Critically Engaging with Media Violence

While parents may find certain representations of violence wholly appropriate for young people, there is a wide continuum of content that exists online and in the media. Anything from a cartoon cat having an anvil comically dropped on his head to video images of real life injuries and deaths can be accessed online by children and youth.

Media and digital literacy are not going to stop superhero copycat play in six-year-olds on the playground. They are also unlikely to influence a teen’s choice of movie for Saturday-night viewing, or what types of games they want to play with their friends. But what media education can do is give young people the tools to respond thoughtfully and critically to media content. It can help kids to put media violence into perspective, to analyze what media violence means and how it relates to the real world.

A critical engagement with the media inspires young people to question how violence is portrayed in films or video games—and even to ask why it’s there in the first place. Is violence essential to the plot, is it factored in for thrills and excitement, or is it simply there because industry “conventional wisdom” insists that’s what players want? Does the violence have realistic consequences, or does it show people smashing through plate glass windows with barely a scratch? And is the psychological trauma of violence and injury shown, or does the story just proceed without skipping a beat? Violence used to be the territory of the “bad guy,” but there has been a major shift in the last few decades to violence as the hero’s prerogative. When do positive motives justify violent action?

A search for patterns in the portrayal of media violence helps young people to understand media entertainment for what it is—fiction. Crime plays a far greater role in movies than it does in our society. In Canada, it’s not unusual for police officers to go their entire careers without using their firearm except for training purposes [1]. Research has shown that frequent watchers of cop shows, thrillers and the nightly news may come to see the world as a meaner and scarier place than it really is. [2]

One of the primary lessons of media education is that media productions are not “windows on reality,” whatever their producers might like us to believe. Media products, even news programs and documentaries are deliberate constructions, the result of a series of choices. Kids need to understand the relationship between how many people watch a TV program (the ratings) and the choices producers make about the news lineup. Most people are familiar with the “If it bleeds it leads” notion, but what about natural disasters and crises where thousands of children can lose families and limbs in Sierra Leone one week, and are never heard of again? And what about the phenomenon of “compassion fatigue”: an inability to keep feeling what we would normally feel in the face of human tragedy?

Of course, violence is a time-honoured element in stories told through the ages about what it means to live in a society and relate to other people. Media education helps us examine today’s media versions of these stories, probe whether the presentation of violence is different than it’s been in the past, and ask who benefits from this endless menu of violence, and how?

It’s an eye opener for young people to realize that the main reason for the proliferation of media violence is money. Films chock-a-block with action and violence are easier to sell abroad because they “translate” with less difficulty and jump over cultural barriers. Comedy and serious drama require intelligent scripting and cultural reference points. People may laugh over different things in Moose Jaw and Dar-es-Salaam but violence and action are understood by all in a global market.

It’s also a revelation to young people when they realize that no one sees the same media production. How we respond to a film, a song, a video game or TV series is coloured by our own personal package of attitudes, values and experiences—including past exposure to media violence. This provides wonderful fodder for self-questioning and healthy discussion.

If kids are growing up in a media-saturated culture—and they are—media education can help them articulate their attitudes and feelings towards violence, in real life as well as on the screen. It can also teach young people that they have a voice and a role to play as active media consumers who can talk to the entertainment industry and present their opinions in public forums. The Internet has opened up important avenues for reaching producers and sharing views.



[1] Griffiths, Curt. Canadian Police Work: Second Edition. Toronto: Neilson, 2008.
[2] “Researchers rest their case: TV consumption predicts opinions about criminal justice system.” Purdue University, October 28 2009.