Concerns about media and violence have historical roots going back to the Victorian era, when the newly emerging middle classes expressed anxiety over the working class reading “penny dreadfuls” instead of more wholesome fare such as “morally uplifting” literature. The modern era, on the other hand, led to numerous studies that have become known as the “media effects” literature, which has sought to demonstrate a causal connection between media representations and acts of real violence. While some claim to have demonstrated behavioral effects of media violence, critics charge that the research is flawed in various ways. Many also claim that debates over media and violence are often a cover for other anxieties that remain too threatening for many people to talk about. What are the real issues being concealed by the debates over media and violence?
II. Models and Traditions of Research
III. Critics of Effects Research
IV. Moral Panics and Moral Entrepreneurs
V. “Out of Control”: Fears of Youth and Technology
For the past 40 years, researchers have been investigating what effects exposure to violent images have on children and adults, especially with regard to stimulating aggression or aggressive thoughts. The results of this mountain of studies remain inconclusive, with causal links between images of violence and actual violent or aggressive behavior hard to track with any degree of accuracy. Early studies attempted to document the impact that violent movie images had on children, followed by television images and now video game interactions. Critics say these research models are flawed and suffer in differing degrees from inadequately defined objects of study, inconsistent definitions, misapplied research methodologies, experimental limitations, and grossly simplified models of human behavior. Nevertheless, these studies have shaped public debate on the relationship of media technology, play, and child development. A brief word is in order about what concepts these studies have been based upon and the definitions of violence and aggression that underlie them.
The obvious question to ask is what is meant by violence and aggression with regard to media and its effect on people. The problem resides in both the conflation of real violence with its representation in TV, film, or video games and in what activity is presumed to be violent or aggressive. In some studies, the Three Stooges, Roadrunner, and Bugs Bunny are placed in the same category as horror slasher films and real news violence, simply based on the actions of the characters involved—who hit whom, how often, and so on. There is no meaningful distinction drawn between real and fictional violent representations or between types of fictional violent representations and their contexts. The second point is the meaning of effects. It is presumed that media have effects on people, but what those effects are is presumed to revolve around aggressive or passive activity, as if these are the only ways to understand how media influences individual behavior. For example, we rarely ask what kind of effect book reading, bicycling, or playing football has on subjects unless we have a predetermined answer in mind. Thus, some people would object to others reading certain kinds of books because of the violent or sexual imagery conveyed through words. However, this speaks less to the position of the reader and more to the concerns of the one objecting to the material. In other words, what is measured, if anything, is more the subjective concern of the researcher or the offense to those who would act as moral arbiter and less the actual effect on the subject in question. Those skeptical of media effects studies charge that researchers consistently draw spurious causal connections between data that remain mere correlations and point to the following conceptual confusion and logical flaws: (1) the simplistic theories of self used by some psychologists and child development specialists; (2) the moral agendas of political figures and those with a religious or cultural objection to media representations; and (3) legitimate concerns by parents who perceive their children as “out of control.”
Models and Traditions of Research
Social learning theory, developed by psychologist Albert Bandura in the 1970s, is a modification of B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist theories applied to adolescents and aggression. His research attempted to understand the interactions between the self and environment (reciprocal determinism) and set the initial standard for conducting studies of media and violence. Based on principles of observational learning or modeling therapy and self-regulation, Bandura illustrated his points with the famous Bobo doll studies. In these experiments, he had a fellow experimenter strike a Bobo doll, designed for that very purpose, while children observed on a TV monitor. When given the Bobo doll, the same children proceeded to strike the doll as they had witnessed. This was considered evidence that children model the behavior of others. What was not considered was the meaning the Bobo doll had for the children. The doll was designed to be struck, so this tells us little about aggression connected to modeling behavior, other than the children figured out this is what you are supposed to do with this type of toy. What was demonstrated was the authority of the experimenter more than any inherent aggression as a by-product of modeling behavior.
Bandura claimed that effective modeling depended on various degrees of attention, retention, motor reproduction, and motivation. He argued that children model the behavior of adults and other children, including media representations; hence, the concern over the consumption of violent media images. While this can explain the fact that people do model the behavior of others—even virtual others—it cannot explain what that modeling means to the individual. The issue of motivation is central but cannot be answered by this type of behaviorist framework, because it does not offer an explanation for how interpretation can modify behavior. How do children, in fact, understand violent media representations, and do they make distinctions between real and fictional violence?
