Digital Altruism

Cultivating compassion in the 21st century.

Why Violent Media Matters

What our children can teach us about the power of media.

Years before I went to graduate school, when my son was still young enough to sit in the front of the grocery cart, I learned a powerful lesson about the persuasive nature of media. We were in the cracker aisle when my normally calm toddler began begging for a box of Ritz party crackers. As an organic shopper, these weren’t on my list, but somehow my son seemed to have intimate knowledge of their salty deliciousness. I struggled for a few moments before agreeing to his youthful demands. After all, what harm could a few Ritz crackers do?

We weren’t yet out of the parking lot when he asked to open the box. “Not in the car,” I said, ignoring his youthful protestations. As soon as we hit home, he asked again. “Okay,” I replied, placing the cracker box in his eager little hands.  His face lit up with strange, surreal excitement as he ran from the kitchen, clasping the box to his chest like a prized trophy.  

Moments later the wailing began. Horrible cries that brought me panicking to his side—“What’s wrong? What happened?” I asked. 

“There’s no party in my box!” he said, between sobs.

What?” I asked, shaking my head in confusion as he turned the now open box towards me in an attempt to show me what he couldn’t seem to communicate.

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I was baffled. A party in the box? Where would he get such an idea?

As fortune would have it, several days later the mystery of the Ritz cracker box resolved itself in the form of a television commercial. My eyes were glued to the tube as I watched a party literally pop out the Ritz cracker box—streamers, confetti, noise-makers—you name it—anything and everything a party could need was there, present and accounted for. 

 The tag line?

“There’s a party in every box!”

I’d watched TV all my life, but that was my first real lesson in media literacy. (My second came when my potty-trained daughter began wetting her pants because she wanted to wear Huggies “Pull-Ups.”  Their tag line? “Big kids wear pull-ups!” Indeed! You haven’t lived until you’ve tried explaining to a toddler that big kids wear underpants.)

At that time I didn’t know I’d go on to become a psychologist, nor that I’d specialize in media psychology. All I knew was that my children were being saturated with sticky information. Good, bad, happy, sad, peaceful, violent—whatever label we give it, one of the most interesting things about media is that oft times we don’t realize what’s been written on us until we come into contact with situations that bring that information to the surface in the form of reactions.

Violent television, movies, and games, matter because they imprint our children (and us) with possible reactions, behaviors, and ideas. The larger question—the question that has come to the forefront in the wake of the Newtown shootings is:  Does violent media harm our children? Our society?  

My son believed that there was a party in every box of Ritz Party Crackers because he was at an early stage of cognitive development—the preoperational stage . We’ve all passed through the preoperational stage and gone on to higher stages of cognitive development. But it’s important to realize that this passage takes time. On average, it isn’t until adolescence and adulthood that we reach the higher stages of cognitive development.  We’ve seen a lot of media by then--and the majority of it isn’t Sesame Street. Back in 1999, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary reported that by age 18 the average American child would see 16,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence. Violent video games and violent lyrics are also a “normal” part of their lives.

To assume that violent media isn’t negatively impacting our children, means to assume that they can process the imprints they are receiving. This is what we might call the “party in the box” fallacy. In fact, high levels of cognitive and moral development are not generally found in children. What’s more, high levels of cognitive development do not guarantee high levels of moral development—as the actions of Nazi doctors attests. 

It has been said that media serves as a mirror of society.  A quick glance at the current box office hits should give us a reasonably good sampling. Of the top ten films, seven fall into one of the following categories: Crime, Thriller, Horror, or War story. They all have one thing in common—violence. Is this the only form of conflict we know how to script? Of course not.

Perhaps its time we ask ourselves whether positive media matters? What might the mirror tell us if we made more of an effort to create, produce, and distribute media that mirrors what’s right with the world? Stories that demonstrate a variety of possible responses to the emotions we feel.  Video games in which winning is based on how much good you do rather than how many cops you can kill or how many drugs you can sell.  There may well be a place and time for weapons, but to glorify violence over reasoned debate—war over peace—over and over again—from the time our children are old enough to pay attention to a television or gaming screen is to perpetuate an outdated worldview. The days of toy soldiers marching across fields while civilians remain tucked in their beds unharmed are long gone. Drone strikes are de rigueur and those in harms way are no more than vanquished blips on a computer screen. We talk a good talk about living in a global village—we recognize that oil spills and nuclear meltdowns have repercussions around the world, but we’re deeply in denial about the power of media to shape our worldview and our reactions.

As one of the largest exporters of media to the world, we in the United States have a great responsibility. The challenges we face are too large to be legislated by a board of censors, however wise and well meaning. The point of action is with each of us as media creators and media consumers. As media creators we must extend our creative buckets deep into the well of the imagination and rather than taking the first inspirations that come to mind, we must examine them—are they polluted with our most toxic emotions? With our worst societal pathogens? We must ask ourselves for whom the product is intended and why? Is the viewing audience significantly developed to process the toxins and pathogens without succumbing to its ills? Or, does the viewer believe there’s a battle on every block? As media consumers we must put our money where our mouth is. If we demand consciously created media we will find it, indeed much of it is produced each year. To create consciously does not mean that our media need be free of aggression, but rather free of an antiquated mindset that refuses to recognize our essential interconnectedness. And finally, as parents, we must recognize that our position of authority is not as arbitrary. In your home there is a hierarchy, and you are on top--expressly because you have already passed through cognitive and moral stages that your children haven’t begun to approach. Until we have more conclusive research about the effects of violent video games, it’s up to us to err on the side of caution. Age recommendations should be followed and time limits employed. Each time you turn on your television, or hand a smart phone to your children, remember that while we might wish it were otherwise, violent media matters because all media matters.

Dana Klisanin, Ph.D., is an integral psychologist specializing in the use of arts and media to promote altruism and compassion.

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