There are many factors responsible for youth violence. Hereditary predisposes some individuals to aggression and violence more than others; interpersonal dynamics within families, and parenting styles can contribute to negative behaviors, and of course, the developmental period of adolescence is characterized by psychological insecurity, poor decision making, emotional instability, and the yearning for peer approval, sometimes for negative behavior. However, in contemporary society, the media also play an important role in influencing the behavior of young people.
Already in the earliest era of electronic media, it was readily apparent that the transmission of messages via public airwaves held tremendous potential for influencing human behavior. Advertisers relied heavily on radio commercials in the period between the two world wars; the Nazis demonstrated the power of media propaganda during the World War II period; and media advertising exploded into a very powerful industry in the United States in the post-war era after wartime technology trickled down to consumer products and made televisions affordable to the masses. By the 1950s, recording artists' careers could be established in a single appearance on television, movie stars and sports figures began appearing routinely in product commercials; and public service announcements had to warn children not to emulate their super heroes on television, precisely because the medium of television is so powerful that it can alter the actual behavior of viewers.
In the modern era, that influence has only increased by virtue of the advancements in all forms of media technology. Today, children and adolescents regularly spend many hours engaged in playing competitive video games with incredibly realistic imagery and contextual scenarios that depict violence and mayhem of the type that are restricted from viewing in theaters by children under 17. There is substantial empirical evidence to suggest that aggression and violence on television negatively influences even the youngest children who view it regularly and that the violence and antisocial behavior routinely depicted in video games consumed by adolescents contributes to negative real-life consequences in that regard.
Media Violence and Childhood Behavior
There is no question that children and adolescents emulate the behaviors to which they are regularly exposed during their developmental period. That is generally a positive method by which the individual absorbs and learns the norms, values, and expectations of society. However, the tremendous susceptibility of young children to suggestion and to the influence of exposure to specific types of behavior are what make entertainment media so much of a potential danger with respect to modeling negative behaviors. That is particularly true with young children by virtue of their relative inability to distinguish the fictional nature of television from real life.
In fact, empirical studies have linked exposure to aggression and violence depicted in children's television and other forms of entertainment media.
More specifically, kindergarten-aged children exposed to comparatively violent imagery in the context of cartoons and other programming intended for their consumption exhibit increased levels of aggression in subsequent play when they are permitted to guide their own playtime activities.
That outcome should not be particularly surprising because numerous prior studies established, more generally, that children copy behaviors modeled for them, especially by adults.
However, there are at least two different mechanisms by which exposure to aggressive and violent imagery in entertainment media produces those effects in children. In addition to the general concept of behavioral modeling that applies both to media consumption and to viewing adult behavior more generally, there is also a specific issue of psychological desensitization that occurs in children as a function of regular exposure to violence in particular.
In experiments designed to measure the effect of exposure to violence, researchers documented that children who witness aggression or violence in adults, even in fictional representations such as those typically featured on television, in movies and in video games, their perceptions about corresponding behaviors change. They develop a higher threshold for their definitions of aggression and violence as well as of the appropriateness of certain behaviors and the contexts in which those behaviors occur in the real world.
Media Violence and Adolescent Behavior
Just as regular exposure to aggressive and violent imagery negatively influences the behavior of children, so does it also contribute to negative behaviors such as aggression, sexism, bullying, reckless conduct, and antagonism toward authority figures and social constraints in general among adolescents. In that regard, various empirical studies have documented the connection between regular involvement in combat-themed and violent imagery in computer and video games and delinquency and other behavioral problems in adolescents.
On the other hand, that is not necessarily proof that video games cause negative behaviors in all users. Among other considerations, many adolescents participate in those activities without any corresponding real-life negative behavioral consequences. Equally important is the distinction between individuals whose negative real-life behavior might be influenced by their exposure to violent media imagery and individuals who choose those types of media entertainment because they are already inclined toward aggression and violence.
Nevertheless, among adolescents and young adults who regularly consume aggressive-themed and violent imagery in media, there is a higher incidence of antisocial behaviors, including truancy, disobedience, intimate-partner violence, sexually exploitative attitudes, conflict with authority figures, juvenile delinquency, bullying, fighting, smoking, alcohol consumption, and reckless driving.
While consumption of aggressive and violent-themed imagery may not necessarily cause corresponding negative behaviors directly, it certainly is capable of reinforcing those behaviors in ways that promotes and encourages them beyond their incidence without continual reinforcement in that way.
Furthermore, the potential negative influence of media imagery on children and teenagers is actually much broader than precipitating (or reinforcing) aggression and violence. More particularly, there are empirical studies documenting that when children and teenagers observe protagonists (especially adults) profiting, enjoying, or otherwise benefiting from various types of non-violent but decidedly negative and antisocial conduct (such as fraud, dishonesty, and deception), they also emulate those types of behaviors in their subsequent interactions and contextual exchanges in comparison to control groups not exposed to media imagery depicting those types of behaviors.
There is overwhelming empirical evidence that regular exposure to aggression and violence in media is associated with corresponding behaviors in both young children and adolescents, as well as in young adults. In young children, media violence operates through at least two separate mechanisms: social learning and psychological desensitization. In children, exposure to violence on television increases the incidence of aggression and violence in their choice of games afterwards. Both children and teenagers tend to change their perceptions about what types of social conduct are acceptable after watching scenarios in which negative behaviors are represented as enjoyable or beneficial to protagonists on screen. Teenagers who regularly consume violent imagery on screen exhibit higher instances of a wide variety of negative attitudes and behaviors compared with their counterparts who do not regularly consume violent media imagery.
Exposure to violent media imagery may not necessarily cause corresponding negative behaviors, but it is virtually certain that it does contribute to it and increase its probability after controlling for all other variables. Likewise, there may be individuals who can consume violent media imagery without any negative consequences. However, the established connection between violence in media and negative behavioral consequences in children and adolescents is sufficient to warrant increased regulation and control and to limit such exposure.
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