Masking the Violence in American Pop-Culture

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Abstract

Although the debate concerning the effects of media violence exposure and aggressive behavior in children once sided with the strong positive correlation between the two, in the past 50 years, many entertainment organizations have strived to cast a shadow of doubt over it. A recent study, however, revealed that children might learn or encode violent behavior as they view violence in the media. This paper applies this theory into a specific example from popular culture and attempts to reinforce the negative effect that media violence exposure has on children and adolescents. This paper further offers steps that parents and religious leaders can take to minimize the consequences that come from exposure to violent media in a religious context. In synthesizing the analysis from a specific movie, the results of sociological studies, and a real-life testimonial, this paper argues children’s exposure to violent media should be limited and supervised. 

Masking the Violence in American Pop-Culture

Although the relationship between media violence and aggressive behavior in children and adolescents has been thoroughly documented and corroborated by various sociological studies, this form of media has not only continued to become more prevalent, but violence has also continued to assume new forms. Consequently, the varied effects of these forms of violence must be accounted for and considered as young people are consistently exposed to them. This paper will explore a specific example from popular culture that exposes children to both overt and subtle forms of violence and establishes that a child’s exposure to media violence should be limited and supervised. 

As modern technology has exponentially advanced and different forms of media have progressively become more available, violent media has become pervasive. The media bombards children, adolescents, and teenagers with violent images, implicitly creating an atmosphere of permissiveness.  Psychologists, Elizabeth Erwin and Naomi Morton (2008), report,

Before young children even enter kindergarten they are exposed to over 4,000 h of television viewing (American Psychological Association 2005) and by the time they leave elementary school children will have witnessed 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on just television alone. (p. 105). 

This process by which young boys learn to view masculinity and violence as synonymous doesn’t merely function systematically, but studies suggest that the process actually occurs on a physiological level. In a study conducted by Douglas Gentile, Lindsay Mathieson, and Nicki Crick (2011), they discuss the psychological encoding or “scripts”(p. 215), that are learned when a single violent or aggressive event is watched, and they posit that, as children and teenagers have recurring exposure to these scenes, certain specific and general behaviors are learned and reinforced. Furthermore, as scenes of aggression are repeatedly viewed, adolescents can more easily retrieve these scripts and react in an analogous manner along with the encoded script.

Applying this theory into popular movies further illustrates the damaging effects that various forms of violence can have on young children, especially boys. Christopher Nolan’s popular film, The Dark Knight, is demonstrative of this idea. The mixed messages this film communicates about violence and gender roles underscore the effect violence in the media may have on young children. Furthermore, the convoluted themes of this movie function as a micro chasm of the forms of violent media that pervade popular culture. If the theory of Gentile et al. is correct, then the frequency with which children are bombarded by violence may translate into a generation that is “hardwired” to not only act aggressively but also value that behavior. 

The Dark Knight sends mixed messages concerning violence, correlating violent acts with social and financial rewards. The juxtaposition of two particular scenes in the Batman film encapsulates this notion. In one particular scene, Bruce Wayne entertains the gorgeous ladies of the Russian ballet on his yacht. Under the backdrop of an exotic island and a luxurious yacht, Bruce Wayne sunbathes while surrounded by supermodels. In the subsequent scene, Batman is depicted as brutally kidnapping a criminal. The negative impact of this scene is two-fold. First, it suggests that violent behavior doesn’t merely go unpunished but rewarded with women and money. Secondly, it reinforces the notion that masculinity is defined by a man’s ability to attract women, which not only subjugates women but also constructs a false idea for children. From this perspective, Batman personifies the idea that violence has its rewards; Rewards which present a counterfeit definition of masculinity. Consequently, young boys may look upon this scene only to conclude in order to attract women they must act violently and aggressively.   

Rather than performing acts that promote the moral virtue of the hero, Batman simply engages in activities that are marginally more acceptable than the conduct of other criminals. Both Batman and the villains throughout the film engage in reprehensible acts of violence, which draws a nearly invincible line between violence that is permissible or forbidden. Viewers accept this violence as it is better than the true villain’s behavior, and it typically possesses an underlying purpose. An adult can view such acts and separate the real villain and identify heroic qualities within the degrading behavior. Adults are capable to overlook violence and discover a deeper message, or even dismiss violent behavior as unimportant or unrealistic. The mind of a child, however, cannot make this distinction so easily. Children formulate their ideas toward masculinity from their heroes, who acts as harbingers of virtue. When heroes such as Batman actions are nearly congruent with villains, children are likely to conjugate violence and heroism. Masculinity may also be reinforced by media depictions of masculine characters using violence to solve conflicts. Certainly, Batman utilizes violence as the sole mode to ensure his own brand of justice, soliciting a violent form of manhood. 

