A major effect of media violence that is rarely talked about

When we hear ‘media violence’ and ‘youth’ in the same sentence, most of us tend to worry that young people will become violent because of what they see on a screen. But there is another effect of media violence that rarely gets the attention it deserves: the fear it cultivates in us, that the world is a much scarier place than it actually is.

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit - Season 14

Despite how the media make it seem, danger does not lurk around every corner.

All media messages are representations, and few of them reflect reality accurately. An especially dramatic example of the discrepancy between the two is related to kidnappings. If you watch enough television dramas, you see kidnappings left, right, and center. On programs like CSI and Law and Order, it seems that few children arrive home safely at the end of the day. News media, which are supposedly based in reality, dramatically over-report kidnappings and other crimes as a matter of course. Parenting magazines tend to report alarming figures such as, “every 40 seconds in the United States, a child becomes missing or is abducted.”

Contrast all this terror on the screen and the page with actual statistics about child abductions in the U.S. It’s true that thousands of children go missing every year, but the vast majority are taken by family members or acquaintances and are recovered quickly. According to the Department of Justice, only about 115 children and adolescents are abducted each year in ‘stereotypical kidnappings’ like those depicted on TV. This may seem like a lot, but the population of the U.S. under age 18 is about 74,300,000. That’s means there’s about a one-in-a-million chance that a child will be abducted CSI-style in a given year. The likelihood of it happening on any given day is smaller still, practically zero.

These statistics would be comforting if the media would only share them with us. Instead we’re barraged by stories and images of kidnapping, murder, and mayhem. Media researchers have known for decades that prolonged exposure to such media portrayals tend to make us believe that they depict the world accurately. It’s called ‘cultivation:’ heavy exposure to violence in media can cultivate a person’s belief that the rate of crime and violence in her neighborhood is higher than it actually is. In fact, crime in most U.S. cities is at a historic low. But the media tell us otherwise. The media make us more fearful than we should be.

So what does all this media-induced fear mean for parents and kids? Why should we care?

Fear is bad for mental health. Children’s perception of risk in their surroundings can be strongly affected by news media; one study found that children and teens who were heavy viewers of news were more worried that they might be abducted than light viewers were. The news is powerful enough, in fact, that coverage of a traumatic event can cause a viewer to experience more stress than she would witnessing the event first-hand. In a study of people who either directly witnessed the Boston Marathon bombing or watched heavy news coverage of the event, higher levels of acute stress were reported by the media users. Typical media coverage of a horrific event spins the same scary footage over and over, and can cultivate in our minds the idea that awful things are continuing to happen.

Fear is bad for physical health. In 1969, 48% of children age 5 – 14 usually walked or bicycled to school. In 2009, only 13% did (source). Today’s kids also play outside far less frequently than their parents did, and one survey of mothers revealed that 61% cited ‘lack of adult supervision and a fear of physical harm to their child’ as a primary reason for keeping their kids inside. Fear can also cause stress and anxiety which, left unchecked, can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes (source). And as any parent knows, many kids absorb their parents’ emotional states easily. A fearful, anxious parent can have a fearful, anxious child.

Fear can lead to more violence. Following a mass shooting that receives heavy media coverage, gun purchases often spike. More guns in homes allow for more gun-related accidents, and CDC figures demonstrate that guns are among the top ten causes of unintentional deaths of children age 1 – 14. Fear of crime in the world outside can also cause individuals to suspect neighbors and take unwarranted action against them, as George Zimmerman did when he shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. Last but not least, it’s well-known among media researchers that growing up in a violent, fear-inducing environment can make children more likely to act aggressively after seeing violence portrayed in media.

As parents, we can set examples for our children by not being scared by the overdose of violence in media. We can talk with them realistically about risk: what it makes sense to be cautious about, and what the media blow out of proportion. We can teach them that news reporters don’t tell us about the thousands of flights that land without a problem every day, and the tens of millions of U.S. kids who make it home safely.

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