In December the violence involved semi-automatic weapons and a score of dead elementary school children.
There were also dead teachers, a dead principal and a dead school psychologist. All seven adults were women and my bet is that as we learn more about the psychodynamics of the disturbed young man who was the shooter, we will find out that the gender of the victims was not a coincidence, but part of his thought disturbance.
We all want to know why this thing happened and we would prefer that there be one single, clear reason. But as a clinical psychologist, I’m certain there were several contributing factors, because human beings rarely do anything for one simple reason. We are complex creatures, we humans.
Why did this happen? Part of the answer is that we live in a culture that encourages violence, and that culture is held up for worship on the altars of television screens and movie theaters each and every day. It’s in our lust for blood in boxing matches and our appreciation of helmet-cracking tackles in football and hockey.
It’s in movies from Rambo (I though V) to Brad Pitt’s Killing Them Softly. It’s on television via movie reruns and shows like “The Sopranos” and your favorite version of “CSI.” We are a culture that embraces violence.
And don’t forget our love of guns. ABC News recently reported that during the three-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend alone, more than 250,000 guns were sold in the United States.
During the next several months, you will hear the same question over and over in the news media: Does violence in the media increase violent behavior? For nearly 50 years, the American Psychological Association has issued a variety of reports answering that critical question with an emphatic “Yes!”
In psychological research, the viewing of large amounts of violence on television by young children has Stephen A. Ragusea, Psy.D. been correlated with increases in violent behavior into adulthood. Well, if TV viewing can impact our aggressive tendencies, what about the music we listen to?
One 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggested that listening to songs that contain violent lyrics results in aggressive thoughts and emotions. Some think that listening to powerful, violent and angry songs can provide a “venting” of these powerful feelings, but this research provides evidence that just the opposite is true.
Of course, we must also ask ourselves, “How much violence do we expose our children to?” A 2007 study found that “by the time the average U.S. child starts elementary school, he or she will have seen 8,000 murders and 100,000 acts of violence on TV.” And that doesn’t include exposure via music and movies.
Add into that mix the fact that a small percentage of our population suffers from various forms of severe mental illness and that we perpetually under fund treatment of psychological disorders. Make semi-automatic weapons available to that group and sooner or later, we will see an explosive incident such as that which occurred in Newtown, Conn. If we don’t do something to influence this course of events, we’ll see these incidents occur again and again.
Violence directly and negatively impacts our physical and mental health. Because violent content in movies, television and songs has so consistently been shown to increase violent behavior, these characteristics should be diminished in our entertainment products. Psychologists have been giving that research-based advice to American society for almost 50 years. Quite frankly, nobody seems to be listening.
We can do better. Each of us can decide to stop consuming these products. When enough people boycott media violence, producers will stop creating these violence-encouraging forms of “entertainment.”
We can do better and we’d better do that. CE
Stephen A. Ragusea, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in Key West, Fla., and on the medical staff of The Lower Keys Medical Center. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.