Media Violence and the Psychological Effects It Has on Viewers


Scientific research has over the years produced ample evidence about the harmful effects of media violence to society but such evidence remains unutilized and has not been interpreted into accessible and practical ideas. Although the media violence menace seems to be escalating, the lack of practical methods to address the problem has become very frustrating. Technology is advancing at a very fast rate and digital technologies; escalating popularity of various computer games, as well as the growing number of profit oriented media conglomerates has pushed media violence with immeasurable velocity. Real life catastrophes have not made the situation any better and it is now far much difficult to distinguish between violent imagery and the real life situations. As the television, games, and movies continue to deliver fictional disaster and terror to the viewers, the news media on the other hand has resulted to delivering spectacle driven news such as violence, internet pornography, gang warfare, medical malpractice, accounts of murder, and plane wrecks among others. The news media continues to depict the world as becoming a more dangerous place to live in (Trend 8- 10).

Media violence remains a very difficult term to define because of the different approaches that different people have towards the matter. Parents for example may have an approach to defining media violence that is quite different from that taken by professionals in the media industry, or even professors undertaking research in the subject. The media violence debate has attracted diverse and vast sets of groups making it a topic characterized by an array of questions, hypotheses, accusations and answers. Although many of the concepts address various aspects of media violence, very few of them have been able to address its interrelationships, complexities and contradictions over the years. The term media violence is however used to refer to violent presentations transmitted through movies, television and games and which lead to a lot of violent imagery in people’s daily lives. In the modern world, there is high demand for violent presentations which have become a common phenomenon that satisfies the desires of certain audiences. This demand for violent presentations has like sexism and racism, become a social norm (Trend 1, 6, 12).

Violent imagery is as old as the human race and discoveries have been made revealing various exploits by hunters that were scratched on cave walls. Throughout human existence, violent behavior has always existed as part of human nature and violence has always been part of story telling over the centuries. Egyptian, Babylonian, Minoan and Sumerian artifacts depict a people whose lives were characterized by violent events. Even classical Greek works dating as far as 3000 years back relied on violence to express their narratives. Such works as Hesiod’s Theogony (700 B.C), Sophocle’s Oedipus the King (428 B.C), and History of the Peloponnesian War (424-404 B.C) are examples of works whose themes ranged from relentless military conflict, sexual assault, natural disaster, assassination and mass execution. The Old Testament books written about the same time as well as the Quran also have various accounts of war, human sacrifice, genocide and various plagues. Throughout the following centuries, grizzly stories of violence have repeatedly been narrated to both children and adults and have also been part of human history and religious beliefs (Potter 1-3; Trend 12-13).

Media violence and MPAA

During the mid-1800s, photography was invented and by the end of the century, moving pictures had become available with violence dominating the early movies. As the entertainment industry continued to grow, later decades experienced an increased need for government intervention in regulating the content of movies. In 1922, companies dealing with film production also formed a regulatory organization popularly referred to as MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors) which late in 1945 changed names to become the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Although few people were least bothered about media violence, many others remained very concerned about violence and such people have over the years continued to accuse filmmakers for the wide scope of violence portrayed in movies. Movies have been known to show more violent scenes than net-work televisions and with advance technology, these movies though unedited, find their way to the cable television. Many movies have continued to mix violence with humor, a fact that has continued to raise much protest among some viewers. Action movies have especially been accused of showing widespread gratuitous violence but shielding the consequences of such violence from the viewers. Movies also rarely show the killer’s reaction after committing murder (Edgar 20-21; Trend 14-15).

Various concerns about the rising level of media violence led the MPAA to develop a system in 1968 whose purpose was to rate movies on the basis of adult content, violence and sexual content. These ratings have been categorized under general audiences, parental guidance, parental guidance under the age of 13, restricted in company of an adult, and the adults only or no admission under seventeen. These ratings were specifically designed to help parents in making proper decisions about what type of viewing is right or not right for their children. The ratings can also be helpful in assisting people towards making informed decisions about various movies. But while proponents of the ratings argue that people receive information about the contents of a movie(s), opponents are of the view that such ratings have been produced based on the opinion of others and therefore tend to be very subjective. Opponents also argue that due to different levels of maturity in different people, the ratings cannot be accurate for all people and ratings can therefore be viewed as some form of censorship (Edgar 22-23).

