this disconcerting thought. I saw a photo recently of some graffiti painted on the side of a building. In big red letters it simply read “Television is the New Religion.” To paraphrase the late great Rod Serling, “Up ahead, there’s a signpost. Next stop?” Lala Land!