A Matter of Life, Art and Youth:
Are the Effects of Violence in the Media on Youth
Perpetuated by Art Imitating Life or Life Imitating Art?

by Max Nomad

(C) Copyright 2005 . Max Nomad . All Rights Reserved.

Among the tenets that most psychologists embrace as self-evident, the negative effects of media violence on children holds a special place. Virtually every major professional organization concerned with the development of children has issued an unequivocal policy statement about the harmful effects of violent media. (Crooks, Media Violence)

As of this writing, most adults know that violence in the media has a negative effect on our youth, a fact that makes the quote in Crook’s review of Freedman’s book seem almost remedial. Thousands of studies have been done in the name of addressing this issue and, more often than not, their findings illustrated that unchecked violence in the media does have a negative effect on children under 17. This brings up another question that tends to remain marginally addressed within the whole equation: What has caused this heightened media attention to violence in the media as it pertains to our youth? Is it a proverbial case of Art imitating Life or Life imitating Art? Is it a case of Marshall McLuhan’s prophetic statement “The Medium is the Message” coming to fruition in that the effect of the message totally depends upon the medium by which it is conveyed? Media violence as a topic of research is often hotly contested because the type of study that would satisfy its skeptics cannot realistically be done. For ethical and pragmatic purposes, researchers cannot randomly assign one group of children to media intake filled with violence and the other group without and study their behavior well into adulthood. As a result, researchers have found other methodologies and tools to use to work around this problem to gather their data. Despite methodological flaws and inconsistencies in some studies, further research is fast proving that a large part of the problem rests not on the side of the imitation of Life or Art: The cause of violence in the media as it affects today’s youth is mostly rooted in one thing—money.

Aggressive behavior is promoted through media violence in a variety of ways, mostly through imitation. Psychologists and behaviorists over the years have done countless studies that illustrate how children learn to do things by observing others and prone to imitate aggressive behavior as seen on television or in movies. It has been heavily debated whether or not imitating of aggression in the form of play is detrimental. “One such study, conducted in Israel (Lemish, 1997), documented an “epidemic” of playground injuries that resulted when children imitated the violent moves made by protagonists on World Wrestling Federation programs (now World Wrestling Entertainment) after they became available in that country.” (Cantor & Wilson, 365)

Aside from cases of basic imitation, violence portrayed in the media typically manifests itself through “unrealistic and unhealthy attitudes towards violence and aggression”. (Cantor & Wilson, 366). According to Bandura and other psychologists, social cognitive theory states that its viewers learn which actions are effective and which are rewarded, resulting in an understanding of which outcomes are positive versus negative. Those responses that are deemed negative in terms of their consequences are not as likely to be imitated by the viewer. There are other factors that come into play as well such as desensitization, heightened levels of unfocused hostile feelings, and etc. The list goes on but that is not the primary focus of this essay.

Media And Juvenile Violence: The Connecting Threads, a study published by Nieman Reports, surveyed the incidence of news stories focused on violent crimes committed by perpetrators under the age of 18. It’s findings provided stark yet insightful survey of the affects of violence in the media and youth. Highlights from this report include the following statistics:

  • 336% = the percentage increase in coverage of homicide on NBC, ABC, and CBS nightly news between 1990 and 1995. During this time, homicide arrests dropped by 13%.
  • 99% = the percent of violent deaths of children that occurred outside of school grounds (1992-94).
  • 90% = the percentage of murdered children under the age of 12 who are killed by adults (1996).
  • 85% = the percentage of communities that recorded no juvenile homicides (1995).
  • 75% = the percentage of murdered youths between the ages of 12-17 who are killed by adults (1996).

(Source: Media And Juvenile Violence: The Connecting Threads, Nieman Reports)

Ironically, this report also presented that the number of homicides committed by children under the age of 13 occurred less frequently in 1996 than they did in 1965. Although these findings on the surface may appear startling because they deal with youth, there were many important lessons to be learned about how violence—particularly juvenile violence—has influenced the way that people perceive the problem of youth and crime:

  • News coverage of crime stories increased drastically while actual crime has remained relative consistent or even decreased during the same time periods.
  • On network nightly news during the 1990’s, crime became the number one story covered. In local news markets, crime stories filled 25 to 33 percent of the total news stories.
  • According to the Media And Juvenile Violence report’s public surveys, most people perceived crime as ‘rampant’ in their communities primarily because of news stories—although many of those surveyed also considered these crimes as happening “outside of their neighborhoods”.
  • Media portrayals of youth violence were mostly filled with images of African-American and Latino youth.
  • During the period being studied, more than two-thirds of violent crime coverage was focused on juveniles while, in actuality, people under 18 were responsible for less than 15 percent of the violence.
  • While the media targeted youth violence and juvenile delinquency, their reports were disproportionately focused on homicide—which was the least common crime committed by people under the age of 18.
  • During the period of this study, 40 percent of the newspaper stories about children were related to violence; only 25 percent were related to education.

