How to watch a violent movie with a teenager

A scene from the 2013 film 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation.'

A scene from ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation,’ one of the top-grossing movies of 2013.

It’s not news to anyone who lives in the U.S. that our movies are becoming more violent. And unless your child exists in an opaque, soundproof bubble, s/he will likely encounter violence in movies starting in early adolescence. Many kids enjoy being scared, and some even tend to be drawn toward gory, violent content in media. Others encounter it by accident, often in spite of parents’ efforts to prevent such exposure.

The good news is that media violence does not have a huge effect on behavior overall. Young people like the Columbine High School shooters or the Aurora movie theater shooter are outliers, extreme examples of media content affecting a person’s subsequent decisions and actions. The vast majority of young people who watch characters on screen shoot people and/or maim them will not enact such things themselves. Numerous external factors play a part in an individual’s capacity to imitate such behavior, including the level of violence in the home environment, the availability of weapons, and the person’s own psychological tendencies.

The bad news is that media violence does have some effect, and not just on outliers. One study, among others, demonstrated that exposure to a violent TV show caused children to become desensitized to aggressive behavior they later witnessed. In another study, children’s exposure to violent video games was associated with lower levels of empathy. Research on the ‘cultivation’ effect shows that people in general may perceive the world to be a scarier place than it is, due to exposure to media messages portraying it as such.

What can parents and other adults do to help a teenager evaluate media violence in a productive, critical way? Here are some conversation starters:

“How many people has this guy killed?” Encourage the teen to keep a body count, especially if the character doing a lot of killing is the hero of the story. Ask him/her where all the dead people are, as most movies tend to gloss over the consequences of what are essentially multiple homicides.

“That man’s family won’t ever seen him again.” When an innocent bystander is killed, it’s frequently depicted as no big deal in a shoot-’em-up movie. Encourage your teen to reflect on the fact that every body was a human being, with friends and a family. This may help counter the desensitization effect.

“If he’s killing so many people, why is he the good guy?” Hollywood movies tend to glamorize heroes and make light of their violent actions. Some heroes might kill for good reasons, such as saving otherwise doomed hostages. But many heroes kill for no good reason, and such deaths are often portrayed as necessary, inconsequential, or even humorous. Encouraging a teen to think about the hero’s character and decisions can start a good conversation about which actions are truly heroic, and which are unnecessary destruction.

The aim of all these conversations-starters is to prompt kids to think critically about what they’re seeing. People of all ages are less likely to have a purely affective response to media (as in, ‘wow, cool!’) if we engage cognitively with it.

Coming soon: An expert’s take on playing violent video games with your child.