5 Takeaways from the CDC Report on Violence in the Media

Does anyone remember gun violence? Back in January, just one month after the Sandy Hook shooting, Obama announced that he was taking 23 executive actions intended to reduce gun violence in America. I have a sneaking suspicion that if I asked you to name one, you couldn’t. It’s not your fault; the media covered it for about a day and then pulled focus to his legislative package, which was systematically watered down and defeated by Republicans in the Senate.

Yes, for those not directly impacted by it, Sandy Hook seems like a distant memory. While hopes for gun control measures have been dashed, also forgotten is the potential link between violence in the media and real-life gun violence. In the days after Aurora and Sandy Hook, Hollywood players such as Harvey Weinstein and Jamie Foxx spoke out about the need for a new era of responsibility in the filmmaking community. Coincidentally, Weinstein and Foxx were days away from the premiere of Django Unchained, which gleefully splattered blood all over the screen for well over two hours, when they said it. In retrospect, their hollow words were just a PR effort rather than the beginning of a sea change in Hollywood ethics. I have not heard either one utter the words “gun violence” since the release of Django. Meanwhile, no one took them up on their offer;  the summer movies of 2013 have featured a record-level of carnage, and concerns over the depiction of violence in the media has all but disappeared from the public discourse.

"Django Unchained"

“Django Unchained”

So when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its report last month (mandated by Obama in one of his executive actions) on preventing gun violence, almost no one noticed. To be fair, it’s not a particularly exciting report – an academic review that forgoes policy suggestions and instead analyzes current research, identifying gaps where future research should occur. But there are some rather important takeaways regarding media violence that need to be pointed out. From the report:

  1. “8- to 18-year olds in the U.S. spend an average of 7.5 hours per day using entertainment media, which includes television, movies, music, cell phones, video games and the Internet.”

Maybe I’m just getting old, but that seems a like a lot. It’s a third of their day. Assuming that adolescents spend around 8 hours a day asleep, this means that they spend almost half of their waking time immersed in the entertainment media. It’s hard to imagine how a person would not be influenced by the values inherent in media that they spend half their waking time engaged with. This startling statistic should open the door to a larger discussion about the values our entertainments propagate.

Television is a particular concern:

  1. “[M]ore than 800 violent acts are shown on television each hour in the United States; about 15 percent of music videos portray interpersonal violence; and two-thirds of the 97 percent of children who play video games play games that may include violence.”

Forget the last two stats there. 15 percent of music videos portraying violence doesn’t seem like a lot, especially since I didn’t even know music videos existed anymore. I don’t think many teenagers watch them. And “video games that include violence” seems rather broad. Super Mario Bros. included violence, but I didn’t go around stomping on turtles after playing.

But 800 violent acts on television each hour in the U.S? That should give us pause. Although the study did not trace the history of television violence, my guess is that that number is still trending up. The last decade has been a golden age of television, but most of the shows acclaimed by critics are also full of bloodshed. The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, and The Wire, for example, are certainly not intended for children or adolescents, but the problem with television – as opposed to the movies – is that, barring an actual responsible parent, there is no one to stop children and teenager from watching.

Also:

  1. “Children observe others behaving violently, encode scripts for behaving violently themselves, and encode beliefs that violence is normal, increasing the risk that they will act aggressively or violently. Some studies suggest that repeated exposure to media violence may result in desensitization…thereby reducing psychological barriers to violent behavior.”

Well, this is common sense, but it’s good to have an authority confirm it. Just to be clear, here’s what it says: Children are particularly susceptible to the influence of violence in the media because they have not yet formed strong behavioral patterns. But we have become a society of children, haven’t we? Young adults are waiting longer to get married and have kids, buy a house, or lock down a career. Perhaps it is because the media, with their intense focus on marketing to young demographics, has made being young so desirable. But with more and more adults acting like children, violence in the media may play a more insidious role among adult populations than we currently recognize.

  1. “Some research suggests that media violence may be imitated or copied in real life, especially in cases of suicide…television publicity [seems] to result in more suicide imitators.”

Well, now we’re getting to the really important stuff: the available research suggests that violence in the media is copied in real-life. Those who say that violent media has no impact on real-life violence (Quentin, I’m looking in your direction) need to shut up now.  Although this particular statement only finds a certain link in cases of suicide, the report also found that the majority of fire-arm related deaths actually come from suicide. From 2000 to 2010, 61 percent of fire-arm related deaths were the result of suicide, not homicide. Since the research is clear that suicide in the media inspires imitators, Hollywood should take its depiction of suicide extremely seriously.

Well, that’s a lot of information to processs, so let’s look at what the report ultimately concludes:

  1. “The experimental literature is also very convincing in documenting effects of short episodes of violent media exposure on short-term outcomes.” However, “it is impossible to make unequivocal interpretations of these long-term associations” found between “persistent violent media exposure in youth and subsequent real-life violence.”

Okay, so the clear takeaway is that adolescents do copy the violence they see in the media to some degree. But it’s still unclear whether repeated exposure to media violence creates lasting violent tendencies in a person. In other words, the argument that there is no evidence that violence in the media impacts real-life violence should be buried. We should say that there is some kind of connection, and we should urge Congress should fund further research into the matter.

But they probably won’t. It’s been a month now, and I have not found more than a couple of articles about this report, which indicates its findings will not take hold in the public consciousness. Of course, that may be exactly what Obama had in mind when he asked for it. As we have covered previously in this space, Obama is between a rock and a hard place in addressing the role Hollywood plays in encouraging violent behavior: his biggest campaign donors come from the entertainment industries. This report hits a sweet spot for him and other national Democrats who will rely on Hollywood in future elections: it places no blame, prescribes no policy, and only calls for future research. But those calls should be heeded if we are serious about addressing gun violence and mental illness in America.

You can read the entire CDC report here. I hope you do.

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