Violence and our kids

The Top Story by Chris Graham

Ours is a violent culture – and we’re not talking about the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles or New York City or some other urban enclave.
Violence is in your living room – not to mention your child’s CD player or iPod or Xbox or Playstation2.
From “CSI” to gangsta rap to “Grand Theft Auto III,” assaults, robberies, murders and other types of mayhem are part and parcel to pop culture today.
The impact that this has on children and teens who may not be as equipped as adults to process what is supposed to be entertainment and what is supposed to be real life is the subject of an ongoing debate in the law-enforcement and social-science communities.

“I can say without a shred of doubt that I have never, nor has anyone else that I have ever known, heard of gang members conducting a drive-by shooting while listening to Mozart or Vivaldi. But the same can not be said about 50 Cent – even the opening of his first and hopefully last movie spawned shootings at movie theaters across the country,” said Kathleen Jenkins, a juvenile parole officer at the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice office in Staunton who works closely with local teens who have gotten themselves caught up in area street gangs.

“Every gang member that I have worked with is enamored by the hip-hop culture and the lifestyles of this genre’s rich and famous. It is common for youths to emulate these rap artists by wearing similar gangster-type clothing. This alone is not concerning. The concern evolves when the behavior and attitude begin to go as south as the pants. Certain rap artists tout their criminal history, gang affiliation and their fortune of surviving gun battles. It becomes a concern, when dealing with a very troubled individual that is consumed by the gang mentality,” Jenkins told The Augusta Free Press.

The scientific research does seem to indicate that there is something of a link between violence in the media and aggressive behavior in youths and teens – but it’s not as simple as saying that watching a TV show or movie or listening to a rap song or playing a violent video game is going to make somebody want to engage in an act of violence or join a street gang, said Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University and a former Maryland police officer.

Media violence has been around as long as there have been popular songs and movies and other outlets to provide them, Burke told the AFP.

“For example, my generation grew up watching ‘Bugs Bunny’ and ‘Roadrunner’ cartoons. But that didn’t make me want to go out and pick up a wooden mallet and hit people on the head,” Burke said.

“We knew what the limits were. And that is the case for the vast majority of youths today with regard to violent images in the contemporary media,” Burke said.

That said, youths and teens who are predisposed to acting out in violent ways might be influenced to do so by songs or movies or video games that feature violent imagery, Burke said.

“But it’s important to note that this shouldn’t be viewed as a cause-and-effect kind of thing. It is much deeper than that,” Burke said.

For example, notes Tom Moeller, a sociology professor at the University of Mary Washington, one has to take into account the degree of interaction that youths and teens have with their parents, other family members, friends and teachers.

“A lot of times when you get kids who engage in really aggressive kinds of things or violence or whatever, what you find is that the media aspect might be part of it. But very often, there are other things going on as well,” Moeller told the AFP.

“What I’m saying here is that it’s not just one factor. A lot of things are going on here – and a lot of things are probably going in the wrong direction,” Moeller said.

Gangsta rap catches a lot of the heat in these discussions of the wrong direction that pop culture seems to be taking these days – but even the seemingly vanilla top-40 music featured during the afterschool hours on MTV can have a negative influence on youths and teens.

“MTV certainly has an influence on the teen-ager. That’s what they’re watching more than standard television fare. Once you’re in your teens, you’re really not as much glued to the TV set. You’re into your iPod, your CD player, MTV,” said Dorothy Singer, a senior research scientist at Yale University and codirector of the Yale Family Television Research and Consultation Center.

“The kids who have been watching MTV – where there are videos featuring violent acts and a lot of sexual innuendo and even outright acts of violence toward women – in the laboratory studies it has been found that these teens are more aggressive than young people who do not watch MTV,” Singer told the AFP.

Elizabeth Carll, a New York-based clinical psychologist and the author of Violence in Our Lives: Impact on Workplace, Home, and Community, points to video games as another possible causal factor that can lead to increased aggressive behavior and violence in youths and teens.

