Story by Chris Graham
A large video screen in the John Paul Jones Arena replayed scenes from a ballyhooed “live sex celebration” that WWE heavyweight champion Edge and women’s champion Lita had taken part in several months earlier.
And that was early in the “Monday Night Raw” show that was broadcast live on national television from Charlottesville last week.
Another segment had six women gathering in the ring for a rollicking wet T-shirt contest. A third featured two wrestlers inciting those in attendance to chant suggestions that WWE owner Vince McMahon regularly engages in a certain homosexual sex act.
Throw in a dash of intergender violence in the main event that took place after the TV show went off the air for good measure, and you have professional wrestling in all its splendor.
It’s definitely not for kids – but that’s not to say that there weren’t hundreds of children as young as elementary-school age in the crowd for the sports-entertainment spectacle.
Wake Forest University researcher Robert DuRant worries about the long-term impact of pro-wrestling events like the one held at JPJ on younger fans.
“I speak to a lot of parent groups – and what I’ve learned is that a lot of parents, particularly fathers, watch a lot of wrestling with their children. And their perception is that it has no effect on them – they’re adults who have finished their cognitive and psychological and emotional development – and so they assume that it’s having no effect on their children,” said DuRant, the vice chair of the department of pediatrics in Wake’s medical school and one of the authors of a study on the effects of viewing professional wrestling on teens that was published earlier this month in the journal Pediatrics.
“The public-health implications of this are that our children are undergoing significant and substantial growth – emotionally, cognitively and psychologically – in order to prepare for adulthood. And exposing them to this form of media and entertainment has a significant effect on the brain as it’s developing in all these different aspects. So while the adult may perceive that it’s not affecting them, it is having a profound effect on children,” DuRant told The Augusta Free Press.
The study found is that the more frequently adolescents watched wrestling, the more likely they were to engage in a number of indicators of violence – including fighting and carrying weapons. Of particular interest, DuRant said, was the correlation detailed between watching wrestling and engaging in date-fighting – and the finding that the relationships for both fighting and weapon-carrying in general and date-fighting were stronger among girls than among boys.
It’s not just the teen set that is impacted by what they see on wrestling programs.
“The younger you are, the less you understand what’s really going on here,” said Steven Danish, a sports-psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“If you think about an adult watching television, and watching what people are wearing, you would see that a lot of times adults use television as a guide to what they should wear, to what’s in fashion. So if TV models kind of behaviors for adults, it models behaviors for children. And if wrestling is being shown on television, and children are watching it, then they’re going to see a lot of violence – and a lot of inappropriate behaviors in addition to violence. And they don’t know that it’s not real,” Danish told the AFP.
To make the leap from children and teens not understanding that the violence that they witness on a wrestling program is not real to them engaging in those behaviors after the show is over is difficult to do in the eyes of Syracuse University communications professor Bob Thompson.
“It’s almost impossible to construct a study that can really put this causal link together – because there are so many variables about how we behave,” said Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse,
“There are a lot of people who watch wrestling, for instance, who don’t do any of this kind of stuff – because there are so many other elements that go into the complete recipe of their behavior,” Thompson told the AFP.
“I’d be the last person to say that what we watch doesn’t have some impact on our behavior. There would be no billion-dollar advertising industry if it didn’t. We watch lots of commercials for various things – and it does influence our behavior. And we’ve all heard the story of the ‘Happy Days’ episode where Fonzie gets a library card, and the next week, libraries across the country are deluged with requests for library cards,” Thompson said.
“When ‘Top Gun’ was released, more people tried to enlist in the armed services that had airplanes. When ‘L.A. Law’ came out, law schools got peak applications. ‘CSI’ has created a booming industry in forensics medicine and classes and majors. So obviously, what we consume culturally certainly could have impact on our behavior,” Thompson said.
“When I was a kid, we’d watch an army movie, and then go out and play army. We’d get our toy guns and go out and play soldier. There’s a big jump from saying that that inspired us to go out and kind of play and act things out from the movie that we saw and saying that we were going out with the intent to really beat each other up and get real weapons and shoot each other. The jump that it would’ve taken from playing to doing that would have had all kinds of other elements in it that I think goes beyond that movie,” Thompson said.
DuRant counters by pointing out that “there is a rich literature on the exposure to violence in the electronic media and the effect that it has on both children and adolescent attitudes on their values and natural behaviors regarding the use of violence or aggression.”
“So this study just fits in with the overall existing research,” DuRant said.
And as other research into exposure to violence and its impact on children and teens suggests, “this is something that we need to take very seriously,” DuRant said.
“We teach pediatricians that during well-child visits, they need to counsel the parents of their children about the influences of the media – how much television, how many movies, how many video games should they watch or play per day? This study points out that pediatricians ought to be talking to parents way beyond the childhood years and as children become adolescents about how the media can continue to have a negative impact on children during the adolescent years,” DuRant said.