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The Informed Parent

Violence Begets Violence?

by John H. Samson, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Aug. 01, 1997

Last month we explored the role of depicted violence as it affects the fears and paranoia of children. We must now look at an equally perplexing question. Does violence, portrayed on TV and in the movie theaters, lead children and adolescents to perform similar feats of mayhem and murder?

The answer would seem simple, but it truly isn't. We have to look at several subdivisions to get a clear picture: 1. animated violence involving creatures, i.e. dragons, monsters, etc. 2. animated human characters inflicting traumatic behavior on each other 3. visual depictions of persons creating mayhem in ancient or historical times 4. similar depictions in modern times. After spending 27 years in the practice of pediatrics, and talking to thousands of children and teenagers, certain observations become common.

Depictions of murder and mayhem in contemporary times has the greatest impact on the young viewers. It is real and possible. The devices used are all available and are currently understood.

In a recent movie a worker in a toll booth was sprayed with an inflammable fluid, ignited and was severely burned. "Copy cat" events followed the showing of this movie. We must be aware that the actual number of mimicked events was numerically insignificant compared to the number of viewers who saw the film. More on this later. Categories 1. and 2. have the least impact and 3. category has an intermediate effect.

What is needed then for someone to maliciously repeat the on-screen violence? Simply seeing the movie is not enough. The viewer must have a mental condition or predisposition that allows him or her to perform the horrible acts. A young person with a severe oppositional-defiant disorder, poor impulse control, marked repressed anger, a sociopathic personality or a person who has been abused may certainly be susceptible to this type of behavior. The percentage of youth with this type of predisposition is very small in relation to the whole child/adolescent viewing population.

In modern on-screen stories the perpetrator of the violence too often escapes any viewed negative consequences. He or she seems to get away with it, and in fact evokes peer admiration. Equally as frustrating the terrible and pitiful consequences to the victim or the family and friends of the victim are frequently not revealed. Therefore, the young viewer sees the violence as a quick occurrence with a sudden ending leading to adulation.. The long-term suffering and disability is not portrayed.

For example, a young mother is gang raped by a group of teens. After the graphic event ends the story goes on. Unfortunately, the mental devastation to the woman, the destruction of a family and the impact on her children is completely avoided. What is portrayed is a vicious attack as a one time event. The victim's consequences are not dramatized. Instead, the camaraderie generated amongst the gang members seems rewarding.

The severely disturbed sociopath would not likely be effected by a depiction of the total impact to the victim. But an impulsive, developmentally-delayed teen might be influenced by seeing the complete picture.

Many parents complain that children who watch karate, stick fighting and Ninjas copy what they see in their play. Fortunately, copied or acted-out fighting is usually harmless. But when the emulated activity is done to achieve a destructive end result some victim often receives a significant injury. For example, two eight-year-old boys have mock karate battles, repeatedly. They want to play like the on-screen characters. They do not want to hurt each other. It is rare for one of these pretend fights to lead to injury. On-the-other-hand, if an angry, frustrated boy wishes to use his martial art moves to wound a peer, most likely the victim will in fact be injured.

After many years of interviewing young people it becomes clear that on-screen violence, as it is commonly depicted today, desensitizes the viewers to the horrendous implications of such activity. It allows them to view or read about it with passive indifference. This is an unhealthy and damaging trait for any society.

One must remember that a very small percentage of our society is susceptible to emulating murder and mayhem if it is depicted in current times with familiar weapons. From the millions of viewers, only a relative handful of copy-catters stand out. The vast majority reenact simulated violence to experience an exciting adventure that they saw, not to generate damaging results. In fact, they are horrified if they are the cause of an injury to their playmate.

Violence of the TV or movie screen seems harmless since it does not make large armies of little killers out of otherwise normal children. Unfortunately, the small number of susceptible children are led to commit devastating attacks on their peers. Moreover, a large percentage of "normal" children and adolescents become victims of paranoia to a danger that does not really exist. They are casualties of an on-screen bogey man.

As parents, what can we do to help our children in this matter of on-screen violence?

  1. Do not attend movies that depict senseless or overly graphic violence. Avoid those that neglect to show the negative consequences to the victim and the perpetrator of the violent acts. It is not sufficient to keep your children away--you must stay away! Why, you ask? The dollar talks the loudest. If seats are empty for these kind of movies they will stop being made. It is time for you to back up words of concern for your children with action.
  2. Do not watch TV shows that do the same thing. If you turn these programs off and cease supporting the sponsors they will not be on the air for long.
  3. Write movie studios, TV stations and sponsors about your concerns and non-support. Hit them in the pocket book.
  4. If you feel your child is unduly influenced by the violence on the screen, get help! Discuss it with your pediatrician and get a referral to an appropriate pediatric psychologist.

Government means well, but if the family unit does not take appropriate measures nothing ever happens. Unbridled violence is not needed to make an entertaining movie or TV program. Do not look the other way; look at your off-spring and take the appropriate action. Nobody said being a parent was easy.

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