Winter 2002

Society and Culture

Our Appetite for Aggression

Edwin Stepp

You are what you eat. The proverb is not just about our diets; it’s also true of what we put into our minds. A quick look at the latest movie guide, television listing or video-game store offers ample evidence that children are at serious risk of being malnourished or even poisoned in this regard.

Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.” So wrote Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French politician and legendary gastronome. 

Since he penned that wisdom early in the 19th century, the quotation has morphed into the familiar proverb “You are what you eat.” Every parent knows the fundamentals behind the literal interpretation of this bit of wisdom. If you feed your children junk food, they are not likely to remain in good health.

Of course, the proverb isn’t just about our diets. The saying is also used in the context of how we develop mentally and what we allow our minds to ingest. Whether casual entertainment or structured education, what we allow our minds to dwell on affects our spiritual development and character and our emotional and mental well-being. This interpretation of the proverb is just as true and important as the more literal one.

Not surprisingly then, many are concerned about what our children are “eating” mentally. A quick look at the latest movie guide, television listing or video-game store offers ample evidence that children are at serious risk of being malnourished or even poisoned in this regard.

Overexposed

On November 5, 2001, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a report asserting that there is a stronger correlation between violent entertainment and aggressive behavior than between calcium intake and bone mass or secondhand smoke and lung cancer.

The study revealed that “American children between 2 and 18 years of age spend an average of 6 hours and 32 minutes each day using media (television, commercial or self-recorded video, movies, video games, print, radio, recorded music, computer, and the Internet).” Because of these high levels of exposure, the media do more to shape young people’s attitudes and actions than do parents or teachers, thus replacing them as educators, role models, and the primary sources of information about the world and how to behave in it. According to the report, research has associated exposure to media violence with a variety of physical and mental health problems for children and adolescents, including aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, fear, depression, nightmares and sleep disturbances.

In September 2000, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) completed a one-and-a-half-year study that confirmed what many parents and others had already suspected—that Hollywood and video-game makers not only failed to limit access by minors to violent games and movies but actually targeted children in the making and marketing of violent entertainment. The commission issued a 104-page report titled “Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children,” which reviewed the marketing practices of the motion picture, music recording and electronic game industries. Congress held hearings to assess the report and determine a course of action to bring an end to marketing techniques that FTC chairman Robert Pitofsky called “particularly disturbing.”

In his opening statement to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Pitofsky said: “Companies in the entertainment industry routinely undercut their own rating restrictions by target marketing violent films, records and video games to young audiences.”

According to his testimony, although all three industries studied have self-regulatory systems that purport to rate or label their products to help parents make choices about their children’s entertainment, the FTC found that members of all three industries routinely target advertising and marketing for violent entertainment products directly to children.

Pitofsky identified some specific communication from industry professionals that he felt was condemning. “One document,” he noted, “dealt with a movie that was a sequel to one rated R [“Restricted—Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian”], where the marketing group expected the sequel to be R-rated as well. The document said, ‘There is evidence to suggest that attendance at the original movie dipped down to the age of 10. Therefore, it seems to make sense to interview 10- to 11-year-olds as well.’ A second document involving a video game referred to a target market as ‘males 17–34 due to M [“For mature audiences only”] rating,’ and then in parentheses stated: ‘(the true target is males 12–34).’ Yet other documents indicate plans to promote age-restricted products at boys and girls clubs and a local youth basketball game, among other places.”

As a result of the FTC study and subsequent congressional hearings, a new ratings system was established for television, movies and other entertainment. Last July, Congress came together again to discuss the results of the new system. The Senate heard testimony from industry executives, parents, and media critics and experts, all of whom expressed problems with the new system.

There’s too much trash, too much violence and ultra-sexual activity without any sense of the consequences, and that’s bound to have an effect on society.” 

Senator Joseph Lieberman

There’s too much trash, too much violence and ultra-sexual activity without any sense of the consequences, and that’s bound to have an effect on society,” said committee chairman Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut). He feels that the ratings currently in use need to be more accurate and uniform in their standards. 

Michael Rich, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, helped craft the AAP’s policy statement on media violence. He commented: “Any parent who goes out to the supermarket and shops for food for their kid wants to look at the can and know the ingredients. We don’t have a rating system that is content based, so we don’t know what we’re feeding our kids’ minds.”

Counterpoint

While Hollywood churns out ever-more-graphic violence, they at least recognize that a ratings system is needed and agree that violent movies are not appropriate for young people.

