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Corrupt media corrupt culture

Movies have become more realistic, video games have become more immersive, TV shows have become more violent and advertisements have become more appealing: Media is becoming more compelling. Yet, the connection between media and violence is still a matter of controversy. Some psychologists claim a causal relationship is present between violence and media whereas others label it as a coincidence. In short, no one, for now, can look at media with a plaintive look and say, “Look what you’ve done.”

Nonetheless, a few instances have resulted in national lament and public outcry at the actions of deprived individuals. On July 20, 2012, avid Batman fans made their way to the Century 16 Aurora, Colorado, eager to see the masked vigilante save the city of Gotham. It happened that one of the movie-goers, though, was a fanatic of Batman’s fictional archenemy; he would execute a crime that would claim the lives of 12 civilians in a way that eerily emulated a Joker crime from Frank Miller’s 1986 comic series The Dark Knight Returns.

Is media, or whoever glamorized the Joker, to be blamed? Were the authorities ineffective in predicting the crime? Do the people that James Holmes, the Century 16 shooter, interacted with before the incident hold the blame for not reporting anything unusual? It is in no one’s authority to make such a judgment, or to lay the blame specifically. What is understood, though, is that media evidently and overtly had an affect on the cognition and development of an individual.

Correlation vs. Causation

Counselor Stephanie Oliver is still undecided as to whether violence or other unacceptable behaviors are directly related to forms of media – whether advertisements, TV, or video games. “I’ve had parents bring their kids to me [after violent incidents], thinking it is because of video games. Parents think it’s making their children more violent, but there is not much scientific evidence that this is true,” she said.

Scientists, too, have been at the heart of the controversy. Professor at the Department of Psychology of Iowa State University Craig Anderson concluded after extensive research on kids and video games in 2010, that “evidence strongly suggests that exposure to violent video games is a causal risk factor for increased aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect and for decreased empathy and prosocial behavior.”

Yet Associate Professor of Psychology at Texas A&M International University Christopher Ferguson refuted this point in 2010. Though the data Ferguson collected is similar to that of Anderson’s, he undermines the evidence in saying that the results are different in the controlled, laboratory environment in which the experiment was conducted and normal, day-to-day life.

And so, information present but conclusions varying, the scientific community is at a loss in giving a concrete answer to whether video games and other violent media result in violent behavior.

For Health Teacher Joy Marchese, though, there is an evident connection between the two and, furthermore, what media is teaching today is much more potent than what was seen years ago. Marchese explained this with a cross-generation anecdote: “Did I learn from Tom and Jerry that when you hit someone it’s funny? I don’t think I took that away but when I think of it now, it’s what it was teaching. However, you can’t compare Tom and Jerry to Grand Theft Auto. Look at how realistic these games are now; that’s what’s so scary.”

Visual Arts Teacher Erik Niemi agreed that a presence of causation in media and violence is most probably present in video games rather than film: “Film is essentially passive, you’re always watching it. Video games, you are part of it. I’m not a psychologist, but I guess that through acting through those roles you end up having stronger identification with these roles.”

The essential problem, it seems, is that society cannot move forward and face the problem for we cannot even acknowledge it. “People don’t want to admit that they’re influenced,” Marchese said.

Tarush Gupta (’15), a student who has had his fair share of exposure to horror movies, violent video games, and compelling advertisements, disagreed with this idea. People can admit that they are influenced, the problem lies in combating this influence: “I think I have the ability to block my subconscious, for example, when I watch TV and ads come up and I really want it, I can tell myself I don’t need it and I forget it after a while. Your mind feels like it wants everything, but after a while you can filter those wants into what you actually need,” he said.

The existence of media influence, whether it be in film, ads, or video games, whether it be convincing you to go to Thorpe Park, buy a new car, or simulate drive-by shootings, lies in a controversial area, but nonetheless is something to face: Why did teenagers in the U.S. take up archery by the hundreds after Jennifer Lawrence brought the “Hunger Games” Katniss Everdeen to the screen? Why did a Korean couple forget and inadvertently kill their firstborn while taking care of a virtual baby in a cyber cafe? Why did a 17-year-old brother have, and execute, the impulse of murdering his younger brother after watching serial-killer TV show “Dexter”?

“Whether or not it’s a correlation or a causation remains to be seen. But we need to think about it,” High School English Teacher Lindsey Fairweather said.

Why is it that children in Bhutan started practicing wrestling moves on one another after the introduction of television in their previously secluded community? The scientific answer is that what we see, what we read and what we experience teaches us what to do. No baby is born with the desire to chokeslam their older sister; we subconsciously process doing so as ok because we see it on TV.

And that is where many psychologists argue a gender divide is generated: Boys see men act violently on TV, girls see women take silently to themselves on TV – and then they emulate it.

“When we are growing up and learning to identify with one gender or the other, and we see these images on television or movies, we learn how to deal with our feelings and our emotions based on what we see on TV. So if I’m a little boy and I see something on TV I think, ‘Oh that’s how we react, that’s how boys should be,’” Oliver said.

And so boys will be boys, “For this reason I never see a boy crying, or talking about his feelings, or coping with his problems healthily. And that’s because that is what is expected from media and our society,” Oliver continued.

And girls will be girls, “I see girls retreating into themselves, not wanting to cause a fuss, and not wanting to talk about their problems,” Oliver finished.

