When the Media Is the Parent

The media as family member

Bonfire of the Inanities

Gun control, media violence, and the need for balanced legislation

As a practitioner of child and adolescent psychiatry, I have watched with wonder how in the past few weeks, we have seen the dual subjects of gun control and media violence debated extensively and then mysteriously slipping from sight. After a time of near-hysteria when for instance the good citizens of Newtown in the wake of the shootings organized to burn in a vast bonfire all the violent video games they could find, only to relent, a piece of tepid national legislation, meant to screen gun purchasers more extensively, finally reached the floor in the Senate. There, a majority of 54 Senators voted for it, and yet the bill was tossed in the dustbin of history. Two reasons for the bill’s peculiar demise: the filibuster, and the National Rifle Association’s grading votes of fearful Senators.

Meanwhile, in the area of media violence, we heard talk of funding further scientific studies, which usually means kicking the issue down the road and hoping no one notices. Again our legislators are placating powerful lobbying groups—the Hollywood TV, film, and videogame industries.

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While we can go around beating our heads against walls as Washington fiddles and America burns--and I in my practice listen to kids daily describing their frequent brushes with troubling media creations--we would do well to take a step back and review the basic facts about media violence and what professionals in the area of child medicine, psychiatry, and psychology have concluded.

First, what is not well understood and yet needs to be, is how deeply and insidiously the media has entered into American families. It has taken a seat at the family table as TVs drone in the background and kids and adults alike tinker with IPads and smart phones while they twirl their spaghetti around their forks. It is now crouching beside our children as they lie abed and begin to slumber, whispering tales of all varieties to them. And it has usurped the role of sex educator for so many young humans budding into puberty via sexually explicit mainline films and TV shows. As I have long experienced these phenomena in my private practice with troubled kids, I know well the dark messages and lurid imagery that become trapped in kids’ psyches, buried deeply in them, even as the voice of the caring parent grows less voluble.

Also, what the American public seems to have missed is how many of the major medical and professional organizations, groups essentially nonpartisan and scientifically informed, have concluded beyond a shadow of much reasonable doubt that media violence has many negative effects. The “usual suspects” here are the numbing of children’s feelings to violence, a heightening of fear, and trends toward both seeing violence as a legitimate way to solve minor problems and acting on this inclination, even if it’s not actual gun violence. When we mix mental illness, poverty, and family violence with the many forms of media violence our children experience in large doses daily, we can easily see how many are sitting on a powder keg ready to blow. And the removal of any factors that might diminish the likelihood of mayhem would make much common sense.

But what is perhaps the most troubling issue here is how as a nation we have taken leave of our common sense. We are operating on our own emotions like the bonfire builders in Newtown. We seem unable to see two sides of an argument at once and want to blame someone else for the problem. We whirl into strong, often anger-driven states of mind without being able to argue sensibly anymore.

We have reverted to states of mind resembling the hysterical fear at the heart of the Inquisition, the Witch Hunts, and the Red Scare. We have set aside the great traditions of the Founding Fathers and the Age of Enlightenment, which really stand at the heart of good psychotherapy: two or more humans in a room talking, reasoning, disagreeing respectfully, listening intently and searching for truth.

If we really want to see positive change in our culture, we must see gun safety legislation and media violence legislation as two interlocking parts of a puzzle, both of which must be in play for the issue to reach resolution. Only then will the pieces fall into place and the nation grow in a more peaceful, productive and respectful direction.

As researchers in the area of media violence have long argued, one of the negative effects of children’s immersion in media violence is a heightening of levels of fear, that is a trend toward humans seeing the world out there as terribly frightening, even diabolical. In a sense, this trend has generalized in our society. We have grown fearful of each other, come to see the other side as touting dangerous ideas, crazy notions, ones which make any even-tempered debate impossible. So solving a problem reasonably must be kicked far, very far, down the road.  

Dr. George Drinka is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and the author of The Birth of Neurosis: Myth, Malady and the Victorians (Simon & Schuster). His new book, When the Media Is the Parent, is a culmination of his work with children, his scholarly study of works on the media and American cultural history, and his dedication to writing stories that reveal the humanity in us all.

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

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