Gentile’s et al. theory of the process of encoding scripts further elucidates the potential consequences that may result from children and adolescents viewing films like The Dark Knight.  Children who view these violent depictions don’t simply act aggressively as a result of watching them. They rather view the reactions of these alleged “superheroes” and synthesize them with their own experience. For example, a child who feels frustrated or embarrassed will encode the aggressive behavior and react in a similar manner. Furthermore, the results of Gentile’s et al. (2000) study points the spontaneity of this reaction, claiming that acts of physical violence in children are often spontaneous and involuntary reactions, such as punching the hand and fist together or punching a wall. Consequently, a child who has learned a behavior, or encoded behavior, from these violent forms of media may react in an analogous manner when confronted with stimuli that engender aggressive behavior. 

Surely some may reasonably suggest that these correlations are just that – correlations. The relationship between media violence exposure and aggressive behavior isn’t perfect. However, many critics of these psychologists and sociologists who promote this correlation neglect the overwhelming evidence that media violence does have a corrosive effect on children and adolescents. Pediatrician, Douglas Gentile, Ph.D. (2009) explains that the correlation between media violence exposure and aggressive behavior is well-founded and those who ignore the relationship are misguided, 

The effects of media violence on children's aggressive thoughts and behaviors have been studied for over 40 years. Scientists know not only what types of effects media violence have, how large they are, but also how they work and why. Most people don't know that. Most people think that there is still real debate over whether media violence causes increases in aggression (p. 20).

Furthermore, other published studies have indicated, “activation of mental models regarding violence is an automatic process that occurs somewhat independently of other potential mediators” (Curtis & Krcmar, 2008, p. 465). It seems that even the influences of good parents and leaders cannot reverse the potentially harmful effects of media violence exposure - making raising children in America cumbersome. Certainly, the competing interests of the entertainment industry and different child advocacy groups loom behind this discussion and convolute any definitive line between the effect of media violence exposure and aggression. 

Although these refutations against these studies may be plausible, a real-life example may augment the plausibility of the correlation between media violence exposure and aggressive behavior.  Jake Evans, a 17-year-old, shot and killed his older sister and mother, and, in a written confession, Evans discusses the impact violent media had on his decision to kill his family members. In his written confession, Evans describes watching Rob Zombie’s horror film, Halloween, 

It was the third time this week that I watched it. While watching it, I was amazed at how at ease the boy was during the murders and how little remorse he had afterward. I was thinking to myself it would be the same for me when I kill someone. After I watched the movie and put it in the case and threw it in the trashcan so that people wouldn’t think that it influenced me (Personal Communication, October 4, 2012). 

After reading Jakes entire statement, the role violent media played in his decision to commit such a violent crime is hard to overlook. Furthermore, this statement may reflect the idea that media violence does not directly cause violent behavior but is one factor in many that contribute to the problem. Given this, it would seem imperative that parent, educators, and community leaders take any necessary action to mitigate the influence of violent media in children. 

Religious leaders and parents can take several steps to assist children and adolescents learn alternative strategies to deal with their anger. First, parents can provide children with an environment without violent or aggressive behavior. In conjunction with this, parents an religious leaders can teach and reinforce Jesus’ teaching,  “but whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn him the other also” (Matthew 5:39, King James Version). If children and adolescents can learn this behavior through the example of their parents and leaders, then perhaps the same type of encoding that Gentile et al. discuss may occur but with more positive results. 

Parents and leaders can secondly minimize the amount of violence that children are exposed to. Jesus further taught that his disciples should not fear that which could destroy the body but the soul (Matthew 10:28). Surely murder and violence corrode one’s spiritual well being and has everlasting effects in the eternities. As result, parents and leaders must proactively monitor the type of media their children are viewing and ensure that they do not view anything that might entice them to forfeit the blessings that follow from following the counsel of Jesus Christ. Monitoring the media children and adolescents, one study suggests, can flag a child’s proclivity toward violent behavior (Boxer, Bushman, O’brien, & Moceri, 2009). Consequently, even if a child is predisposed to aggressive behavior, minimizing a child’s exposure to this form of media may mitigate their risk to perform violent or aggressive acts.

