Early Experiences With Violence Desensitize Young Adults to Media Violence
There is wide consensus that violent media have negative effects on young people. A study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence shows that violence in high-action movies leads to greater feelings of anxiety among young adults. However, young adults who are used to being exposed to violence - either in the media or in real-life - respond differently than young adults who have not been exposed to a lot of violence in their lives.
- Exposure to violent high-action movies increases young adults’ anxiety state (worry, tension, nervousness etc.).
- Both violent and non-violent high-action movies increase young adults’ blood pressure, which emphasizes the power of action in movies, regardless of violence.
- However, previous exposure to violence (in the media or in real-life) may desensitize young adults to media violence: those who are used to being exposed to violence, show less physical reactions in response to violent high-action movies.
- These findings can support social policy makers in the development of programs against exposure to violent media content.
What is the effect of media violence on young adult’s anxiety level, blood pressure and heart rate, and to what extent is this influenced by previous exposure to media and real-life violence?
209 students aged 18-22 from a mid-sized public university in the Southeastern of the United States (75% were women; mean age: 18 years old)
The participants were divided into two groups. The first group viewed five high-action violent movie clips (parts from different movies, such as Man on Fire, Precious, Saving Private Ryan) in which they saw intentional direct harm conflicted by one character upon others. The second group viewed five high-action but non-violent clips (from movies such as, Speed, Twister, Crash). Participant’s anxiety level (e.g., current worry, tension, nervousness) was measured before and after they watched the clips, and blood pressure and heart rate were measured before and during clip exposure. The young adults were asked about their previous exposure to violence - either in real-life or in the media - as well. It’s important to note that higher heart rate and blood pressure are seen as indicators of anxiety.
Facts and findings
- Young adults who watched the high-action and violent movie clips showed a bigger increase in anxiety than those who watched the high-action but non-violent movie clips.
- However, both types of clips increased young adults’ blood pressure and slowed their heart rate.
- An explanation for the overall decrease in heart rate is that the participants didn’t perceived the (violent) high-action movie clips as a threat and that they enjoyed viewing it.
- Prior exposure to violence - either in the media or in real-life - seemed to play an important role in young adult’s physical reactions during exposure to high-action (violent) movie clips:
- Those who had previously been exposed to violence in TV shows or movies (e.g., physical fighting, shooting or killing) showed a higher decrease in heart rates during exposure to both violent and non-violent action movie clips than those who had not previously been exposed to violence in the media.
- Those who had previously been exposed to violence in real-life (e.g., saw someone else get hit, punched or slapped) showed a lower increase in blood pressure as a result of watching the violent movie clips than those who had not previously been exposed to violence in their lives.
- This implies that previous exposure to violence (in the media or in real-life) may desensitize young adults to media violence.
- Remarkable fact: Girls showed a greater increase in anxiety level after watching the high-action movie clips compared to boys.
- Critical note: Because 75% of the participants were girls, the conclusions may not hold for all young adults.
- Critical note: This study does not allow for any conclusions about cause (e.g., prior exposure to violence) and effect (e.g., physical reactions during clip exposure). The results only show that prior exposure to violence is associated with less physical reactions (blood pressure, heart rate) during exposure to high-action (violent) movie clips.