Today’s post isn’t so much about bullying as it is about the media that might be helping to create an atmosphere wherein bullying seems normal and acceptable. It’s also about an experience I recently had that left me shaken.

There is much debate about whether or not watching violence in movies and on television can develop a tendency in young people toward being violent. I believe adults should be able to watch what they choose, but why make graphic violence so prominent? Have we not enough imagination to fill in the blanks for ourselves? And with respect to young people, I abhor the marketing of violent material to those whose brains are still growing.

According to the American Psychological Association, decades of research confirm the relationship between viewing violent media and aggressive behavior. In an article called “Violence in the Media,” Psychologists L. Rowell Huesmann, Leonard Eron and others found that “children who watched many hours of violence on television when they were in elementary school tended to also show a higher level of aggressive behavior when they became teenagers. By observing these youngsters into adulthood, Drs. Huesmann and Eron found that the ones who’d watched a lot of TV violence when they were eight years old were more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for criminal acts as adults. Interestingly, being aggressive as a child did not predict watching more violent TV as a teenager, suggesting that TV watching may more often be a cause rather than a consequence of aggressive behavior.”

In a report in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, researcher Paul Boxer of Rutgers University, concluded, “there currently can be very little doubt that exposure to violence in the media has a consistent and substantial impact on aggressive behavior.”

Another report from the National Center for Children Exposed to Violence revealed the following statistics:

By age 18, a young person will have viewed 200,000 acts of violence on television.

81% of television viewing is unsupervised between the ages of 2 and 7.

Children between the ages of 2 and 17 spend an average of 19 hours and 41 minutes a week watching television.

In one year, the average American child will spend 900 hours in school and 1,023 watching television.

Television ALONE is responsible for 10% of youth violence.

The most recent statistic in that report is from 2000, long before the internet and increasingly violent video games became a daily part of the lives of our youth. If those two pastimes were included, I suspect those figures would be much higher.

When they were young, I told my children that their growing brains were like JELL-O® before it became firm. Anything they put into that gray matter would be there for life, stuck when the gel (their) brain) solidified (matured). So they should be careful about what they welcomed into their brain, particularly anything repugnant or dehumanizing.

There was also an expression we used at that time: GIGO. Garbage in. Garbage out. This expression seems to be in direct contradiction to “what goes in stays forever.” But I see the garbage as being the behavior that occurs as a result of the trash dumped into that immature brain.

I recently had an experience that confirmed for me that our parenting—and the research quoted above—was on the right track. I watched a violent on-line video that was so disturbing it colored the rest of my day. (I’m not going to describe it or provide a link, because I don’t want to be responsible for ruining anyone’s day or giving them nightmares.) But the video not only affected how I felt, it came close to affecting how I behaved. As I drove to a meeting that night, hours after I watched the video, my mood was still so black that I became angry at bicycle riders and at other drivers who I thought were going too slowly or driving in an inconsiderate manner. I wanted to smash into their bumpers or make a rude gesture or yell out my window. If anyone had bumped my car, I feared I’d tear into them in a completely uncharacteristic fashion.

I’m an even-tempered person who isn’t prone to outbursts or angry rants and this was not my normal persona. My mood for most of the day had been cheerful. Nothing nasty had happened to upset me: No rejections from agents or editors. No bad news from family. Only that video I’d watched. But it seemed to have produced such dark emotions in me that I felt the need to wash them out of my system in some manner, wanted to jettison them asap, even if it meant dumping them on strangers by snarling at them and wishing them ill. In hindsight, a good bout of exercise might have accomplished the same, but that wasn’t on the agenda.

I’m not a child or a teenager whose brain is still maturing. If my behavior can be affected so easily by viewing a disturbing scene, how much more must violence on screen affect a young brain? I took in garbage and I spewed it out in my emotions and, almost, in my behavior.

I grew up watching feuding cartoon characters and seeing the Three Stooges bop each other on the head and pop each other in the eye with no ill effects. I remember watching on-screen cowboys and soldiers in the heat of battle. But when my movie villains got shot and died, there wasn’t a drop of blood, or a bullet hole, or a gaping gut, or a bit of brain matter to be seen. Yeah, it wasn’t realistic, but it didn’t have to be. We got the message without seeing the realism. We still felt the horror and the loss. And we were likely more heartbroken at the death of Old Yeller than we would have been had we seen his head get blown off.

I know that, for me, watching a heart-warming story or listening to music that makes me want to dance, has a positive effect on my mood. So why am I surprised that the disturbing video affected me so deeply? Perhaps because I thought I was past the age where they could.

Actually, I’m relieved that I was so profoundly affected, because our entertainment media have been stretching the boundaries for years now. Like the frog in the hot water, we’ve been watching as on-screen violence gradually has become more explicit and seemingly more acceptable, and as society as a whole becomes increasingly more immune to it.

I feel sorry for today’s young people. EVERYTHING is available for their “viewing pleasure,” if not on television, for certain on the internet. Much of it is reality, not fiction. Nothing is left to the imagination and it worries me that we might be creating a generation that believes violent behavior is the norm, because they’ve seen it happen on the screen every day for their entire lives. It worries me that we might be contributing to further generations of bullies who think nothing of using intimidation and a fist to impart their message.

Perhaps it’s time to let the pendulum swing the other direction.

Let’s return to leaving something to the imagination.

Do you watch violent movies or television shows?

Have you ever had an experience with media that affected your mood or changed your behavior?

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