Measuring the effects of violence in the media is a difficult undertaking. The problem appears front and center when a lone gunman takes the lives of innocent men, women and children and it appears far too often. It is reinforced when we hear inflammatory rhetoric as in the current political climate. We have to find a cause somewhere so maybe we can blame the media!
But perhaps we need to look a little deeper. The truth is human aggression has been with us since the beginning of time. My husband and I are studying the history of France in preparation for a trip to Paris next summer. Its story is soaked in blood as is the past of any country you can name. Aggression and violence are not more present in the current time that at any given period of long ago. I would argue that violence in the media or in any other human art form is a consequence rather than a cause of aggressive behavior. The media provides us with a vivid and immediately available presentation of our cruel and vicious thoughts and inclinations. It is powered and maintained by our human need to visualize ideas and beliefs about the world—some of which are fueled by violence.
Does lengthy exposure to movies, TV and video games jam-packed with a multitude of means to over-power an enemy, gain a treasure, steal a car, rape a woman and the like incite children to acts of violence that they would not otherwise undertake? A report called Media and Violence: An Analysis (A Common Sense Media Research Brief. Winter 2013) states as follows:
Risk factors do not operate in isolation—the more risk factors a child or young person is exposed to, the greater the likelihood that he or she will become violent…More important than any individual factor, however, is the accumulation of risk factors. Risk factors usually exist in clusters, not in isolation. (p.16)
The report goes on to mention other significant influential factors such as parental rejection, domestic violence in the home; and absence of protective elements—all of which contribute to a young person or any person’s susceptibility to aggressive behavior.
When we are confronted with a seemingly intractable problem it is tempting to assign blame to someone or something that may be an easy target. So let’s blame the media for the crazy unpredictable destructive behavior that goes on all around us. But in truth violence originates from within us—from within the human animal. Our best defense and our progress toward a civilized society comes from acknowledging who we are and what we are capable of. Then we use our unique and remarkable powers to create barriers. We do this by talking to our children about what they are seeing in the media; by modelling positive, kind and controlled behavior in our homes, in the workplace and on the road (!); and by giving children the sense that are acknowledged, loved and protected on a daily basis. We address the root causes and build internal safeguards that help us withstand external provocation in any form.
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.