What is it doing to us?

Times change, people change, and so, media adapts. The way it affects us has become more potent and more effective for the mindsets that have already been ingrained in us. Take models in a fashion magazine for example: “You always had pin-up [sized] models. But if you look at how those models have changed over time – there’s a huge difference. Not only with the use of Photoshop, but the sexualization of those images has gotten much more explicit, there’s less clothes,” Marchese said.

As we become used to seeing a certain norm in magazines, we somewhat become numb to it, and so the madness grows; if we aren’t enamored by skinny girls in advertisements, then we will like skinnier girls, “It went from average-sized women, to stick-thin women, to anomalies [created] using Photoshop that are anatomically impossible,” Marchese said.

The effect is a two-sided detriment: We are persuaded to purchase something out of self-pity and, as logically proceeds, our self-pity grows. Advertisements show us perfection. We see magnificent burgers, beautiful women, fix-all skin lotion – but these things really don’t exist. “People are looking for perfection, and [marketers] are using Photoshop, not even just with people, even with food,” Marchese said.

“But [the products] don’t exist. And therefore in people’s minds they keep seeing images of perfection, and so everyone wants perfection, and when you strive for perfection, you’re never happy, you never feel good about yourself. You cannot reach that point because it doesn’t exist,” Marchese explained.

After years of teaching media literacy in Health, Marchese finds even herself prone to such subconscious manipulation: “You give me a Vogue magazine and I start leafing through it, I may start to feel really crappy about myself. Even though I know these images have been Photoshopped, but still it’s one beautiful woman after the next, and you start to feel really insecure about yourself.”

This problem is prevalent amongst the High School student population, “Ads are encouraging me to buy something or try something, so that is focusing on my own view in the way ‘I really need that product’. That just affects me because it’s kind of urging me to buy something,” Abby Ball (’17) said.

Furthermore the influence on everyone is present in other forms than ads, such as TV shows. Ana Salitan-Alvarez (’16) concedes that, “Media definitely influences me because it makes me think about the way I dress, the way I act and how I should be. I think it influences everyone in the sense where you feel like you should be the same as the people in [TV] shows.”

The marketers have free reins to do anything, to create anything with imagery programs today – and they capitulate on that by appealing to what we cannot control: Our subconscious.

A similar phenomenon is happening in the film industry: With everyone now holding a camera, everything imaginable is coming to fruition. “Whereas it used to be something very difficult to do technically, everyone has the ability to make a film. And so it lets people tell stories that are important to them. But all the stories that are important aren’t always easy,” Niemi explained. Not only that, but not all the stories created and published, whether on the internet or in cinemas, convey themes that are monitored and acceptable for all audiences.

Regulation, today, is virtually impossible; perhaps with film, but which regulatory institution could ever take on the internet and its innumerable crannies? The solution seems not to be only in limiting exposure but in also preparing for exposure. That is why countries have regulatory agencies, like the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). And though the BBFC’s mission is just and protective amidst a daily onslaught of perverting media (one of their missions is to “protect  the public, and especially children, from content which might raise harm risks”), they can never hope to do enough. For though films are rated, and video games are too, who is monitoring the subliminal messages that daily advertisements send out? Since we can’t quantify the subconscious effect scientifically, can we really start regulating it?

Niemi believes that yes, we can regulate it, but times change and so policies should too: “If you had a film like Pulp Fiction come out in 1950s, it would have gotten an X rating. But that has changed. That is not necessarily the film industry, but also the regulatory industry and the government in choosing what you can or cannot show in a theater,” he said.

Fairweather noticed that film and TV regulation is not something homogeneous throughout Europe and the U.S., with the U.K. being more accepting of sex and its Atlantic neighbor being more accepting of violence. “The rating system over here seems to be more accepting of sex in film but not of violence. An R-rated film in the U.S. will be a 15 film here, without question and I think it’s easy to do that over here if its not incredibly violent,” she said.

However Fairweather, a mother, is happy that an entity such as the BBFC exists to limit what reaches and potentially affects her child.

That said, Marchese believes that to curb the corruption of media, a two-pronged offensive is required: “It would be nice to see depictions where men can learn it’s ok to be assertive and be ambitious and, at the same time, be kind, be compassionate, and be soft and caring; where women can be nurturing, but they can also be leaders. Where the two genders can meet in the middle.” Not only should we limit what is corrupting from reaching audiences, but we should also promote what can be educative in reaching audiences.

Colin Stokes, a TEDx speaker whose videos have reached hundreds of thousand of views online, promotes a message that can be summarized as so: Create more characters like Obi Wan Kenobi (Star Wars) and Glenda the Good Witch (Wizard of Oz), and popularize them.

For Oliver, the solution takes a similar path, but with a further-reaching medium: “I think we need to expose people to different types of people. I think diversity is always the key in that we always need to see people with a wide range of emotions – with a wide range of dealing with things – that are not just anger, not just violence.”

“And I think the more that we can see that wider range, the more kids will learn to express themselves. So that they have more than one particularly violent way of expressing themselves,” Oliver continued.

It might be redundant to praise education as the holy solution to all. But, in a controversial debate such as media in society, it seems that empowering each and every individual would allow us to prod many paths and find a solution that cohorts of scientists and psychologists have not found yet.

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