MPAA ratings have also been widely criticized for the approach to media violence in which they largely ignore scientific evidence that has proved the strong impact that violence has on children, while placing the burden of decision making on the parents. Although V-chip ratings have been introduced, they do not indicate if any given program has levels of violence but simply assess the suitability of a program by mingling the concept of violence, with sexual material and coarse language. All decisions regarding any show are also the sole responsibility of the television industry and decision making is therefore highly decentralized. MPAA ratings also arouse curiosity especially among adolescents who wish to discover what is behind the restricted and adults’ only movies. The parental guidance and parental guidance under 13 ratings tend to overlap and different parents may raise objections about the variety of combinations in the content. Cable networks have the final decision over the content of their programs and the system operator holds no responsibility or authority over the content of material watched by the viewers. In 1997, the MPAA rating system was replaced by the New Ratings System for Television (NRST), but this too, like its predecessor, fails to indicate a program’s content and only provides parents with guidelines regarding the age at which a viewer should watch a specific program. Both rating systems are therefore similar in that they provide no access to the content of movies and provide parents with necessary guideline towards decision making over what to be viewed by their children (Hamilton 157-158, 179).

Effects of media violence on the viewers

Although so much evidence has been gathered about the negative effects that media violence continues to have on society, such evidence does not seem to convince the media executives. These executives have continued to tell the public that no proof exists that their products have dangerous contents that could lead to ill effects on society. Ironically, the same executives believe that their advertisements sold to various corporations, influence the viewers’ behaviors but continue to deny the fact that violence contained in their programs has nay influence on the same viewers. But these executives are not alone because many lay people seem to be largely unaware that consistent exposure to media violence can have very deleterious effects. The effects of media violence are however very subtle and often times, they indirectly lead to increased aggression or to decreased compassion and helping; through psychological mechanisms that develop slowly over time and which are quite difficult to recognize (Gentile 15-16).

As the scope of media violence continues to grow, so also has the criticism towards the same grown. A lot of research has been carried out regarding the scope of media violence and its effects on the viewers and society at large. The research has led to a greater conviction that media violence contributes tremendously to the negative effects of fear, and desensitization. Some scholars have come up with a hypothesis that consistent exposure to the media can slowly desensitize the viewers to violence in real-world situations. They argue that though violence is supposed to provoke anxiety, disgust, fear or other negativities, repeated exposure tends to reduce the psychological impact of violence; and negative responses gradually disappear. Desensitization has systematically been used in the treatment of patients in anxiety and phobia clinics (Gentile 16).

Research findings indicate that people who are exposed to violent portrayals have a higher likelihood of behaving aggressively if an opportunity arises immediately after such exposure. Acceptance of this research evidence is however not unanimous but nevertheless, the number of people refuting the link between exposure to violence in the media and negative behavior, has continued to decrease currently standing at very few. Ironically, few people are convinced that media violence can cause aggressive behavior in them but at the same time do not refute the evidence put forward by news reports that violence influences others to act aggressively. Children have for example gone on shooting sprees in school as an imitation of video game and movie violence. Parents also watch their children as they imitate popular violent characters watched on television. Most people have at one time in their lives gone through such an experience but once out of it, they are of the view that the effects of violence are no more. Media violence has adverse effects and only a broader view of the aspect would help people to see such effects (Potter 26-32).

Television is easily accessible and various TV shows like dramas, music videos, talk shows, real-life shows, movies, cartoons and news programs among others continue to be a source of media violence in the sitting room. Through television stimulation, young brains are now being programmed quite differently. This is because media violence weakens a person’s ability to produce a proper response to violent messages. Due to weakened emotional, cognitive and social developments, more children are becoming increasingly vulnerable to other social defects in society like availability of guns, poverty, drugs and discrimination. Between ages 0 to 6 years, brain development in children is phenomenal and any overemphasized activity attracts the full attention of the children in such way that they are rendered unable to perform multi-activities; a factor that is very essential in the development of neural networks. The activities that take place in a child’s life between these ages are very crucial to the child’s normal development. Children are therefore most vulnerable to the negative effects that media violence brings along. Most electronic games for example are produced with a target of children under the age of 17 years (Potter 48, 67-70, 124; Anderson et al., 9-10).

Violence through the media may not have any effect on infants but negative effects are evident in the early childhood stage at which a child is involved in developmental tasks that define such character traits as emotional self-control, behavioral self-control and gender roles. As a child progresses to middle childhood, such aspects as physical humiliation and domination of other may become an acceptable norm to children exposed to media violence. By the adolescence stage, physical aggression may become acceptable as a result of the verbal and physical violence portrayed in the media. The age of a child at the time of exposure highly determines what course immediate or long term effects of media violence will take. Although not all aggressive behavior in children is learned, observation of certain aggression through the media or even real world situations can lead to more coordinated acts of aggression especially in acts of social problem solving (Gentile 33-35, 108-113, 259).