As surprising as it may seem, however, not everyone feels this way. A few dissenting voices have been so bold as to make the case that television violence is actually good for children. One such person is Jib Fowles, professor of communication at the University of Houston at Clear Lake. In a recent interview with Vision, Fowles asserted that “the fantasy mayhem on the television screen—sometimes in the form of cartoons and sometimes not—helps the child to discharge tensions and animosities.” Fowles believes that TV has become a “whipping boy” in what is really a struggle between “high culture” (those who prefer the fine arts—classical music, opera, educational documentaries) and “low culture” (those who prefer cruder forms of entertainment such as Rambo and the World Wrestling Federation’s Smackdown!). Fowles says that these two groups typically divide along economic class lines, and he claims that TV has become a scapegoat for an ongoing struggle between the upper and lower classes.

The Parents Television Council (PTC), a nonpartisan, nonprofit, grassroots organization, is not unfamiliar with Fowles’s argument. They occasionally receive E-mail and letters from critics attempting to make the case that television can be helpful in this way. Others argue that television has little or no influence on the behavior of children.

The argument is ridiculous,” says Brent Bozell III, founder and president of the PTC. “Advertisers pour billions of dollars annually into commercials because of the proven power of 30-second ad spots to influence consumer attitudes and behavior. If the networks accept the money on that premise, it is unreasonable and hypocritical for them to then assert that the rest of the programming, which is what the public is actually viewing by choice, has no influence. To argue this point, defenders of offensive entertainment often set up a straw man to knock down: the image of an otherwise perfectly normal and well-adjusted person watching a program and turning into a killer. No one is suggesting that it works that way.” 

According to the AAP, out of the 3,500-plus research studies that have examined the association between media violence and violent behavior, all but 18 have shown a connection. Though Fowles’s pro-violence theory is officially espoused by only a tiny minority of those who claim to be experts on the subject, judging from what is coming out of Hollywood, one has to wonder whether more don’t actually share his beliefs. Not many would openly argue that exposure to violence is a good thing for our children. Yet the violent fare from which viewers can choose seems to multiply in spite of mounting pressure from political leaders, parental groups and media experts to limit it.

Asking the Right Questions

The Center for Media Literacy raises the stakes in the issue by focusing on a different question. According to their Web site, “the never-ending debate about media violence has been fueled by one unanswerable question: ‘Does watching violence cause someone to become violent?’ The reason we’ve gotten nowhere on this issue for 40 years is because this is the wrong question to ask about violence in the media. The real question should be: ‘What is the long-term impact on our national psyche when millions of children, in their formative years, grow up decade after decade bombarded with very powerful visual and verbal messages demonstrating violence as the preferred way to solve problems and normalizing fear and violence as “the way things are”?’”

Daphne White is founder and executive director of the Lion & Lamb Project, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., which focuses on limiting children’s exposure to violent media. She told Vision that “the media makes the world look a lot more violent than it is. And it is not showing us any alternative. Very few movies demonstrate conflict resolution, permutation or people talking out problems. People have problems. People may have violent feelings. The question is, what do we want to encourage in young children when they have a violent thought or an angry feeling? Should they go out and shoot someone or should they have some other methods for dealing with those feelings and dealing with the person or people or things causing those feelings?”

More than ever before, “we are training this generation to be better killers,” Michael Gurian remarked in a recent Vision interview. A psycho-therapist, lecturer and author of numerous books (including The Good Son: Shaping the Moral Development of Our Boys and Young Men and Boys and Girls Learn Differently!) Gurian believes we are at a crisis point in our culture. Citing an “increase in ethical numbness, moral distraction and spiritual emptiness among boys and young men,” he feels that many parents have abandoned their children’s moral development and left it to “potentially toxic” visual media.

The average child will see nearly 100,000 violent images in the media before he or she reaches the age of 18. 

According to Gurian, the average child will see nearly 100,000 violent images in the media before he or she reaches the age of 18. This is very damaging, especially if children are not being raised in a strong moral environment.

Many have questioned why it is primarily boys who instigate violent acts on the level of the Columbine High School shootings the world witnessed on April 20, 1999. Gurian notes that testosterone is an aggression hormone, and that boys can have 20 times the level found in girls. Because of this, and the way the male brain develops and is formatted, males are more attracted to violent imagery than females are. “Males likewise have more trouble controlling violent impulses,” he said, “which is even more reason for us to come to a better understanding of how the media affects little boys. Quite often [the media] seek to exploit immoral impulses rather than promote healthy development. This exploitation wouldn’t be a problem if the creators of media stories were like problematic relatives who lived far away and rarely saw our kids. But they’re not; they have constant access to our children.”

So many of our boys are not capable of age-appropriate moral thinking,” Gurian added. “All of us are to blame. Boys need constant contact with moral principles. They need these as foundations for both moral agreement and moral rebellion. As boys begin adolescence, as early as nine years old, they need moral debate and the increased sophistication of moral logic.” 

