When the Media Is the Parent

The media as family member

How Damaging Can the Media Be?

A Historical Perspective on Media Violence

For decades, social researchers have debated the dangers of children’s exposure to media violence. An average parent might ask, “How dangerous can the media really be?”

In a recent article in Newsroom America, we learn of an international Media Violence Commission. After much deliberation, this scholarly group concludes: “Violent images…act as triggers for actively aggressive thoughts and feelings already stored in memory.” Their statement goes further: “If these aggressive thoughts and feelings are activated over and over again because of repeated exposure to media violence, they become chronically accessible, and thus are likely to influence behavior.” Upon reading this article, one could easily assume that we are dealing with settled science, and that children’s exposure to violent media will have serious consequences.

However, another recent article by Jay Gield of the National Institute of Health reviews this same material and seems to disagree. Gield recalls how, not long ago, the California legislature passed a law to limit access of minors to violent video games. In response to this perceived infringement on their business, the gaming industry took an appeal all the way to the Supreme Court. After both sides’ best academic experts pled their cases, the Supreme Court decided to strike down the law, arguing in favor of First Amendment rights, with video games—violent or otherwise—falling in the category of free speech.

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Gield seems to see value in this decision, feeling that current research by social scientists is not sufficiently solid to give clinicians, notably pediatricians, clear direction on what to recommend to families of children attracted to violent media.

So where does this leave us today? I believe the findings of the Commission and Gield’s article are excellent jumping-off points to place my own views on violent media in a broader cultural context.

Though I am a clinician, my perspective is not simply based on clinical anecdotes, but neither is it rooted solely in my reading of the researchers. Rather, I anchor my perspective in a reading of American social history. As a cultural historian, I often find it prudent to place scientific studies of this nature in a historical perspective, since children sitting in front of TV sets hardly live in a cultural vacuum.

Over the last 60 years, the American family has gradually evolved. In particular, three cultural trends impacting American families are readily evident: high divorce rates, births of fewer children, and greater family mobility. The first two changes mean there are fewer family members now living in most households; the third translates into greater physical distances separating nuclear and extended families.

Three additional cultural trends deserve mention as well: the departure of both parents into the workplace, the stagnation of wages in many families, and the general perception that many neighborhoods are unsafe. These trends signify longer hours for parents away from home, while their children are left indoors, often unsupervised and alone.

A final factor is the gradual penetration of the media into the average home. Between the 1950s and our time, the sheer number of media gadgets deployed in households has grown exponentially. They sit installed in living and dining rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens. They drone on as we eat, attempt to speak over them, and fall asleep. In short, they are everywhere.

Unsurprisingly, these seven cultural trends begin to work in tandem. As a child’s contact with adults and other children dwindles, the child wanders more readily toward the media. While the voices of parents, siblings, and extended families grow less influential, and media imagery more ubiquitous, media creations have become our children’s mechanical companions and playmates. Because of the sheer volume of media violence bombarding our kids, this artificial brutality becomes imbedded in their minds. With this repetitive imagery buried deep in our children’s memory, in their dreams day and night, isn’t it likely to spring from fantasy into reality, one way or another?

Read more about When the Media is the Parent at Dr. Drinka's website.

George Drinka, M.D. is on the clinical faculty of the Oregon Health Sciences University.

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