I haven’t blogged anything in a while and saw this DPchallenge and thought it’s as good a topic as anything to help me jump back in. The question today is, does watching violence on television and in movies inspire violent behavior in real life.
This question immediately reminded me of two incidents from my childhood. The first is the Columbine shootings in 1999. Two high school kids showed up at school one day with sawed-off shotguns and started shooting their classmates and teachers before finally turning their weapons on themselves. The incident was followed by a multitude of articles in every magazine that might be read by parents about how those two boys were inspired to these terrible acts by the then-popular first-person shooter, Doom, which they played almost day and night. The second incident occurred a few months after The Power Rangers first arrived on South African television. In that case a kid in a primary school was severely beaten up by other kids pretending to be characters from the children’s show. (I remember the incident as occurring in South Africa, but I was eleven or twelve, so don’t trust my memory. I do know the popular SA magazines did very in-depth articles about the incident and I wasn’t allowed to watch The Power Rangers anymore.) In these two cases (and many others, I am sure) the blame was laid squarely on the shoulders of audio-visual media.
But if you dig deeper, other factors come into play, like that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were routinely bullied in school, that they were social outcasts and that one day they had simply had enough. The video game probably had some influence, but a much bigger issue was the actual violence, physical, emotional and social, that they experienced from day to day.
In the case of the Power Rangers incident it does seem like a case of ‘monkey see, monkey do’. Yes, kids imitate what they see, and if they’re exposed to violence they are going to try it out. And let’s face it, there are more than enough programs for kids that are violent in nature. When last did you watch a Tom & Jerry cartoon, or Bugs Bunny, or Donald Duck? I’m not even going to mention all the violent programmes produced by Cartoon Network (to name just one channel); they’re too many. Children are exposed to violence and where that violence is glamourised, like The Power Rangers, they are going to want to emulate those heroes.
On the other hand, who owns the television? Who pays the cable or satellite subscription? Who has a responsibility to carefully vet what they expose their children to? Who has a responsibility to teach their children the difference between reality and make-believe? It amazes me that parents would object to their children being taught “Christian” values in school, but they have no problem with their third-grader watching shows in which people are routinely shot, blown up, or otherwise maimed. My wife had four-year-olds in her pre-school class tell her, in graphic detail, about the film Avatar, a film that in South Africa is rated PG13. Okay, Avatar is, perhaps, not that bad, but those same kids watch WWE wrestling (also rated 13), and try out the moves on each other. And parents unknowingly encourage this behaviour by buying the action figures and the masks and telling teachers who try to report this behaviour, ‘That’s just the way kids play.’
I can tell you with absolute certainty that if I had ever tried to bodyslam my sister, or anyone else for that matter, my parents would probably have skinned me alive. Yes, I had toy guns growing up, and army men, and watched the same violent television shows as all children everywhere, and played computer games where the main idea was to shoot stuff or blow them up, but I have never committed an act of physical violence against another human being (okay, once, when I was 10, but my parents had just had a divorce and my cousin was being a total ass (and as I had never been in a fight before I did not do much damage in any case – I didn’t really know how this was supposed to work)) because I was taught early on that it was wrong, and because my parents kept track of what I watched on television and forbade such programming as they thought harmful (even when I was already at college my dad’s satellite decoder was still set to block movies rated 18 and up).
If parents are careful of what they expose their children to and maintain clear lines of communication on issues like this, violence on television is as likely to make children behave violently as Harry Potter is to lure children into witchcraft and black magic. Children are much more likely to behave violently if they experience violence at home, regularly see a primary caregiver engaging in violent acts, or grow up in a society that’s inherently characterised by violence. (My second-year ethics lecturer did his master’s degree thesis on the latter, focusing specifically on communities in which gangsterism play a large role, though one can see the same thing in societies characterised by strife, oppression or rebellion.)
To wrap up: Violence begets violence, yes, but I think immediate, real, experienced violence is much more likely to lead to more violence than make-believe violence. Violence in the media and video games can have an influence, to be sure (if nothing else, it desentises us to real violence), but by no means can we consider it to be the sole culprit.