In spite of the fact that violent crime is on the decline around the nation, the New York Times reports this morning that more police officers are being killed in the line of duty than ever before, and no one can agree on the reasons why. It gives pause to consider how the consumption of violent media may play a part.
We consume more violent images, sounds and concepts through media than ever before. It is no secret that this violence has an impact on our culture in general. We know that repeated exposure to this violence causes a desensitization to it. Desensitization is a psychological coping process. It allows the brain to process large amounts of uncomfortable information in ways that attempt to keep us sane, but it also decreases our empathy towards others, it reduces helping behavior, it causes physiological responses like increased heart rates and higher blood pressure. The question is, can this information be solidly linked to violent media?
There is no shortage of research in this department and the most conclusive results lie in the examination of the impact of this consumption on children. With the explosion of violent media in the last 20 years, including not just violence on television, but violence in interactive media like video games and internet access, what we may begin to see is the effects of this exposure coming to fruition. The New York Times article reports that in a study commanded by the F.B.I. on this issue, it was found that in many cases of officer shootings, the officers were trying to stop a suspect who had been previously arrested for a violent crime. Because all of us consume more violence through media (just turn on the news on any given morning!) as a result, not only are suspects desensitized to violence, police officers are as well. The end result is often that we are all more aware but less connected to human pain and suffering. When you add incarceration into the picture (we lead the world in incarcerating people with more than 2.3 million Americans behind bars where survival is often dependent on the commission of violent acts) the link between violence and behavior seems more apparent.
Think of it like boot camp, a place where you step off the bus into a barrage of insults and assaults on your physical, mental and emotional being. Boot camp is a highly effective way of training young men and women to cope with some of the most extreme brutality that exists in the world. And it may very well be not only effective, but necessary for those who will serve in the military. But it illustrates how routine and prolonged exposure to violence can strip away existing mores and norms and how it can bring someone to accept and embrace a new set of values that may “embrace destruction, violence and death as a way of life.” It is no surprise that almost 20% of vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering PTSD. Extreme violence is hard on the brain because we all have different physiological capabilities when it comes to handling this type of exposure.
Many studies of kids and their exposure to video gaming violence (along with other consumption of violent media) suggest that there are links that predict that those kids who start with anything extra (predispositions like neurosis and stress) are the most susceptible. But when we examine the cultural and physical realities of today’s child, that kids are more stressed than ever before (44% report feeling stressed over school performance, 30% report feeling stressed over finances, 10% report feeling stressed about extracurricular activities) we can begin to see a ‘perfect storm’ of sorts approaching our children. High levels of stress and high levels of violent media consumption are not a good combination.
It is doubtful that the levels of violence children are exposed to on television, in movies, through video games, in their local neighborhoods, schools and familial relationships will decrease any time soon. So what’s the solution? One real and effective opportunity is to educate our kids about media and it’s impact on them. Another is to begin teaching them how to produce media themselves. This pathway gives a child a voice to express those things that are quietly eating away at them, things that they may otherwise be able to give no voice to. It also aids in the constructive analysis of media…in essence, producing a pause between consumption of media and integration of it into the psyche.
What we may have to eventually face culturally and educationally as a society is the fact that media is in a very real and palpable way, bringing violence home to roost.