Do violent media create violent teens?

ArtPrize by Wayne Silver
ArtPrize by Wayne Silver

ArtPrize by Wayne Silver

There can be little doubt that adolescents spend a considerable amount of time in front of screens – and there seems to be a significant amount of violence in the TV shows, movies, and video games that they consume. Although the research isn’t consistent about the link between violent media and violent behaviour, the teen years are a time in which the brain undergoes developmental changes; it’s not unreasonable to assume that repeated exposure to violence on television and in games might have an impact on youth development. A recent study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (SCAN) attempted to identify brain changes associated viewing violence on TV.

The researchers recruited 22 male adolescents between the ages of 14 and 17 and had them watch scenes from movies involving fist fights, street brawls, and stadium violence. They found that watching even moderately aggressive material desensitized the youth; their emotional reactions decreased with repeated viewing. In addition, the activation of a brain area thought to be involved in aggression and the ability to recognize inappropriate behaviour also declined while watching. Adolescents who were more frequently exposed to violent media in their daily lives were the most desensitized in the study. The researchers expressed concern that, as teens become less sensitive to violence in movies, they will seek increasingly aggressive media. Their conclusion:

… exposure to violent media results in a blunting of emotional responses, which in turn may prevent the connection of consequences of aggression with an appropriate emotional response, and therefore may increase the likelihood that aggression is seen as acceptable behaviour.

The headlines almost write themselves; an article on ScienceDaily last week was titled, “Watching Violent TV or Video Games Desensitizes Teenagers and May Promote More Aggressive Behavior, New Study Finds“. However, the small sample size and the fact that only males were included in the study limits the conclusions that can be reached. There was no follow-up to determine if the adolescents in the experiment actually engaged in aggressive acts, and we don’t know from the study how long the effects will last. The researchers cited previous studies indicating that approximately 70% of 14 year-olds had seen at least 1 extremely violent movie; not all of these youth become aggressive and not all studies have found a strong link between violent media and behaviour (see, for example, Ferguson and colleagues in Criminal Justice and Behavior, 2008). Why might some youth behave aggressively after exposure to violent media but not others?

A recent article in Review of General Psychology suggests that the teens’ personality plays a major role in determining whether screen aggression will lead to aggression in the real world. They assert that, taken together, previous research on exposure to violent media (in this case, video games), have a much greater impact on those who are more emotionally reactive than their peers, but less agreeable, careful, and disciplined. This conclusion seems more plausible to me than the notion that violent media invariably lead to an increase in violent behaviour.

Training programs for professionals who assess the risk of youth violence often consider the exposure to violent movies and games. However, the training I received recommended that media violence be put in context, arguing that isolated youth with few attachments to others who also consumed violent media were at greater risk. Kevin Cameron was the team leader for the Taber Crisis Response Team and subsequently one of the members of the Alberta Government Taber Response Project. He used the term “empty vessels,” referring to teens with few connections to healthy adults and a lack of identity and purpose. He believes these “empty vessels” are at risk of identifying with perpetrators of violence in television and video games, and might therefore be more likely to engage in violent behaviour.

The bottom line? The media-violence link isn’t as simple as a headline would have you believe. Parents should be aware of the television, movies, and video games that their kids consume. Talking to kids about the things that they see on the screen is also important. One of the best sites I’ve seen to help parents along these lines is Common Sense Media; it provides detailed information about movies, games and books, along with topics that can be discussed with kids who’ve seen them. It makes sense to me to make an effort to limit exposure to media violence, but parents should not necessarily panic if their child watches an inappropriate movie at a friend’s house.

Reference: Oxford University Press (2010, October 19). Watching violent TV or video games desensitizes teenagers and may promote more aggressive behavior, new study finds.
ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 28, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101018211820.htm

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