Media violence has for a long time been linked with such behaviors as anger increase and frustration after long term exposure. Because television does not discipline children or give them any feedback about their behavior, they are exposed to a moral vacuum in which they develop their super ego. Video games are being shown in the open markets that resemble military simulations. Such games provide hand-eye conditions to the players giving them better skills at shooting. The best killers in the games are rewarded most highly and such an act can be considered as a training ground for people to kill others. Though the games are a source of fun, they also create a sense of power in the players and provide some immediate reinforcement which may condition the players to seek such action (Potter 41-45).

Research supports the hypothesis that people who are heavily exposed to violent portrayals in the media develop high estimates of victimization risks and have a tendency to view the world as a very mean and equally violent place. A researcher by name George Gerbner labeled it as the mean-world syndrome and is responsible for feelings of vulnerability, insecurity and mistrust. The media has also been accused of creating a moral panic through the extensive coverage of violence and crime. In the 1990s for example, the news media in the USA widely reported on high profile crimes, a factor that led to an increase in the number of Americans who believed that violence and crime was the nation’s worst social problem. High gun ownership is also evidence that most people live in a state of self defense y investing in guns. Such investment can only be a result of the widespread fear of victimization that is rocking the nation (Potter 46-47; Anderson et al., 5).

Consistent messages about violence and crime provided by the media leads people to have generalized constructions about how society has been riddled with such negative acts. Such conclusions may not be true in relation to the real world situation and often results from distorted pictures of the problem due to a person’s inability to balance the available information. Furthermore, some of the acquired information may be false and the person has no time to sort out through the great number of available facts. Exposure to media violence also leads to generalization of social norms whereby people are led to justify violence in certain situations as they see it justified in the media presentations. Repeated portrayal of violence may also cause people to have a general perception that violence is society’s way of dealing with its problems (Potter 47-48; Anderson et al., 5-6).

Although most people tend to see immediate effects of media violence, there are other effects that take a long time to take effect in the viewers. If such long term effects are ignored, the influence that media violence has on viewers and entire society can greatly be underestimated. Long term effects result from an accumulation of continuous exposure to media violence and whether exposure to act of violence leads to immediate aggression or not, it has had partial influence in that it already contributes to the long term accumulation of exposure. It is however difficult to link long term effects of violence exposure to the media because linking various chains of events and connecting them with an observed negative effect developed after years of viewing is a task that has proved very difficult (Potter 33-34, 41).

Movie, game, T.V and music industries have introduced the voluntary labeling of their programs and adopted the V-chip in an attempt to control the level of violence in the content of these programs. But internet products remain unregulated and violence continues to be a favorable theme in advertisements, cereal boxes, comics, amusement parks, toys, bubble-gum cards and all the fanfare that characterizes kid culture. Media labeling has therefore done little to control violence and the scope of cultural violence in modern society remains unchanged (Trend 26). A substantial reduction in television violence is therefore necessary because of the high level of its accessibility, but such a move cannot take effect in a period of one or even two years. The television industry derives its livelihood from establishing programming patterns that attract very audiences and any alteration will result in tremendous economic risks. But alterations can be improved slowly over a period of time although the American television industry will take time to accept that its audience can watch and still enjoy programs that have lower rates of violence. Any attempt to begin reducing violence towards the industry’s average will gradually help in reducing the overall level of violence portrayed through television (Hamilton 151).


There is no clear evidence that media violence is going to disappear any soon and any current efforts to control or stop it are also not likely to succeed. This is because media displays of violence rate as high as displays of gratuitous sex and material excess. Violence in the modern world exists within a very powerful system of fantasies embedded within a strong commercial structure. Moreover, these fantasies are deeply intertwined with people’s deepest fears and desires that continue to crave for violent viewing. Due to the high level of media diversity especially with the popularity of the digital search and internet technologies, as well as the recent cable television, the world needs a media system that is not only open and representative in terms of variety production; but on that also allows genuine choice in terms of consumption (Trend 10).

Works Cited

Anderson, Craig A., Berkowitz Leonard, Donnerstein Edward, Huesmann Rowell L., Johnson James D., Linz Daniel, Malamuth Neil M., and Wartella Ellen. “Psychological Science in the public interest”: The influence of media violence on youth. American Psychological Society, 2003: Vol. 4, No.3.

Edgar, Kathleen J. Everything you need to know about media violence. Buffalo, NY: Rosen Publishing Group, 2000.

Gentile, Douglas A. Media Violence and Children: A complete guide for parent and professionals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003.

Hamilton, James J. Television Violence and Public Policy. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Potter, James W. The 11 Myths of Media Violence. Seminole, FL: SAGE, 2002.

Trend, David. The myth of media violence: A critical introduction. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

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