Our last post in this series investigating how film impacts behavior looked at the top 20 television programs of 2017, finding that most of them shared the common bond of violence. For this, our third post, the Grand Rapids Film Festival (GRFF) team wonders how violence in media is shaping our societies. Is it possible to view an increasing amount of violence, while remaining calm and peaceful?
In 2002, Anderson and Bushman concepted the General Aggression Model (GAM), which suggests that exposure to media aggression may influence attitudes and behavior, in both the short and the long terms.[i] Most individuals who view a violent and bloody gunfight do not commit murder. However, according to the GAM, these individuals are still “primed” to act aggressively, as they are now thinking about aggression, are physiologically aroused, and may be in a hostile and angry mood.[ii]
In 2000, American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and five other prominent medical groups issued this statement concerning the connection between media and violent and aggressive behavior in children.
At this point, it’s clear that film/media teaches. Every time you consume a program, film, song, game or clip, your mind opens to it, the content bounces around, and some of the ideas stick. GRFF is primarily concerned with how these ideas impact behavior. In 1986, University of Michigan professor L. Rowell Huesmann developed the Information Processing Theory. This theory explains how these ideas, or “scripts” as he labeled them, are learned by observing and then stored in memory to be used as a guide for future behavior.[iv]
Sarah M. Coyne looks more deeply at the impact viewing direct and indirect aggression in media. Indirect aggression includes: intrigue, rumors, and manipulating others. She references the film Cruel Intentions, where the lead characters manipulate their friend’s relationship to destroy trust, as an example in her 2004 article “Cruel intentions on television and in real life.”[v]
Coyne’s research discovered that television portrayals of indirect aggression can have an immediate effect on subsequent indirect aggression. Meaning, if you view direct or indirect aggression, these actions become “scripts” that you draw from in your own experiences. The more aggression you view, the more often you’ll draw on these examples to solve your own life dilemmas.
Relational aggression is a type of indirect violence Coyne researched. Relational aggression is the type of enmity that does not show physical scars but is the force behind school bullying and social mockery. [vi] The expected result is damaging relationships or the communal status. This causes a great deal of lasting, usually unseen harm like: depression, anxiety, loneliness, social withdrawal, low-self-esteem and even suicide.
High levels of relationship aggression are found in numerous television shows and films, even in children’s programming. In these programs, relational aggression is often portrayed as humorous, justified, customary, rewarded and sociologically abundant by attractive girls. Also know as the “mean girls” phenomenon, this type of violence is typically aimed towards elementary to high school level females but also affects males on a smaller scale. When children are viewing comical, laugh-track abundant programs where the joke is on the weirdo or the awkward character, be aware that these “scripts” are being added to their adolescent brains.
It simply wasn’t possible to find evidence that stated violence in media has no effect on the viewer. None of the research recommended directly or indirectly aggressive programs to be watched by children, adolescents or adults. It was quite clear to every researcher that media teaches; it offers behavioral options to viewers. When the options presented are aggressive, the viewer learns them. Even if viewers can control their impulses to solve problems with direct violence, the aggressive scripts influence their moods and their communication.
So, viewer, if you are struggling with anger, anxiety, a lack of calm, manipulative behavior, negative thoughts, or aggressive behavior… you may want to examine the media content you’re consuming.
But even more relevant, filmmaker—if you want to influence the world for good, if you want to contribute to peaceful societies that live in harmony—start by creating narratives that emulate this reality. Teach us how to do it. Give us the scripts we need to overcome the violence and aggression that’s been bombarding us.
We’ll be wrapping up this series in our forth and final post next month. Stay tuned.
[i] Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002). Human aggression. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 27–51. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135231
[ii] Coyne, Sarah M. "Effects of Viewing Relational Aggression on Television on Aggressive Behavior in Adolescents: A Three-Year Longitudinal Study." Developmental Psychology, vol. 52, no. 2, 2016, pp. 284-95. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018. (pg. 286)
[iii] Joint statement on the impact of entertainment violence on children: Congressional Public Healthy Summit. (2000, July 26). Retrieved January 30, 2018 from http://public.psych.iastate.edu/caa/VGVpolicyDocs/00AAP%20-%20Joint%20Statement.pdf
[iv] Huesman, L.R. (1986). Psychological processes promoting the relation between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior by the viewer. Journal of Social Issues, 42, 125-139
[v] Coyne, Sarah M., John Archer, and Mike Eslea. "Cruel intentions on television and in real life: Can viewing indirect aggression increase viewers’ subsequent indirect aggression?" J. Experimental Child Psychology 88, 2004, pp. 234-53. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.
[vi] Coyne, Sarah M. "Effects of Viewing Relational Aggression on Television on Aggressive Behavior in Adolescents: A Three-Year Longitudinal Study." Developmental Psychology, vol. 52, no. 2, 2016, pp. 284-95. Accessed 28 Jan. 2018.