Anderson and Bushman’s General Aggression Model (GAM), based on the earlier work of Bandura and others, attempted to go beyond the limitations of social learning theory, assigning priority to feelings, thoughts, and physical responses to violent media in specific situations leading to a presumed interpretation on the part of the subject. The problem, however, resides in how the GAM understands violence and aggression. The GAM perspective is often guilty of conflating the violence of horror films and shooter video games with the supposed earlier violence of Pac-Man, argued as desensitizing the public to real-life violence. Again, the issue is one of understanding the differences between real-life aggression and violence and fantasy aggression or violence. This conflation is made consistently by critics of violent media representations.
The catharsis model, meanwhile, assumed that consuming violent media works to lower aggression, to “let off steam.” A favorite position of defenders of violent films, TV shows, and video games, the catharsis model was based on the work of Seymour Feshbach and Robert D. Sanger, in Television and Aggression: An Experimental Field Study, conducted in 1971. This model attempted to offer evidence that people can benefit from consuming violent fantasies since they can provide a safe way of coping with anxieties and general fears. Unfortunately, their studies have not been adequately replicated and remain more of a hypothesis than a testable reality.
The cultivation theory of George Gerbner, former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, proposed a broader cultural or ideological critique of violent media. Often referred to as the “mean world syndrome,” cultivation theory used content analysis and surveys, avoiding the problems of the experimental laboratory setup. Cultivation theory argued that heavy consumption of media led to the cultural effects of political passivity and a greater tolerance for real-world violence. The problem here is that fearful people may be drawn to watching more television for a variety of reasons, which points out the additional problem of not addressing individual variations in how people consume and understand media.
Critics of Effects Research
Jonathan Freedman, in Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence, examined most of the experimental studies conducted on violence in media and found them lacking in consistent definitions of what constitutes aggression or violence and containing flawed methods of research and a continuing confusion of correlation with causation. The work of Barker and Petley in their volume, Ill Effects: The Media/ Violence Debate, along with the work of David Gauntlett in that same book, deepens the critique voiced by Freedman. One of the major flaws of these studies is their set of assumptions about human subjects. These assumptions give no room for people, children, or adults to interpret or make sense of their own actions. Meaning, though, is important. How we understand fantasy and reality, imagination and reason, aggressive play and real assault, is critical in our ability to assess risk to ourselves and to others. The media effects perspective, unfortunately, does not take meaning seriously, assuming that people are either overtly or covertly manipulated into believing and acting the way that they do simply by exposure to media images. The larger social context within which we understand images, our everyday lives, families, social groups, and so forth is almost never integrated into this type of research on media and violence.
For example, Jeffrey Goldstein argues that the absence of volition in media effects research combined with not taking seriously the social context of media consumption distorts the understanding of the role media play in the lives of children and adults. Some researchers take this lack of choice even further, arguing that the meanings we make of media violence are not significant, because our making sense of the world is only accomplished through predetermined social lenses that condition us to look at the world in a very specific way—what is often called interpolation. This position is refuted by the research of James Tobin, who in Good Guys Don’t Wear Hats: Children’s Talk about the Media looked at how children actually understood the film medium, violent or otherwise, and pointed out the wide variety of interpretations children make of their experiences with media. Violent images may frighten one child and simply bore another. One cannot find a given interpretation as the correct one way to understand fictional violence over any other.
The real social lives of humans, our families, friends, and authority figures—that is, the larger social context—do indeed shape our responses to violent media images. The degree to which each of these variables influences behavior, and the combination of these multiple influences on behavior, has proven to be the most difficult measure for media researchers. Further complicating research models remains the distinction between fantasy violence and real violence, a differentiation especially important for children. Children must make these distinctions in order to understand how to survive in the real world. Adults can more easily blur these distinctions if they have already established what is real and what is fantasy to begin with. Tobin’s studies demonstrate that children make this distinction between fantasy and reality at a very early age.
