McAbee: Media violence and the debate about effects |

McAbee: Media violence and the debate about effects

Jeff McAbee
Special to the Daily

I don’t know who volunteers for these things but there are parents who willingly subject their children to violent television shows and video games so that scientists, presumably in white coats, can see if exposure to violence in the media in turn makes the child more violent.

The gun control debate forces us to look at media, particularly the way media portrays violence. And so we’ve seen pundits, professors and media executives debate the issue – in the media. Like mirrors on opposing walls the image retreats into the perceived depth ad infinitum.

Nevertheless, guess what? Violent television shows, movies, books, music and video games do make the consumers of such content more violent in two very distinct ways. Common sense will tell you this.

I’m not talking about direct effects. Little Johnny plays a violent video game and goes out and shoots everyone in his neighborhood. That’s what communication specialists call direct effects. And it was debunked many years ago, except for something called a “mean world syndrome,” which, as the name implies, refers to a heavy television viewer’s tendency to see the world as a nastier and more violent place than it actually is. I can relate to that one. Sometimes, I have to turn it off and go outside

Direct effects theorizing rose from the ashes of World War II, when we had just witnessed a propaganda machine in Germany. The media was viewed as all powerful and consumers like us viewed as mindless drones incapable of thinking for ourselves.

The explosion of choice that occurred after the war was largely driven by technological innovation. This led scientists like Paul Lazarsfeld to begin testing the effects of media on consumers and he found that at best the effects of messages in the media are limited. Again, everyone exposed to violence in the media doesn’t go on a rampage.

Deciding what effects violence in the media has on children or adults gets complicated because people think that when we say “effects” we mean “direct effects”.

So then, how does violence consumed in the media affect intelligent beings?

After exposure to violence, we become “primed” to act more violently. All of us form mental constructs in our brain that help us think more efficiently. The most common type of construct is the stereotype. But our discussion goes beyond this. We teach our kids not to hit when they are very young and as such we form a mental construct for them that hitting is not a good choice. When they get older we hope that they recall this construct when they are in a situation where they feel like hitting.

Priming then, is a process, by which these constructs are activated by certain cues, violent lyrics or scenes that can lead to violent behavior later. Think of a football game where loud and distorted music is played. The music has a heavy backbeat and the crowd, the team, everyone gets pumped or primed. You just aren’t the same person after the music starts than you were before. This can be measured.

Media violence has this priming effect, particularly for heavy users. If you view our constructs as a tool box, when you watch violent content, you add a little violence to your box.

The other effect is probably worse but no less definite and accepted. When we look at exposure to media over time, people who consume a lot of violent material become desensitized to the violence. What horrifies them shifts further and further toward the obscene.

The good news is that these effects can be mitigated quite easily through conversation. You do know that it is wrong to go about the neighborhood shooting people, right?

Jeff McAbee is a former Summit County resident now living on the Front Range. Contact him at or via Twitter @Jeff_McAbee.

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