Not long ago I decided to conduct an informal survey to find out about Church members’ views on television and movies. When I asked members what makes some movies and TV shows objectionable, the most common response was sexually explicit scenes, followed by profanity. Nobody mentioned violence. When I asked about specific movies, a common response was, “That movie had only one bad scene.” I asked, “What happened? Did someone get killed?” The answer was always the same: “No. It was a sex scene.”
Sex outside of marriage is a serious sin. In fact, Alma taught that it was among the most grievous of sins. But what did Alma rank as the two most serious sins? Denying the Holy Ghost and “shedding … innocent blood,” or committing murder (see Alma 39:5–6). I was puzzled that many Church members did not feel concerned about watching people being murdered on the screen. And many seemed to consider profanity to be more objectionable than violence in movies and TV programs.
In my profession as a psychology professor at Iowa State University, I have spent many years in extensive study of the effects of media violence. I have also examined statements of Church leaders on the subject. Both the teachings of Church leaders and the findings from hundreds of scientific studies make it clear that we need to better understand the consequences of violent media on individuals and on society at large.
The pamphlet For the Strength of Youth contains a statement on media violence that all people, not just the youth, should give heed to: “Depictions of violence often glamorize vicious behavior. They offend the Spirit and make you less able to respond to others in a sensitive, caring way. They contradict the Savior’s message of love for one another.”1
Interestingly, an examination of the Word of Wisdom helps provide insight into the spiritual effects of media violence. Scientists have shown that tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and too much meat can harm us physically. But the most important blessings of keeping the Word of Wisdom are spiritual, not physical. Our bodies are temples, and when we abuse our bodies by consuming harmful substances, the Spirit of the Lord is restrained in our lives (see 1 Cor. 3:16–17; 1 Cor. 6:19). The Spirit will not inhabit a polluted temple.
Similarly, the Spirit is offended when we pollute our minds with harmful, violent material, whether or not such material causes us to commit violent acts. Consuming violent media makes it more difficult to keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). It is troubling that so many people consider it entertaining to view violence or play violent video games.
Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles expressed it well when he said: “I believe the entertainment industry cannot portray on film people gunned down in cold blood, in living color, and not have it affect the attitudes and thoughts of some of the people who see it. … I believe that the desensitizing effect of such media abuses on the hearts and souls of those who are exposed to them results in a partial fulfillment of the Savior’s statement that ‘because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.’”2
The American public consumes what the media produce as if it were harmless. A U.S. study reported that it is the equivalent of a full-time job for the average American child, who spends about 40 hours per week watching TV and videos, playing computer games, and so on.3 Children in other developed countries display similar habits.
A recent content analysis of more than 8,000 hours of television programming showed that about 60 percent of the programs contained violence. Only 4 percent of the violent programs contained an antiviolence theme. In most programs, the violence was sanitized and depicted as trivial and glamorous.4
Over time, the accumulated numbers of violent acts an individual sees on television can be staggering. By the time the average American child graduates from elementary school, he or she will have seen more than 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 other assorted acts of violence, such as assaults, on network television.5 The numbers are even higher if the child has access to cable television or a videocassette or DVD player, as most do.
Violent video games might be even more harmful than violent TV programs. While television viewing is usually a passive activity, video game playing is highly interactive. Most violent video games require the player to take on the identity of a violent game character, and most of these games reward individuals for behaving aggressively (for example, players get points for killing people). The violence portrayed in these video games is almost continuous. Scientific research has shown that violent video games increase aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior.6 Lamentably, the most popular video games are violent ones.7
Myth #1: The mass media simply mirror the level of violence in the real world. The entertainment industry often makes this claim. For example, Zev Braun of CBS-TV said: “We live in a violent society. Art imitates the modes of life, not the other way around. It would be better for Congress to clean up that society than to try to clean up the reflection of that society.”8
However, even in reality-based TV programs, violence is grossly overemphasized. For example, one study compared the frequency of crimes occurring in the real world with the frequency of crimes occurring in reality-based police TV programs. About 87 percent of the crimes occurring in the real world are nonviolent, whereas only 13 percent of crimes occurring in reality-based TV programs are nonviolent. The largest discrepancy between the real world and the world depicted on television was for murder—the most violent crime of all. Only 0.2 percent of the crimes reported by the FBI are murders, whereas about 50 percent of the crimes shown in reality-based TV programs are murders.9
According to film critic Michael Medved, the claim that the entertainment industry merely reflects the level of violence in society simply is not true:
“If this were true, then why do so few people witness murders in real life but everybody sees them on TV and in movies? The most violent ghetto isn’t in South Central L.A. or Southeast Washington, D.C.; it’s on television.
“About 350 characters appear each night on prime-time TV, but studies show an average of seven of these people are murdered every night. If this rate applied in reality, then in just 50 days everyone in the United States would be killed—and the last left could turn off the TV.”10
If the entertainment industry is a mirror that reflects the level of violence in society, it is a treacherous funhouse mirror that provides a distorted image of reality. There is far more violence in the “reel” world than in the real world.
