Sunday, December 1, 2013

How Does an Increase in Movie Gun Violence Influence Children?

Researchers say firearm-related violence in PG-13 films is on the increase. What impact may the trend have on young filmgoers?

By: James Swift

While the debate regarding the long-term impact of media violence on young people is likely to rage on for the foreseeable future, one area that isn’t disputed is an increase in the prevalence of firearm violence in major Hollywood productions. A recent study raises the intriguing question: does an increase in cinematic gun violence somehow translate to an increase in real-world youth violence?

According to a recent report published in the journal Pediatrics, onscreen gun violence in PG-13 films has increased threefold since 1985. And over the last few years, researchers said that PG-13 movies have tended to contain as much -- if not more -- violence than R-rated motion pictures.

The report, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Annenberg Public Policy Center, involved the screening of five-minute long segments from a large sampling of high-grossing Hollywood films released since 1950, with researchers paying special attention to gun violence content in films released since 1985 -- the first year the PG-13 rating was in full effect.

Covering a terrain of nearly 1,000 movies, coders identified almost 18,000 instances of cinematic violence. Of the 420 films included in the study that were released since 1985, an overwhelming majority -- 396 movies -- contained at least one segment containing violence. For the study, researchers defined onscreen violence as scenes involving characters making physical contact with another with the intent of inflicting harm or death.

In those post-1985 films containing violence, researchers pinpointed 783 sequences involving gun violence. Acts of violence against non-human characters and violence involving heavy artillery were not counted in the evaluation.

“Consistent with other analyses, we found violence in top-grossing films has increased linearly since 1950,” the report reads. “Gun violence in PG-13 films has grown considerably since 1985, even exceeding the rate in R-rated films in recent years.”

One area of concern among researchers is a concept called “the weapons effect” -- a theory that suggests that the mere presence of lethal weapons may lead to an increase in aggressive behavior in some individuals. Meta-analyses have drawn similar conclusions: in experiments in which individuals are exposed to a firearm, many respondents demonstrated increased aggression compared to their cohorts.

Brad Bushman, lead author of the Pediatrics report, said the potentiality that gun violence-heavy films could influence youths is enough for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to restructure it’s rating system.

“We know that PG-13 movies have larger audiences than R-rated movies, and that they target young viewers,” Bushman said. “I think it is irresponsible to do so, and that films containing gun violence should be rated R.”

San Francisco-based Common Sense Media released a white paper earlier this year, drawing links between exposure to onscreen violence and real-world youth violence. In a follow-up statement to the Pediatrics report, the organization said media consumption may have “a profound impact” on the social development and behavior of youth, an aspect they found “particularly concerning” since many of the films with the heaviest amount of violent content are being directly marketed towards youngsters. As with Bushman, Common Sense Media views the current MPAA rating system as inadequate, and desires changes to how the regulatory body views film content “through a child development lens.”

“Children who are exposed to multiple risk factors are the most likely to behave aggressively,” said Alexis Vanni, a Common Sense Media Communications Coordinator. “Violent media is one risk factor.”

Marjorie Heins, founder of the Free Expression Policy Project and author of the 2013 release "Priests of Our Democracy,” however, said she was more skeptical about a potential link between media violence and real-world youth behavior.

Though she finds some of the violence in today’s media to be “disturbing,” she also said that such entertainment has different effects on different individuals. For some young people, the “release” provided by such media might even be a safe outlet for a youngster’s tensions and aggression.

“My impression is that these surveys get publicized because there are still some pediatricians who cling to the discredited notion that there is ‘scientific’ proof of real-world harm from exposure to fantasy violence,” she said. “The whole subject of media effects is much more complicated than the easy, pro-censorship position that only distracts us from the real causes of violence in the world and is such a convenient issue for those who lobby against gun control.”

Uncommon Journalism, 2013.

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