Cultural Anthropology

Can media violence desensitize you?
Answered by Jennifer Horton, Elizabeth Blackwell and 1 other
  •  Jennifer Horton

    Jennifer Horton

  • Elizabeth Blackwell

    Elizabeth Blackwell

  • Discovery Fit & Health

    Discovery Fit & Health

  1. The impact of media violence on society, in particular on young children and adolescents, has been a concern almost since the television came on the scene in the late 1920s. The concern has only increased with time, especially after the spate of high school shootings in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in which many of the perpetrators were reported to have been fans of violent video games like "Doom" and "Counter-Strike."

    Whether or not that concern is valid is still being debated, but a growing body of evidence, including reports by the Surgeon General, the American Psychological Association and the National Institute of Mental Health, points to the conclusion that exposure to violence in the media can indeed make a person more accepting of it.

    Given the fact that violence in the media is highly prevalent, this is a disturbing conclusion. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates youth will view 200,000 acts of violence on television by the time they're 18, including 16,000 murders, and studies have found that more than 85 percent of video games contain violence [source: Beresin, Science Daily]. Even children's cartoons may contain up to 20 acts of violence per hour [source: Beresin].

    The abundance of violence in children's programming is especially problematic because of how impressionable young people are. They learn by example and have a harder time than adults distinguishing make believe from real life, making them especially vulnerable to being influenced by media violence. One study found that children who watched several hours of violent television in elementary school showed higher levels of aggression as teenagers. Following them into adulthood revealed they were also more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for criminal acts. Video games may be even more problematic than television, thanks to their interactive nature [source: American Psychological Association].

    Children aren't the only ones affected by media violence, though. Another study conducted by two psychologists from Iowa State University involving college students revealed that subjects who were asked to play violent video games showed lower heart rates and skin responses after subsequently watching footage of people being beaten, stabbed and shot than did students who were asked to play nonviolent games. The psychologists hypothesized that violent video games may lead people to get used to violence and become physiologically numb to it [source: Science Daily].

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  2. There’s no question that regular exposure to real-life violence desensitizes a person’s reaction to it. Consider, for example, how differently a child raised on a farm might react to the slaughter of a pig compared to a child who had never witnessed a butcher at work. Soldiers similarly become desensitized to the realities of war over time; it’s one reason generals would rather command experienced troops than raw recruits. 

    Do images seen on TV and in video games have the same effect? Research has shown that they do; the more action movies you watch or Grand Theft Auto you play, the less each fight scene produces a physiological reaction in your brain. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that participants who played 25 minutes of a violent video game showed less brain response when looking at photos of real-life violence compared to those who played nonviolent games [source: ScienceDaily].

    This has potentially disturbing implications, especially when it comes to children. As a child loses the ability to react to on-screen violence, he or she also may also become desensitized to violent behavior off-screen. Iowa State University psychology professor Craig Anderson analyzed more than 130 studies on the links between video game play and aggressive behavior, and the results were clear: The more children and teenagers play violent video games, the more likely they are to act out against others [source: ScienceDaily].

    As a result of such research, groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics have cautioned parents to be aware of the correlation between media violence and violent behavior in children. While it may be unrealistic – and unnatural – to keep a child shielded from movie fights completely, how such scenes are portrayed can impact how a young audience learns right from wrong. Are the characters that hurt others sympathetic? Do they face the consequences of their actions? Are they rewarded for being cruel?

    Such desensitization to violence may also affect children’s problem-solving ability as they grow older. A boy who uses guns or swords to crush opponents in video games may come to see force as the best method of getting ahead. The key is to make sure young people are exposed to other forms of conflict resolution; they may be less sensitive to scenes of violence and mayhem in the movies, but they can still move through the real world with compassion. 


    More answers from Elizabeth Blackwell »

  3. Multiple studies show there does appear to be a relationship between violence in the media and desensitization. Psychologists and psychiatrists still debate whether the impact is significant. But it appears that violent films, shows and games do tend to desensitize people to some degree. Some studies showed that children who watch violent programming tend to show more aggressive behavior during playtime.

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