Gauging the Media’s Nasty Impact on Young Minds

More Studies Point Up Negative Effects of Violence in Entertainment

NEW YORK, JUNE 7, 2003 ( In his message for last Sunday’s celebration of World Communications Day, John Paul II reminded the media of their mission to promote peace and justice.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of John XXIII’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris” in which he called for “fairness and impartiality” in the use of “instruments for the promotion and spread of mutual understanding between nations.” John XXIII decried “ways of disseminating information which violate the principles of truth and justice, and injure the reputation of another nation.”

John Paul II commented that 40 years later the world is still sorely lacking in peace, and that in the meantime “the power of the media to shape human relationships and influence political and social life, both for good and for ill, has enormously increased.”

The Pope was concerned that the media use this power to promote peace in terms of political and religious conflicts. Already the media’s portrayal of violence in entertainment programs has been cause for alarm.

Last Nov. 15 the Spanish newspaper El País examined violence and the media. It reported how a French government commission published a report affirming that the transmission of violent programs has a decided effect on the behavior of adolescents. The commission recommended that violent or pornographic shows be outlawed until after 10:30 p.m.

The report also asked for the use of stricter criteria in film classifications. An analysis of 102 films shown in four European countries showed that of these 62 were classified as apt for the general public in France. In contrast, only 29 received such a broad approval in Great Britain, 22 in the Netherlands and 16 in Germany.

In Spain, a study carried out by a center in Catalonia revealed that in the space of only a week a total of 608 violent acts were transmitted by the national and local television stations, El País reported. Two-thirds of the violence was concentrated in the afternoon time slot when young children are watching. Another study by a consumer group affirmed that the average Spanish child had seen 8,000 TV homicides before reaching the end of primary school.

Influencing young lives

A recent study in the United States showed that children who watch violent programs are more likely to be aggressive as adults, Reuters reported March 10. The research was carried out by psychologists at the University of Michigan, who interviewed a group of children aged 6 to 10. Fifteen years later they went back and talked with them again, and also looked at their criminal records. The research controlled for factors such as a child’s economic status, race, parents’ personalities and occupations, and other variables.

Men who liked television shows with violent scenes as children were much more likely to have shown aggression toward their spouses, shoved someone who insulted them, been ticketed for speeding, or been convicted of a crime. Women who enjoyed violent shows were four times more likely to have thrown something at their husbands, shoved or punched someone else, been caught speeding, or committed a crime.

The researchers were especially struck by their finding that it is a child’s identification with characters rather than the degree of violence that predicts later aggression. “Violent scenes that children are most likely to model their behavior after are ones in which they identify with the perpetrator of the violence, the perpetrator is rewarded for the violence and in which children perceive the scene as telling about life like it really is,” they wrote.

Another study found that even young babies are influenced by the emotive content on television. Increasing evidence shows that children can distinguish and decode specific social and emotional cues much earlier than scientists once thought, the New York Times reported Jan. 21.

One-year-old infants were shown a videotape of an actress reacting to a toy with either fear or enthusiasm. After watching the scenes the babies either avoided playing with it, in the cases where it was associated with fear, or were more apt to play with the toy when the actress had been enthusiastic.

“They are able to pick up where a person is looking, and of course, they pick up the emotion,” said Donna Mumme, an assistant professor of psychology at Tufts University and the lead author of the study. “It was quite striking to us that 1-year-olds were able to gather that much information from a 20-second television clip.”

Social strychnine

Violence in music is also a cause for concern. A commentary by Michael Prowse in the Financial Times on Jan. 10 looked at the controversy after two teen-age black girls were killed at a New Year’s party. After the killings, Kim Howells, the United Kingdom’s culture minister, accused black rap music as being partly responsible for Britain’s violent gun culture.

Prowse acknowledged “that rap artists write as they do partly as a result of their objective social conditions.” But, he added, “even though their thinking is influenced by what they see and hear on the streets, they nevertheless contribute powerfully to the negativity and pessimism that engulfs them.”

“Every philosopher with any insight into the human condition has understood the importance of culture,” said Prowse. “If we are social sponges, we don’t want to be soaking up strychnine all the time.”

Prowse’s comments were supported by a recent study carried out by the American Psychological Association, Reuters reported May 4. Experiments involving over 500 college students found that violent lyrics in songs increase aggression-related thoughts and emotions and could indirectly create a more hostile social environment. The study contradicts a popular notion that listening to angry, violent music actually serves as a positive catharsis for people.

Five experiments were carried out by researchers from Iowa State University and the Texas Department of Human Services. After listening to seven violent songs by seven artists and eight nonviolent songs by seven artists, students were given various psychological tasks to measure aggressive thoughts and feelings. Results of the experiments showed that violent songs led to more aggressive interpretations of ambiguously aggressive words and increased the relative speed with which people read aggressive versus non-aggressive words.

Unease over the level of violence, along with concerns over bad language and sexual content, has led to the formation of a new group in the United States called Common Sense Media, the New York Times reported May 21. The group is planning a Web-based media ratings system that will rank entertainment products based on language, violence, sexual content and adult themes.

Common Sense says it has an initial investment of $500,000, and its backers have pledged more. Among its supporters are Charles Schwab, a brokerage company executive, and Philip Anschutz, the founder of Qwest Communications International and a major owner of movie theaters. Two former chairmen of the Federal Communications Commission, William Kennard and Newton Minow, are on the board.

“We want to create a huge constituency for parents and kids in the same way that Mothers Against Drunk Driving or the AARP has done,” said James Steyer, founder of Common Sense and author of “The Other Parent,” a book about the effects of media on children.

The Pope’s message for World Communications Day noted that the media should be responsible in its use of freedom. “Their privileged status obliges the media to rise above purely commercial concerns and serve society’s true needs and interests,” warned John Paul II. Avoiding excessive violence would be a good move in this direction.

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