The effects of overexposure to negative, hyper-sensational material in media, such as physical and sexual violence and sexual objectification of women, have been a decades-long concern in the modern world. We’ve seen it in everything from superhero films to American Psycho, a criticism of the general indifference our society has towards individuals.
For media violence, the story starts with a Bobo doll and a pioneer in behavioral science, Albert Bandura. It’s a familiar story for educated readers. Kid watches a video of an adult (sometimes a live model) mistreating a bobo doll. Later, kid goes into a room with toys but is not allowed to touch the toys (creating frustration). Kid finally enters (alone) a third room with boring, unattractive toys including the same Bobo doll. Do the kids take out their frustration on this doll copying some of the ways they had seen the adult model mistreat it? The answer is typically yes. Kids who came into this room without having ever watched the adult-mistreating-the-doll video were far less likely to vent their frustrations on the Bobo doll (or any other toys).
Bandura’s original experiments were criticized for violating ethics and risking a lasting effect on the participating kids. However, the essential lessons from his experiments opened the minds of scholars, teachers, and parents worldwide to the pervasive consequences of modeling and media exposure.
The effect has since then been recorded under non-experimental, real-life conditions. That the effects of hardening or numbing from overexposure, called desensitization, persist even years after initial modeling, has been significantly proven in hundreds of studies around the world. There is even evidence (from lifetime research in New Zealand) of structural differences in the brain between people who have engaged in a lifetime of antisocial behavior (including aggression and violence), those who only did so during teenage/adult life, and those who never exhibit antisocial behavior. Overexposure to physical and sexual violence in media programs desensitized these kids to real-life violence and made it easy for them to react with aggression after real-life frustrations.
Consumer Media Violence and Sexuality
Consumer media has always had a sex and violence problem. Violence content in programs approved for even young ages is remarkably high. Attempts to control the watching habits of impressionable minds work only so much in the era of endless video streams on video-sharing social media and streaming apps for all kinds of TV and movies.
Patterns of a strong connection between violence exposure and real-life aggression have been confirmed in several cross-country studies comparing behaviors and media viewership in many European, Asian, and American countries.
How Violent Is Our TV and Cinema?
The American Academy of Family Physicians has a disconcerting position paper warning against the prevalence of violence on TV and movies. They have based their position in light of more than 2000 academic papers and research reports published in peer-reviewed academic journals from around the world. The paper makes alarming revelations about the extent of widespread violence in the shows and films regularly watched by all age ranges of impressionable youth and young adults.
The expansion of media to include more and more forms of digital media has made it easier to access and be exposed to portrayals of violence. The advent of the internet has further expanded the reach and impact of digital media by encouraging interactivity and group forming through media such as online gaming, virtual reality, digital art, and social media.
Research suggests that young people in the United States spend more time interacting with various digital media than in any other activity except sleeping, with a typical 8- to 18-year-old using some form of media for an average of 50 hours per week or more.21 On average, U.S. teens spend more than seven hours per day consuming a variety of entertainment screen media (e.g., smartphone, social media, gaming, music) and 8- to 12-year-olds spend more than four hours per day.The American Academy of Family Physicians
According to one estimate by the American Psychological Association, an average American youth has witnessed more than 20,000 acts of violence on screen before the age of 18. The problem is that TV is often highly violent when it comes to what the kids and teens actually watch and even in content earmarked for younger ages.
- A 2000 assessment of popularly watched TV shows revealed 9 appearances of weaponry per every hour of television.
- Several content analyses of recent media content in the streaming era have proven that both TV and movies have grown far more violent today. Most PG-13 violence today would have been rated R in 2000 or earlier, in terms of the use of weapons, acts of violence, violent deaths, explosions, etc.
- Depictions of sexual violence have increased similarly to a far greater extent in all manner of consumerist and dramatized media today compared to 20 years ago.
- Even at younger ages, cartoons depict acts of violence far more frequently than in the earlier era, up to 20-25 acts per hour. That is actually even greater than prime-time television and is typically paired with humor and laughter making it more likely for desensitization effects to take hold early. In fact, several estimates have shown that cartoons now share up to 46% share of TV violence depictions.
Movie Violence and Sex and the Role of Empathy
Adolescents are especially vulnerable to overindulgence in sexual and violent content in movies. Adolescents are generally considered the most movie-watching group, and the movies popular would them are often high in both violence and sex. According to research at Michigan State University, conducted on thousands of teenagers:
- Popular movies that teenagers love are often high in violence, overt sexuality, and other risky behaviors such as drug-taking.
- Teenagers who watch more movies with multiple kinds of risky content are more susceptible to engaging in all those risky behaviors in real life.
- Empathy plays a huge role in media exposure effects, per the Differential Susceptibility model.
- The model states that additional characteristics can influence both the exposure and the consequences of the exposure.
- Adolescents who measured high on empathy had lower exposure to high sex and high violence content, especially movies indulging in both.
- When more empathic adolescents watched high-sex content movies, it had a lesser effect on later, risky sexual indulgences compared to low-empathy adolescents.
- Unfortunately, empathy did not influence the effect of movie violence. Having high empathy but also high exposure to violence, both violence, and sex in favorite movies did not protect these adolescents from later exhibiting aggression in real life.