Surely violent forms of media will persist as long as the consumer demands them, and, although some may suggest that media violence exposure and aggression are merely correlations, studies have consistently shown this to be a strong positive correlation. Consequently, Christian parents who wish to protect their children from the harmful effects of violent media must make every effort to provide their children with an environment in which they learn or encode positive mechanisms to deal with violence. Furthermore, through the teachings of the Bible, parents, and leaders can make sure children respond to violence in a way that is congruent with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

References

Boxer, P., Huessman, R., Bushman, B., O'brien, M., & Moceri, D. (2009). The role of violent media preference in cumulative developmental risk for violence and general aggression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(3), 417-428. 

Curtis, S., & Krcmar, M. (2008). Mental models: Understanding the impact of fantasy violence on children's moral reasoning. Journal of Communication, 53(3), 460-478.

Erwin, E., & Morton, N. (2008). Exposure to media violence and young children with and without disabilities: Powerful opportunities for family-professional partnerships. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36(2), 105-112.

Gentile, D. (2009). Media violence and public policy: Cutting through the hype. Pediatrics for Parents, 25(7), 20-22. 

Gentile, D., Mathieson, L., & Crick, N. (2011). Media violence associations with the form and function of aggression among elementary school children. Social Development, 20(2), 213-232.

Annotated Bibliography

Boxer, P., Huessman, R., Bushman, B., O'brien, M., & Moceri, D. (2009). The Role of Violent Media Preference in Cumulative Developmental Risk for Violence and General Aggression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(3), 417-428. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from the ProQuest Research Library database

The authors of this study set out to determine if media violence exposure could function as a flag or predictor of a child’s short and long-term risk of performing violent or aggressive acts. After studying over 800 children. The study provided evidence that a child’s preference to view violent media has a strong positive correlation to that child’s risk for violence. This study corroborates the claims throughout this paper in relation to the impact media violence exposure has on children. The findings seem highly reliable given the sample size of the children studied. 

Curtis, S., & Krcmar, M. (2008). Mental Models: Understanding the Impact of Fantasy Violence on Children's Moral Reasoning. Journal of Communication, 53(3), 460-478.

In this study, the authors analyzed the impact of media violence exposure had on a child’s ability to morally reason in a given situation. The conclusion of the study revealed that the children learn to be violence through an automatic process that is potentially impervious to third-party mediation. The conclusion of this study supports the assertion of this paper that monitoring child media usage is critical because the results of such activity may have effects that are not easily reversible. The study further illustrates the notion that the effects of media violence exposure function of physiological behavior. 

Erwin, E., & Morton, N. (2008). Exposure to Media Violence and Young Children with and Without Disabilities: Powerful Opportunities for Family-Professional Partnerships. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36(2), 105-112. Retrieved February 13, 2013, from the Pro-Quest Research Library database.

Throughout this study, Erwin and Morton take a comprehensive look at the volume of violence children and adolescents are exposed to. They emphasize the overwhelming volume of violent acts that children view each year. Although the results they report are fairly synonymous with many other studies, Erwin and Morton offer concrete statistics to the volume of violent media children watch, which reinforces the overall thesis of this paper. Given the pervasiveness of violent media, the potential results of media violence exposure are even more troubling.  

Gentile, D. (2009). Media Violence and Public Policy: Cutting Through the Hype. Pediatrics for Parents, 25(7), 20-22. Retrieved February 12, 2013, from the ProQuest Research Library database.

Douglas Gentile, in this article, attempts to cut through the hyperbole that has defined the debate concerning the effects of media violence exposure. While criticizing those who ignore the consistent results of these studies, Gentile attacks the scientific community’s inability to properly defend the strong, positive correlation between violent behavior and violent media. This article functions in this paper to refute the counterarguments that attempt to refute the studies that support this correlation. Gentile recognizes that media violence is not the sole cause of such behavior, but he emphasizes its significant role in the process of learning violent behavior. 

Gentile, D., Mathieson, L., & Crick, N. (2011). Media Violence Associations with the Form and Function of Aggression among Elementary School Children. Social Development, 20(2), 213-232. Retrieved February 16, 2013, from the Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection database.

The three authors of this study hypothesize that children learn or encode violent behavior as they view violent media. Furthermore, this study suggests that children react analogously to the learned behavior in their real-life situation. The theory of this article serves as the basis for the thesis of this paper.