But Gurian believes that the moral training must begin much earlier than that. “Even as an infant, your son is involved in moral growth and development. An infant can think morally in unspoken ways—mostly from the response he gets from the authority figure in his life. The infant understands that he should do the things that elicit pleasure from the authority figure, not pain or disapproval.”

Later on, well into the kindergarten age, children experience almost every person and even characters on television as nurturers. “A three-year-old,” explained Gurian, “does not see Barney or Big Bird or Walker, Texas Ranger, as just a character on television. The child sees the character as a teacher, mentor, nurturer, caregiver. The child seeks to imitate the superficialities and overt actions of Batman, Spiderman or the violent criminal he sees when his parents let him watch a police drama.”

Responsible Adults

Clearly the primary responsibility for raising nonviolent and morally strong children falls upon the shoulders of parents and primary caregivers. With media violence escalating and becoming more accessible thanks to the Internet, it is becoming much more important for parents to realize the danger of abandoning the moral development of their children.

Yet media executives, artists and producers cannot be let off the hook. In his foreword to Mark Joseph’s Rock & Roll Rebellion (1999), media critic Michael Medved points out why it is not enough for parents to try to protect their own children: “You can put your TV in the garage, avoid movies altogether, and use earplugs to spare your hearing from the sounds of hip hop or heavy metal, but these forms of entertainment will still change your life through their influence on everyone else in this society.”

White, of the Lion & Lamb Project, stressed that a big part of the solution is for parents, politicians and community leaders to keep the pressure on the media industry to do better. “Clearly,” she stated, “dysfunctional broken families are a huge issue that corporate America can’t necessarily do anything about. But those children [in dysfunctional families] are even more adversely affected than other children by the violence and the anger in these programs. They already have a lot of anger and dysfunction in their life, and possibly even violence in the form of abuse. So to glorify that violence and to portray it as normal and even desirable and exciting is only going to perpetuate the cycle they are already in.”

We wouldn’t give our children a drug just because they ask for it. It’s still important for parents to say no.” 

Daphne White

While White focuses on pressuring the entertainment industry, she also agrees that parents play a key role in the solution: “One thing about this appetite effect is that once people are exposed to it, they may find it is exciting. It is presented as exciting, and one gets an adrenaline rush from the music, the visuals, the speed. Kids may want more of it, just like kids may want cigarettes, alcohol and drugs if they are exposed to them. And yet we wouldn’t give our children a drug just because they ask for it. It’s still important for parents to say no. So we basically call on industry to be a lot more responsible, and also on parents—all adults!—to be more responsible.”

The PTC, whose membership consists of several hundred thousand concerned parents, believes that advertisers are among those who must be more responsible. In fact, the PTC was so successful in convincing major corporations to stop sponsoring the World Wrestling Federation’s Smackdown! that in November the WWF, clearly feeling the effects, filed a lawsuit against them.

Going on a Mental Diet

Our children have enormous appetites. If we put junk food before them without providing restrictions or giving them the ability to make sound judgments about what to eat, we should not be surprised when they begin to suffer ill effects. Yet we are shocked and dismayed when a Columbine-like shooting occurs. Why so, when we look around and see that all of us, not just children, are being bombarded with negative and violent images?

We are responsible for what our children feed on mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Parents need to take more control of their moral development and not leave it to Hollywood. As a community, we need to reject violent entertainment so that the profit potential evaporates.

Fifty years ago people from all economic classes would have been shocked at the entertainment fare that is being served up today.

Actually, University of Houston’s Fowles may be closer to the truth than we realize. Television and the entertainment industry have become the focus of a much bigger problem. It is not an economic class struggle, however, but a moral battle. Fifty years ago people from all economic classes would have been shocked at the entertainment fare that is being served up today. The moral climate simply would not have tolerated it. This is not to imply that previous generations were morally perfect, but early in the last century moviemakers would have made little profit from extreme graphic violence. What has changed in society that such violence is now so widespread and profitable?

Could it be that we have been fed for so long with ever more potent violent entertainment that we have all developed a taste for it? Certainly, judging from what sells in the entertainment world, we are all more accepting of violence than was the generation before television dominated. Can the clock be turned back? Can we remove the incentive that currently dangles before the entertainment industry?

While politicians give lip service to the widely accepted fact that violent entertainment is detrimental, governments cannot and will not be accused of the dreaded “C” word: censorship. Nor will the entertainment industry abandon its goal: profit making. The only recourse is to stop the demand. As White said, it is a problem that must be solved by “all adults.” All of us must say no and send violent movie footage to the cutting-room floor, regardless of whether the entertainment is meant for children or adults.

Parents must not abandon the spiritual development of their children but instead must be proactive, making sure they are fed with positive moral values that show a nonviolent solution to problems. Our children’s health and the promise of a civil society in the future are at stake.