- Even for movies rated PG or PG-13 (which also made up a big part of the adolescents’ movie-watching preferences in addition to R-rated movies), the violent content was significantly high, though less explicit or graphic.
A Media Violence Curse? Pandemics, Streaming, and the Binge-Watch Trend
The Pandemic and the Streaming TV Obsession
When the pandemic clenched the whole world into its fists in 2020, streaming became even more popular. Millions of people suddenly found a lot of time and motivation to stream and binge-watch as the world entered lockdown mode.
At the same time, two scholars from Boston University were examining popular binge-watches for their content per the Cultivation Theory: that overexposure to particular content on TV colors the attitudes of regular or obsessed viewers. This study has some revealing findings:
- On average, there were 6 instances of violence (physical or sexual) per hour. These were heavy, rather than light: “explicit, serious, significant, graphic, and intentional.”
- The content interacted with race in stereotypical ways.
- Non-white females were commonly depicted as targets of violence, especially sexual.
- Non-white males were commonly depicted as perpetrators of violence, especially sexual.
- Moral justifications for violence were rare. When they did have such justifications, white males were the common dispenser of this “morally justified violence” that happened in movies.
- “Mean World” perceptions were strong among heavy viewers of these popular binge-watches.
Binge-Watching Intensifies the Media Effects on Violence
An analysis of the intense popularity of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why (2017) led to a disconcerting conclusion by scholar Tanya Horeck at Anglia Ruskin University, UK: The structure of the long-format drama involved a series of regular “hooks” designed to deepen viewers’ immersion. The intensity was comparable to the video gaming experience. These hooks consisted of often graphic sexual and physical violence.
The show had highly graphic and disturbing depictions of rape culture, even though the thematic and narrative arc was critical of that culture. The drama fits into a recent TV trend that engages in discussions and critique of rape culture but also ends up reinforcing it through graphic portrayals.
The National Association of School Psychologists in the US issued a warning about 13 Reasons Why, noting that “many teenagers are binge-watching without adult guidance and support,” a trend that could “lead impressionable viewers to romanticize the choices made by the characters.” The mental health association of Australia issued this warning:
“13 Reasons Why has some very distressing content, and the distress will be multiplied if you watch episodes back to back. Do something soothing after each episode, like having a cup of tea or milo [Australian chocolate malt drink] or watching something funny.”Mental Health Association, Australia
It seems that the binge-watching phenomenon has added another layer of media effects that psychologists are actively warning against.
Graphic TV Suicide and Self-Harm Glorification of Self-Violence?
Netflix drama 13 Reasons Why was also the subject of another huge controversy.
“The worry, according to many psychologists, parents, and educators, is that the narrative romanticizes suicide through its revenge fantasy narrative and could create a suicide contagion effect amongst its young audience.”Tanya Horeck, Angli Ruskin University, UK
The depiction of teenage suicide was highly graphic in the last episode of its first season. But the depiction followed consistent flashback portrayals of the character committing suicide as highly attractive, charismatic, and generally desirable.
Research has documented imitation and contagion effects among viewers exposed to dramatized self-violence on TV. The researchers found a disconcerting level of increase in suicidal ideation, intention, and inclination to self-harm across a number of studies around the world. What is disconcerting for kids and young adults is that even “in-passing” viewing of graphic self-violence is significantly connected to increased suicidal and other self-harm thoughts.
It was in light of such established findings that, in the wake of the 13 Reasons Why controversy, Marco Scalvini, a professor of Film, Media, and Cultural Studies in the Netherlands, focused on the morality of putting out such content without a deliberation process:
“Censoring fiction may do more harm than good, but producers have the responsibility to evaluate in advance the potential impact that such content has on vulnerable people, and to support viewers as well as parents, educators, and practitioners through an adequate campaign of prevention.”Marco Scalvini, a professor of Film, Media, and Cultural Studies, Netherlands
From Media’s Sexual Objectification and Hyperviolence to Real-Life Harassment
Scholars of human behavior and social effects have always considered overexposure to desirable, hyper-attractive, and sexualized depictions of females, their beauty, and their bodies on screens as powerful “cultural risk factors” in sexual harassment and violence.
Media-Induced Sexual Harassment
The Media-Induced Sexual Harassment framework integrates the effects of such media on three categories of persons: the aggressor, the victim, and the bystander. It also finds three mechanisms that execute these media effects: “dehumanization, disruption of emphatic resonance, and a shift in gender norms.” Researchers from Italy have recently reported significant evidence for the framework, concluding that overexposure to hypersexualized depictions of women in the media:
- Increases risk of engagement in sexual harassment acts.
- Increases victims’ acceptance of the sexual aggression against them.
- Minimizes the chances of bystander intervention.
This and countless similar studies leave no doubt that overexposure to a high degree of graphic and sexualized depictions of women and their bodies has real-world consequences all around. Extensive research exists corroborating plentiful real-world incidences that provide insights into the various ways such depictions lead, via overexposure, to real-world effects for all parties involved.
Remember that the presence of disturbing violence and sexual stimuli in today’s pervasive consumerist media is supplemented by real violence reports on TV and the actual violence happening sometimes in communities and families. It is a sobering issue for the future of a nation and we need to move to a more accountable and responsible media programming where profits are not the only metric driving content.