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Violence, of course, is not a new concept – it’s actually been around since the beginning of civilization. But today it seems different, a new phenomenon. This is mostly due to the attention that violent crimes like rape and murder and assault get in the media. The media has intentionally sensationalized violent crimes just to get people to visit their website, pick up and buy their paper or magazine, or visit their social media platforms in order to grow their brand and give advertisers a reason to promote their businesses. It unfortunately always comes down to a media company trying to make a buck.
But we have to ask ourselves, “What are the consequences of this attention that violence gets?” Quite naturally, another question emerges: “Does violence in the media cause violence in children?” The answer to this question is of course not so black and white, but actually shades of gray. This has been an ongoing debate for years, starting with the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 and extending to the current time with the Charleston, South Carolina, shooting at a primarily black church. Both events have garnered national and international attention, in turn prompting arguments in gun-rights and media attention debates.
It’s hard to say whether these particular kinds of events have a direct effect on children to do the same. Some would say that people with a mental illness are likely to only commit these kinds of violent crimes in the first place. They either want to do serious harm to other people for some sick, sadistic reason, or they see that the media is basically celebrating a violent perpetrator. In an article published on aacap.org, the website for the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “The Impact of Media Violence on Children and Adolescents: Opportunities for Clinical Interventions, Dr. Eugene V. Beresin has some interesting insights on the topic.
“While the causes of youth violence are multifactorial and include such variables as poverty, family psychopathology, child abuse, exposure to domestic and community violence, substance abuse, and other psychiatric disorders, the research literature is quite compelling that children's exposure to media violence plays an important role in the etiology of violent behavior,” says Dr. Beresin, Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Residency Training at the Massachusetts General Hospital and McLean Hospital. “While it is difficult to determine which children who have experienced televised violence are at greatest risk, there appears to be a strong correlation between media violence and aggressive behavior within vulnerable ‘at risk’ segments of youth.”
He goes on to say that the last 30 years or so have urged extensive research on the relationship between violence on TV and violent youth behavior. He says many studies have confirmed this correlation. According to the article, the typical American child watches more than 200,000 acts of violence (and more than 16,000 murders) before they reach the age of 18. It says that TV programs portray approximately 812 violence acts every single hour, with cartoons and another program for children having up to 20 acts of violence every hour.
What is even more frightening, the article goes on to say, is how vulnerable young people who have been victimized in some way, shape or form may feel that violence is an outlet, a solution to their problems. This is especially true when children see so many of their favorite heroes in stories resorting to violence either as revenge or as a tool to combat evil – in other words, the bad guys. The scary thing is, a young, vulnerable child or even an adolescent may feel they are the hero, while they may see the person or persons bullying them or hurting other people or persecuting them in certain social groups as the bad guys. When they resort to what they have seen on television, they are likely to feel it is OK to resort to violence as a way of doing away with the bad guys. “Additionally,” Dr. Beresin adds, “children who watch televised violence are desensitized to it. They may come to see violence as a fact of life and, over time, lose their ability to empathize with both the victim and the victimizer.”
While this is certainly an issue of debate for many, it is false and irresponsible to pretend TV and other forms of media do not affect viewers, especially young people, in a negative way. This consequence may definitely come down to mental illness in most children and adolescents, as people who resort to violent crimes as a means to solve problems can only be sick in the head. Nonetheless, more and more young people are feeling a sense of aloneness in the world, perhaps evening feeling overlooked in a society that rewards people for being famous, for standing out and being popular. They yearn for celebrity, they yearn to be important, and in seeing how the media gives unlimited attention to bad things done by bad people, they see how violent, criminal behaviors can be an effective way to become larger than life. And so they conduct violent crimes knowing it will make them famous. It’s quite sad, really. But it’s the truth.