Myth #2: Viewing violence actually decreases aggression. The television and motion picture industries often claim that viewing violence has a cathartic effect. For example, Alfred Hitchcock said: “One of television’s greatest contributions is that it brought murder back into the home where it belongs. Seeing a murder on television can be good therapy. It can help work off one’s antagonism.”11
Although this idea has been around a long time, dating back to Aristotle, there is virtually no scientific evidence to support it. Six major professional societies have signed a joint statement on the hazards of exposing children to media violence, noting that the research data “point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children.”12 A recent review in Science magazine, written by this author and a colleague, came to the same conclusion.13 And although media violence is especially likely to increase aggression in children, it also increases aggression in adults.14
Myth #3: Viewing violence has a trivial effect on aggression. Many people claim that the effect of violent media on aggression is so small that the risk to society is trivial. However, the research evidence indicates that the effect of violent media on aggression is stronger than the effect of calcium intake on bone mass, the effect of asbestos on cancer, the effect of lead exposure on mental functioning, and the effect of secondhand smoke on lung cancer.15
It may be useful to compare viewing media violence with smoking cigarettes. Smoking one cigarette has little impact on the likelihood that a person will get lung cancer, but repeated exposure to tobacco smoke dramatically increases the risk of cancer. Similarly, watching one violent TV program or film has little impact on the likelihood that a person will behave more aggressively. But repeated exposure to media violence dramatically increases aggressive behavior.16
Myth #4: Decreasing rates of violent crime prove that media violence does not increase societal violence. Some people think that because violent crime rates in the United States have decreased in recent years, viewing violence can’t cause an increase in societal violence. Such reasoning might be valid if all of the following three assumptions were true: (a) exposure to media violence has remained the same or increased during this time span; (b) violent crime rates among youth are decreasing during this time span; and (c) media violence is the only factor that causes societal violence.
The first assumption is probably true. The second assumption is highly debatable; the rate of self-reported acts of violence by youth rose sharply from 1983 to 1993 and then remained level from 1993 to 1998.17 Most important, the third assumption is clearly false. Other factors contribute to changes in societal violence and might well account for the recent overall decline in violent crimes in the United States. Four such factors are: (a) the U.S. population was getting older during this time span, and older people are much less likely to commit violent crimes than are younger people; (b) U.S. residents were being imprisoned at record rates during this time span, and therefore some of the most violent people in society were locked up in prisons; (c) unemployment and poverty rates were low during the period of time when overall crime rates were declining; and (d) due to recent medical advances, fewer deaths have resulted from acts of violence, leading to decreased murder rates.18
Myth #5: One cannot know whether media violence causes aggression. Experimental studies can be used to determine whether violent media in general increase aggression. In a typical experiment, the researcher shows subjects either a violent or a nonviolent program. The researcher flips a coin to determine which program each subject watches; thus, because the subjects are not given a choice, one cannot claim that the subjects exposed to the violent program are more aggressive to begin with. The researcher then treats the two groups of subjects identically, except for the program they watch. After the subjects view the program, the researcher measures their aggressive behavior. The findings from numerous experimental studies conducted in this manner have shown that violent media cause an increase in aggressive behavior.19
Myth #6: “Media violence doesn’t affect me!” Suppose that a particular violent TV program increases aggression in just 1 percent of viewers. Should society be concerned about a percentage so small? Yes! Suppose 20 million people watch the program. If the program increases aggression in just 1 percent of viewers, then 200,000 people will behave more aggressively after watching the program. Because so many people are exposed to TV violence, the effect on society can be immense, even if only a small percentage of people are immediately affected by what they see.
Even if only 1 percent of viewers will behave more aggressively immediately after viewing a particular program, the cumulative effects are likely to increase the aggressiveness of most, if not all, viewers. Furthermore, experimental studies have shown that merely viewing 15 minutes of a relatively mild violent program increases the aggressiveness of at least one-fourth of viewers.20
Scientific studies have also found evidence that violent media can be desensitizing—a finding that has been validated by our priesthood leaders. Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (1915–94) said: “A diet of violence or pornography dulls the senses, and future exposures need to be rougher and more extreme. Soon the person is desensitized and is unable to react in a sensitive, caring, responsible manner, especially to those in his own home and family. Good people can become infested with this material and it can have terrifying, destructive consequences.”21
As Church members, we are seeking to become like Christ and to cultivate loving relationships with our families and those around us. Consequently, the effects of media violence on our interactions with others should be of particular concern.
The words of the Apostles and of many social scientists converge on this topic—media violence has harmful effects on individuals and on society at large. Let us choose carefully the material we allow to enter our hearts and minds. We must recognize for ourselves the effects of media violence, both temporal and spiritual, and take responsibility for our choices.
Although media violence affects people of all ages, young children are the most vulnerable. Compared to adults, children are more impressionable, have more difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality, and are less likely to understand different motives for aggression. What can parents do to protect their families from the harmful effects of media violence?
Become educated on this issue. Be sure what you read is based on scientific research rather than opinion. Because the entertainment industry profits from marketing a harmful product, it often claims that violent media are not harmful—much like the tobacco industry used to claim that smoking cigarettes was not harmful. Thus, you may want to look elsewhere for reliable and valid information.
Monitor the content of the programs your children watch. Have a supply of nonviolent videotapes, DVDs, and computer games, and let your children choose the ones they want to use. If your child is viewing a program you are unfamiliar with, watch with him or her so you can turn off the TV if an inappropriate scene comes on. Explain your standards to your children so they can make appropriate entertainment choices outside of the home.
Limit the amount of time your children watch TV and play computer games.
Set a good example for your children by avoiding violent media yourself. When parents and older siblings have a heavy diet of media violence, younger children are thereby exposed to more media violence.
If advertisers didn’t sponsor violent programs, they would cease to exist. If you don’t like the violence in a particular program, contact the advertisers and inform them of your objections.
Ask family members what television programs or movies come to mind when they think of media violence. Read and discuss the author’s six myths. Plan a family council on protecting the home from media violence, using the suggestions in “What Can Parents Do?”
Review with family members a recent television or movie guide from a newspaper or magazine. Have them note how much violence is in the media. Read and discuss the section “Spiritual Consequences of Media Violence” and Moroni 7:13.