Fighting Effects of Media Violence with Education and Media Literacy


Because advancements in communications technology out-pace the adaptation of domestic and international legal frameworks aiming to respond to growing fears about the effects of mediated violence while respecting the rights of producers, society must look at micro-level educational measures, based on the transmission of strong moral guidelines, critical thinking skills and media literacy to enable future generations to evaluate media content and understand its dangers. Ultimately, this will lead to a more informed selection of media content by the audience which, in turn, will usher in a new pattern of media consumption. Producers and advertisers will have no choice but to follow. In a bottom-up manner, individuals will counteract the influence of media violence at a societal scale. As for the remaining mediated violence, justified or not, it will be put in perspective and its effect substantially diminished.

The following reflections will not attempt to prove the effect of violence in the media -this has become an established fact, for which the only matter debated is its extent-. The aim will be to focus research and analysis on the validity, challenges and potential results of tackling the issue of violent media content through education and media literacy.

When envisaging media literacy as being the key determinant to reducing negative media effects, one needs to consider the question from different angles. For instance, the manner in which it might be taught, its effectiveness, and its dangers or potential undesired effects. But before all, realize the importance of framing key definitions, and the clear identification of the goals of media literacy in education.

To ensure the clearest comprehension of this text, it is important to note the meaning intended when referring to media literacy, best described by the Center for Media Literacy as a “21st century approach to education… [which] provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy”.

The target of such educational enterprises is commonly reduced to children and teenagers because they are usually the most directly influenced by media. But an important fact to consider as well, is that today’s media landscape looks nothing like that of the 1970’s and 1980’s which today’s parents grew up in. So the parents and teachers have an equally pressing need to educate themselves, first in the practical and functional aspects of modern media, then to acquire the methodological tools to help the younger ones with their pursuit of sharp critical thinking and analytical skills needed in content decryption and creation. As expressed by the American Academy of Pediatrics in a 2001 publication about media violence, “there has been little time to assess the effects” of modern interactive media such as video games or the internet, but “early studies… indicate that effects of child-initiated virtual violence may be even more profound than those of passive media, such as television” (AAP 3). And so they urge their member pediatricians to “encourage parents, schools, and communities to educate children to be media literate as a means of protecting them against deleterious health effects of media exposure” (AAP 4). Common sense has it that they can only teach that which they already know.

Are there alternatives for fighting the negative effects of violence in the media? As seen, for example, with journalism and its many attempts to auto-regulate and professionalize, it often proves difficult to rely on the expected social responsibility of a heavily profit-driven industry to opt for the moral option which, more often than not, tends to be less profitable. And if there are positive outcomes to these attempts, they may take many years before they ever become common practice.  

As for the legal scene, it seems to be a boat much too large to steer swiftly through these traitorous waters. The speed at which media advances is far greater than that at which political consensus can be reached on media related issues. How effective can it be? Imagine reaching international consensus and drafting a legally binding text about peer-to-peer file sharing in 2022. How far behind do you imagine this issue to be in ten years?

The effectiveness of a top-down approach is far from being a satisfactory means of prevention. In fact, as explained by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the media’s parental guidance ratings are seldom understood and even overlooked by an overwhelming 90% of parents with respect to video games purchases (3).

The Simpsons pay a pop culture reference to th...

The Simpsons pay a pop culture reference to this film, as King Wrong (Homer Simpson) battles Bridezilla (Marge Simpson). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Adding a layer of complexity for the determining the adequacy of media content by a third-party is the fact that “media content generally, and television programming specifically, are much more complex than they appear on the surface. Multiple levels of meaning are often present, and the content itself is frequently ambiguous. Sophisticated content producers recognize that if they put many different or ambiguous meanings into their content, they will have a better chance of appealing to different audiences” (Baran and Davis 228). So who is to decide on the actual meaning the content will have with a given audience. For instance, if The Simpsons were taken at face value, many would categorize it as suitable for children. But if it were to be analyzed, and its puns, insinuations, social statements, sexual jokes and  many other double meanings identified, it would probably get the highest current rating (R).

Modern Active-Audience theories provide a theoretical context to this view of media use/effects, because as explained by Baran and Davis when defining the older Active theory of television viewing, it sees the audience as “actively and consciously working to understand television content” (201). Multiplied by the intended polysemy of content, this assumption perfectly justifies the need for media literacy education. In other words, if content has many different meanings, and if the audience is not a passive one, people need to be given the adequate tools to make sense of media content and control its influence. Because there can potentially be as many interpretations (therefore effects) as there are viewers, so attempting to study or prevent such effects in a unified and standardized fashion becomes nonsensical.