Upon initial review, these findings may cause some to lean towards a split conclusion regarding the effects of violence in the media and youth. Is this a case of the media presenting more youth-related crime stories as a means of increasing their ratings and, as a result, increase advertising revenue? Are these findings indicators that sensationalism versus statistics are the true source of this social phenomena? Although these are valid questions heralded by most skeptics, this report was followed by another large-scale government-funded report a few years later that would serve to authenticate previous findings and further illustrate that the affects of violence in the media were more than just a case of the media portraying society or society imitating what it sees in the media.

In September of 2000, The Federal Trade Commission released its report “Marketing Violent Entertainment To Children: A Review Of Self-Regulation And Industry Practices In The Motion Picture, Music Recording & Electronic Game Industries”. The report’s findings regarding the marketing of violent entertainment material by the industry included the following:

  • 80 percent of the 44 examined movies that were rated R for violence were targeted at children under 17. Marketing plans for 64 percent of those films contained verbiage that expressed the films target audience included children under 17. Seven of those even indicated plans to do such things as promote these films in high schools or publications with a large juvenile readership.
  • Of the 55 music recordings with explicit content labels, all targeted children under 17. Marketing plans for 27 percent of those blatantly identified juveniles as part of their target audience. While the remaining explicit-content labeled recordings did not expressly state the age of the target audience, their plans indicated they were advertising in media that would reach a substantial percentage of juveniles.
  • Of the 118 electronic games with a Mature rating for violence, 70 percent targeted children under 17. The marketing plans for 51 percent of those games expressly included juveniles in their target audience and the rest showed plans to advertise in magazines or on television shows with a majority or substantial under-17 audience.
  • Most retailers made little effort to restrict children’s access to products with violent content.

A few years prior to the release of the FTC’s report, the federal government had already approached key organizations within the entertainment industry regarding violence and explicit content and minors. This led to the creation of the V-chip and a new television rating system.
Despite its name, the V-chip is not a single chip at all, but a combination of different technologies. All television programs currently have the capacity to carry extra information–like closed captioning–as well as sound and pictures. An electronic circuit in a television or cable box can be designed to block programs by reading a numerical code broadcast along the same band used for closed captioning. (Balkin, Media Filters) This gave parents the ability to use a remote control to lock out programs or channels based on the ratings data.

Youth and Crime: The Current Statistics:

According to reports by victims, in 2003 the serious violent crime offending rate was 15 crimes per 1,000 juveniles ages 12–17, totaling 375,000 such crimes involving juveniles. While this is higher than the rate in 2002, it is a 71 percent drop from the 1993 peak. (Childstats.gov, Youth Victims)

Since 1996, there has been a steady decline in youth-perpetrated violent crimes. Even in the unrelated yet equally relevant area of teen pregnancy there was a noticeable drop. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, birth rates for single women under 20 fell between 1994 and 2002; for teens between the ages of 15 to 17 their rates fell more than 33% from 32 to 21 per 1000. Is it more than coincidence that the drops in these numbers correlate to the implementation of the V-chip and stricter enforcement of ratings standards? Maybe. At the same time there have been many other factors that have come into play such as stricter gun-control laws, greater attention to warning signs in troubled youth, increased security due to world events, and etc. Ultimately there are too many variables involved to make an objective ruling on the reasons for these declines.

The fact that the V-chip emerged in 1997 and the FTC’s findings were done and released in 2000 leads to an unsettling conclusion all its own – even with the concessions made by the MPAA and other entertainment organizations to assist the federal government in creating stricter standards to protect children under 17, many media companies within those same organizations continued to target a high percentage of their mature content to minors.

With the thousands of studies that have been conducted, aside from the sometimes-contradictory nature of their results, there are two common threads that most scientists, psychologists and sociologists can probably agree upon:

We do not fully understand the effects of violent media on children,

– and –

As long as major media sources can get away with marketing explicit content to minors and it remains profitable, they will continue to do so.


Works Cited

Crooks, C. Media Violence and its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence by Jonathon Freedman. Online Book Review. EBSCO.

Doi, D. Media And Juvenile Violence: The Connecting Threads. Online. EBSCO. Nieman Reports, 00289817, Winter 98, Vol. 52, Issue 4

Federal Trade Commission. (2000). Marketing violent entertainment to children: A review of self-regulation and industry practices in the motion picture, music recording & electronic game industries. Washington, DC: Author. http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2000/09/youthviol.htm

Cantor, J. & Wilson, B.J. Media and Violence: Intervention Strategies for Reducing Aggression. Online. EBSCO. MEDIA PSYCHOLOGY, 2003, Vol. 5 Issue 4, pp363–403

Balkin, J.M. Media Filters and the V-Chip– Part I. Edited Version Originally Published in 45 Duke L. J. 1133 (1996). http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/jbalkin/articles/vchip01.htm

Youth Victims and Perpetrators of Serious Violent Crime. Childstats.gov (sponsored by Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics)