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Does Media Violence Beget Real-LIfe Killings?

Guns and insufficient mental health services are just 2 of 4 danger factors.

This post is in response to
Violent Media and Aggressive Behavior in Children
gun violence, preventing violence, violence in the media
Does watching violence lead to doing it?

In a prior blogpost I offered six signs that can indicate elevated risk for becoming a killer. These signs cannot predict which specific individuals of the many young people who show these at-risk signs will actually end up killing people. At the same time, these signs indicate someone who would benefit from therapeutic conversations with someone. My hope is that prediction with risk factors will lead more folks to reach out in a caring manner. The picture is incomplete though without also looking at the roles of media violence and of violence in homes.

What about media violence?

If we are going to get serious about prevention of more Newtown-type tragedies, I have a plea I'd like to make. Let's look hard and long at how much violence our kids are getting exposed to, and what the impact of this viewing is.

Last week I went to a movie theater to watch Lincoln, an excellent and very thought-provoking movie, but in order to see it I first was subjected to a quarter hour of unmitigated violence in the previews of coming attractions. Virtually all of the coming attractions featured people shooting each other.

My realization from that profoundly distasteful movie-going experience was that along with attention to mental health needs and gun control options, the tragic Newtowne shootings must bring our attention to the pervasiveness of violence in our media: in video games, on the internet, on tv and in movies.

Boys have always played war games, cowboys and Indians, etc but when these games become media programs that the kids are watching intensely for hours dailly, there can be danger ahead.

Excellent early studies by researcher Dorothy Singer and others at the Yale Child Study Center looked at the impacts of TV violence on children's aggressive behavior. These studies concluded that violence in the media may not have major impacts on basically healthy children though increases in TV watching did correclate with increases in minor acts of aggression like pushing and hitting. For troubled kids, however, more viewing clearly predicted more violent acts.

Subsequent research has led to the surgeon general issuing a far more stern warning.

"Ten years after their first report, the United States Surgeon General and National Institute of Mental Health issued an update clearly stating that the latest evidence “seems overwhelming that [watching] televised violence and [acting with] aggression are positively correlated in children.”(41) The Surgeon General’s 2001 report cited statistical links between television watching and violent behavior similar in strength to the evidence linking smoking and lung cancer.(42) Dr. Jeffrey McIntyre, legislative and federal affairs officer for the American Psychological Association, echoed these sentiments in an interview with the New York Times: “The evidence is overwhelming. To argue against it is like arguing against gravity.”(43) This quote is from . That site reports on further research as well, research that makes the conclusions all the more alarming.

When will our society wake up and address the pervasiveness of violence as entertainment in our society? Curtainling this exposure could make a huge difference for at-risk kids, not to mention for the victims whose murders could be prevented.

Domestic violence

And while we are on the subject of violence prevention, violence in the home is another dreadful predictor of kids who will grow up to be violent themselves. If media violence normalizes aggresion, making it seem what people really do, domestic violence creates all the more potent images in kids minds that when grownups are mad they strike out physically against people.

Yet how is our society doing in funding domestic violence treatment centers? NOT well enough. We know how to help both domestic violence offenders and their victims. We must do more to fund the treatment centers that can perform this vital service.

Meanwhile my heart goes out to all who are suffering from the Newtown tragedy and the all-too-many other needless acts of violence by troubled young people.


Susan Heitler, Ph.D. is a Denver clinical psychologist and author of an internet-based program that teaches skills for being able to enjoy and sustain loving relationships— Children who grow up in homes where mom and dad model cooperation and love rather than dominance and violence are inoculated against developing violent habits.