“A comprehensive study of all the previous literature and history on video-game violence shows that video games increase aggressive thoughts and aggressive behavior and angry feelings – and at the same time this heightens an arousal in children, and possibly this goes on to further impact on their actions,” said Carll, the cochair, with Singer, of the American Psychological Association’s Committee on Violence in Video Games and Interactive Media.

“Active participation may influence learning more than passive observation – meaning that playing video games is different and more intense than merely watching a television program or a movie with the same content,” Carll told the AFP.

Gamers get rewarded for their propensity to engage in violent acts in the virtual world, Carll said – “plus you can do it over and over in a game setting.”

“The result is that a game experience is more intense because of the number of times that you do that versus the times you actually watch it in a movie, which is, let’s say, two hours long. You can play a video game all day or for several hours, and in those several hours you can have hundreds and thousands of times that you can kill somebody or do some kind of aggressive, negative thing,” Carll said.

One thing that stands out to Stephen Prince, the president of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and a communication profession at Virginia Tech, is the disconnect in the media between imagined violence and real violence.

“There is an interesting phenomenon going on now – which is that culturally we live in a world where we are surrounded by images of media violence, frequently fictional images of violence in terms of movies and television, and yet at the same time we are essentially shielded or prevented from seeing actual images of violence,” Prince told the AFP.

“We have an Iraq war going on right now in which the media coverage is strictly limited. There is no coverage, for example, of the bodies of American soldiers coming home. Footage of the World Trade Center is pretty well suppressed now in the media. You don’t see the planes hitting the building, and the footage of the actual victims themselves is very, very, very rarely shown,” Prince said.

“It’s an interesting contradiction in which the violent world that we live in takes on the qualities of a dream world – in that it is almost entirely fictional in terms of the images that we consume, while the realities of the violence that does surround us tend to be excluded from media coverage,” Prince said.

The issue that this raises, Prince said, is that “if as a culture we understand violence to be primarily an imaginary thing, rather than an actual practice that might be inflicted by way of disaster or carried out as a result of state policies, then does that make us perhaps more accepting of violence? I think that might be a question that is interesting to think about.”

“I think it does have a desensitizing effect – that you get used to experiencing all the terms of the fiction,” Prince said. “This is why it’s an important phenomenon that we aren’t having the corresponding real images of violence being exposed to us. It’s not a good balance where your cultural experience of violence occurs strictly through imaginary realms – when there is actual real-world violence going on that you are being shielded from.”

It’s the real-world violence that Jenkins is most attuned to.

“Constant exposure to graphic violence and sex in any form of media can result in desensitization,” Jenkins said. “When an individual becomes detached and desensitized, they gradually attach less and less value to other’s emotions, concerns and rights. In an otherwise well-adjusted individual, the media’s constant barrage of violence, gangs, sex and criminal behavior may not produce long-term negative behavior or apathy. However, in an individual that is seething with resentment, self-loathing, hatred and aggression – the same video games, music and movies likely have a far greater impact.

“Hard-core rap music can fuel bitter emotions, increase adrenaline and drive pulse rates higher,” Jenkins said. “Although I believe that this physical reaction can be universally applied, those predisposed to violence, apathy and gang affiliation seem to listen to the same music far differently. Several individuals have explained to me that they listen to rap artists that ‘rep’ their own gang affiliation. Many rap artists proudly announce their gangsta status. The lyrics of gangsta rap undoubtedly promote drug dealing, pimping women and numerous other criminal acts. Gangsta-rap artists unashamedly glamorize weapons, drug dealing, drive-by shootings and even murder.

“The question remains, does this impact our youth? Because of my exposure to this problem, my unedited affirmative answer would not be suitable for printing. To me, it seems woefully obvious. These problems did not exist – to this extent – until it became a part of popular culture,” Jenkins said.

(Originally published 02-27-06)

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