Hence, it is not surprising that advertisers and filmmakers work hard to break these barriers down in order to cement audience identification with the product or film work at an early age. However, the fact that customers, whether children or adults, play with these boundaries through their own critiques, jokes, parodies, imitations, and other forms of meaning-making, indicates that humans are active producers often at odds with commercial producers.
Moral Panics and Moral Entrepreneurs
The persistence of controversy around media effects research may be understood as a deeper crisis in how we think of children, technology, and threats in the modern world. These periodic concerns expressed as anxiety over media violence are given the term moral panics.
Moral panics are public campaigns that often call for censorship or express outrage at behavior or fantasies of particular lower-status social groups when those same groups are perceived as escaping the control of the dominant status group. They occur often during periods of social and technological change and may crystallize around a particular emotional issue. The early Salem witch burnings were facilitated by the panic induced by male clergy members who felt threatened by the increasing power of women in the church. Closer to our time period, concerns over comic books, pool hall attendance, heavy metal and rap music, television violence and sex, films, and a host of media activities have come under public scrutiny for their supposed corruption of morals and youth. In the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center went after heavy metal bands for their supposed effect on youth and the belief that such music caused teenage suicides. Today, it is conservative groups like Focus on the Family attacking Barbie dolls and Shrek or the Parents Television Council decrying acts of television violence and gore, while liberal groups attack the computer games Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto for their racial and gender stereotypes and simulated sex in hidden codes. While racists and sexist attitudes persist in U.S. society, the degree to which media cause those attitudes has yet to be demonstrated by effects research, and media and First Amendment scholars argue that the values of an open society and that the attendant civil liberties enjoyed therein outweigh unproven media effects assertions.
What is interesting is that, in most of the qualitative studies of children and media violence, when asked whether they were affected by violent images, most children responded with the assertion that they were not affected, but their younger peers were affected. Middle-class parents often voiced the same concerns—they are not affected but those lower-class folks down the block might be harmed. In other words, the panic over media and violence can be clearly viewed as a panic over status and power, with the higher-status groups—parents over children, middle class over working or lower class, whites over blacks, and so on—asserting their so-called moral authority in order to protect some supposed moral boundary of society.
The fact that these concerns over media and violence are most often promoted by advocacy groups who claim that they have children’s welfare at stake, as well as media pundits, politicians looking for votes, and professional experts and organizations, indicates that the issue of media violence is one that lends itself to the work of moral entrepreneurs. Occupying a privileged position in society, such moral entrepreneurs are able to exploit their social position to assert their authority in reinforcing conventional “common-sense” folkways that appeal to many parents anxious over the behavior of their children.
“Out of Control”: Fears of Youth and Technology
The third point, that parents feel their children are out of their control, is understandable given the rapid rates of technological change, the decrease in public play areas, the rise of the Internet, and the expansion of widespread social and political inequality leading to less opportunities in life for members of both the working and middle classes. According to Henry Jenkins of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, the moral panic that surrounds the issues of violence and media can be traced to fear and anxieties over adolescent behavior, a fear of new technology, and the expansion of youth culture throughout the media landscape into all areas of everyday life. In addition, the deep fear of the intermingling of the private and public spheres of everyday life is expressed not only in terms of parental fear of children being exposed to media violence but also in images of sexuality and online predatory behavior. Given the widespread adult ignorance of technology and science, it should not be surprising that when their son or daughter knows more about the technology than they do, parents feel at a distinct disadvantage. Such competency on the part of one’s children raises a host of questions about parental authority as well as ideas of childhood innocence, which is challenged as children gain more knowledge through the Internet, television, and film.
The old Victorian myth of innocent children without greed, desire, or competency is under attack. The response by parents is often to either demonize children, ignore them, or idealize them as little angels, all revealing a lack of understanding of the complex reality of childhood in the modern world. But seeing technology and media violence as destroying the innocence of childhood is just as misleading as assuming that children are powerful liberators of modern technology and can easily withstand onslaughts of media violence. What is required, as Gerard Jones points out in Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, is for children to feel safe in playing with their fantasy monsters, whether it is in a book, on television, in film, or in a video game. Playing with and killing monsters in a fantasy world may be just another way to keep these monsters from becoming our everyday harsh realities.
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