In the wake of this revolutionary shift from mere passive intake by an audience to a “networked public”, as suggested by the MacArthur Foundation and quoted in Baran and Davis’s Mass Communication Theory, where consumer and producer are fused into one super-user, it is important to define methods for teaching media literacy and to try and gauge their effectiveness (244). The following is an articulation of the basic fundamentals in elaborating these methods proposed by Renee Hobbs in her critical response to Potter’s The State of Media Literacy:

“To accomplish this [teaching media literacy], pedagogical practices must be emphatically student-centred and inquiry-oriented, helping students interrogate the process of making meaning through critical investigation using strategies of both close reading (also called deconstruction or decoding) and media production, where the practices of brainstorming, scriptwriting, and video or website production are enacted, not for the primary purpose of developing vocational or professional skills, but as a means to promote transfer of critical thinking skills from the classroom to the contexts of home, community, and culture. For these reasons, some media literacy educators emphasize the pedagogy of inquiry learning and reject mere knowledge transmission that focuses on media history, economics, and industry structure, common topics of the typical Mass Media and Society course”

Media literacy should be understood as more than just a shield against harmful, external content. In today’s hi-tech reality, media is no longer the elite’s bullhorn. It is an extension of one’s physical being that lets one express himself with far less inhibition than in a real-world context. It should be seen as a pleasurable tool of empowerment that needs to be taught, in order to consume and produce content responsibly. As expressed by Renee Hobbs, this mindset values the youth as competent decision-makers and inventive media creators (4). Educating the youth in this manner can avoid the children’s stigmatization as helpless victims -which they do not readily accept- and attract them in a more constructive and productive fashion to build a comprehensive understanding of the field.

But does this really work? If one believes in the harmful effects of media, one must, de facto, accept the potential effectiveness of mediated education of media literacy. Although it is difficult to assert the direct effects of media literacy programs, a study conducted by Erica Scharrer, in 2006, about the effects of such programs, suggests that there is evidence of enhanced critical thinking and higher ethical awareness when media content was analyzed by sixth graders after having been exposed to a media literacy program (14).

Naturally, much larger-scale and longer-term observation would be needed to fully assess the usefulness of such innovative techniques used for such recent media as the internet or high-definition video games (in comparison to the century-old radio and the decades of research done on it, for example).

Another element of consideration is the risk of adhering to the “early window” principle when teaching media literacy. Suggested by Baran and Davis, is the idea that “media have become a primary means by which most of us experience or learn about many aspects of the world around us” (211). This exacerbates the idea that media representations are a faithful portrayal of reality, when in fact; one of the important elements of media literacy is to actively work to discern reality from fiction in order to reduce the potential for identification and reproduction. This distinction is made by the children in Scharrer’s research as she explains: “This media literacy instruction appears to have triggered some thought about media content and its comparison to “the real world”” (14).

Yet another ambush in media literacy education is the “Boomerang effect”. The idea that “media literacy pedagogy… inadvertently increases, rather than decreases, desired outcomes… if videos used in the lesson prime emotional arousal” (Hobbs 2). Again, the mere identification of such risks may help in avoiding them.

In the long-term, increased media literacy should not be an excuse for loosened regulations and an absence of a legal framework to prevent abuses from media producers.

The opening statement of this paper calls for the transmission of strong moral guidelines. This facet of the fight against violence is undeniably a crucial one. But because it is not the place of research and analysis to unilaterally determine what are good or bad values, this aspect of education will be left at the discretion of parents who are expected to have their own set of values, which depend on culture, religion and other determining social variables.

The only thing that has become a certainty over the last century of mass communication studies is that there is hardly one right perspective or answer. In attempting to educate individual media users, the aim is to draft many more soldiers in this age-old fight to understand this force which is shaped by, as much as it shapes society. It is a long-term investment that promises to yield high returns because in sharpening today’s students, we are creating a future of responsible media professionals who will practice in a world where they will no longer be permitted to senselessly use violence in the manner that a cook uses salt to ‘spice up’ a dish, albeit having the intellectual honesty to accept human nature and the entertaining aspect of mediated violence. In teaching media literacy, it is also important to underline the fact that media can play a positive role in lives and that people are, more than ever, free to create whatever meaning they seek in the consumption and creation of content.

Works Cited

American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Public Education. “Media Violence.”

            Pediatrics. 19 Oct.2009. Web. 22 Apr. 2012.

Baran, Stanley J. and Dennis K. Davis. Mass Communication Theory. 6th edition. Cengage,

            2012. Print

Center for Media Literacy. “Media Literacy: A Definition and More.”

            Center for Media Literacy. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2012

Hobbs, Renee. “The State Of Media Literacy: A Response To Potter.” Journal Of

Broadcasting & Electronic Media 55.3 (2011): 419-430. Communication & Mass

Media Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2012
Scharrer, Erica. “I Noticed More Violence: ” The Effects Of A Media Literacy Program On
            Crirtical Attitudes Toward Media Violence. ” Journal Of Mass Media Ethics 21.1
            (2006): 69-86. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2012

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