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 education and co-viewing

Media literacy can 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.

Media education doesn’t just happen in the classroom. Parents’ co-viewing with kids – whether that’s actually watching or playing media together, or talking to them about the media they enjoy – is another effective way of critically engaging with violent media.[1] As Dr. John Muller put it, “Co-viewing these movies as a family can be an effective antidote to increased violence…[but] in passively co-viewing violent media, there is an implicit message that parents approve of what their children are seeing, and previous studies show a corresponding increase in aggressive behavior. By taking an active role in their children's media consumption by co-viewing and actively mediating, parents help their children develop critical thinking and internally regulated values."[2]

With young kids, the emphasis may be on dealing with frightening content in media. Helping them understand how even news media can make violent events seem more common and frightening than they actually are by presenting them with little context can help kids process media-inspired fear. Teach kids how elements that can make media more frightening, such as music and camera angles, are all chosen for that purpose by media makers.3 It can also help to remind kids of the things you do to care for them and keep them safe.[3]

With older kids and teens, critical engagement with media inspires them to question how violence is portrayed—and even to ask why it’s there in the first place. We can use the key concepts of media and digital literacy as a guide to prompt discussion:

Media are constructions

A search for patterns in the portrayal of media violence helps young people to understand that media productions are not “windows on reality,” whatever their producers might like us to believe. Understanding this key concept is an essential part of reducing the impact of media effects.[4] 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? What about the phenomenon of “compassion fatigue”: an inability to keep feeling what we would normally feel in the face of human tragedy?

Media have social and political implications

Is the psychological trauma of violence and injury shown, or does the story just proceed without skipping a beat? Who is portrayed as victims of violence and who is shown as perpetrators? What messages are communicated about the use of force by police, about fear and crime? When is violence presented as an acceptable solution to conflicts? How often do scriptwriters have characters resort to violence because it’s easier than having them solve problems in other ways? 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?

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. As well, even media texts that contain violence can have anti-violent implications, depending on how it is presented and received, as movies such as Schindler’s List and Unforgiven demonstrate.[5] Discussing the morality of what we see and do in media is another way of critically examining our views about violence.[6]

Media have commercial considerations

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. 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?

Audiences negotiate meaning

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.

A good example of this is the evolution of the Marvel character the Punisher, who originated as a foil to Spider-Man – a murderous vigilante intended to highlight the value Spider-Man’s less violent crime-fighting methods – then evolved into an anti-hero in the 1980s and was taken up by police and military as an icon of power and impunity.[7]

This can provide wonderful fodder for self-questioning and healthy discussion. Our views on other issues also interact with how we respond to media violence: for example, boys with stereotyped views about gender are more likely to be violent towards both girls and other boys.[8]

Each medium has a unique aesthetic form

How do the features of different media and genres – from the laugh track that accompanies abusive “zingers” on comedies[9] to the fundamentally othered antagonists of zombie movies[10] – influence whether we approve or disapprove when characters commit violence? How much were the media makers influenced by the assumptions about the medium or genre?

Digital media are networked

The ability to publish anything online means that many of the old restrictions on media violence no longer exist. This can be a positive thing – for example, social media shone a light on police violence that had been underreported by news media[11] – but it also can lead people to be radicalized to violence or to commit violent acts in order to broadcast them on social media.[12] 

Digital media are shareable and persistent

The fact that it’s easy to make and share copies of anything online makes it very difficult for platforms to totally delete violent content. People who watch violent videos may re-upload them if the original is deleted and the original poster can even create a new account to do so. Even if one platform manages to completely get rid of a particular image or video, it can be housed on other platforms – and the networked nature of digital media means it’s never more than a click away.

Digital media have unexpected audiences

In the same way, when we’re online we can never be entirely sure where a link will lead us. As a result, we now have to worry not just about what our kids will see on purpose but what might see by accident. Search engines can deliver much more extreme content than we’re looking for and recommendation algorithms like TikTok’s For You page and YouTube’s Up Next bar can serve up inappropriate content. This is why it’s essential to curate young children’s online media, to tell older children to tell you right away if they see something disturbing and to teach them how to limit their searches to find just what they’re looking for. You can also reduce the risks of your kids unintentionally seeing violent content by turning off Autoplay on platforms like YouTube and choosing the age-segregated versions of video sites like YouTube and Netflix – though these aren’t substitutes for being actively engaged in your kids’ media lives.

Interactions through digital media can have a real impact

Because it’s networked and interactive, digital media can be not just a way of sharing and consuming media violence, but of committing relational violence as well. Almost half of young Canadians report having experienced cyberbullying in the past four weeks[13] and a third of those who experience it suffer symptoms of depression.[14]

At the same time, though, digital media allow us to make a positive impact in ways that were difficult or impossible with traditional media. We can choose to intervene when we witness cyberbullying and talk back to media producers and regulators when we see violent content we object to.

Digital media experiences are shaped by the tools we use

Some of the features of digital media platforms can make us more likely to engage in relational aggression. Without being able to see people’s facial expressions and body language or hear their tone of voice, it can be harder to feel empathy towards others[15] and easier to initiate a conflict.[16]

In the same way that media creators aren’t always conscious of the choices they make or the implications of those choices, the people who make the online tools we use also make choices that influence how we use them. If they are not members of groups that are often subject to online bullying or harassment, for example, or don’t have personal experience with it, they may not place a high priority on preventing or responding to it. Not only does this make it more likely for users to engage in cyberbullying or make it harder for targets to deal with it: a platform’s affordances (what you can do with it) and its defaults (what you’re expected to do with it) send a powerful message that can influence whether or not relational violence is seen as acceptable. The same algorithms that serve up or recommend violent content can also selectively show us news that reinforces inaccurate views about violence and crime. Features like upvotes, likes or retweets can encourage users to engage in relational aggression as a way of getting attention and engagement for what they post,[17] while interactive media influence how we use them both through what is possible and what is expected. For example, can players in a video game only solve their problems with violence, or do they have “more verbs than simply shoot”?[18]

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] Collier, K. M., Coyne, S. M., Rasmussen, E. E., Hawkins, A. J., Padilla-Walker, L. M., Erickson, S. E., & Memmott-Elison, M. K. (2016). Does parental mediation of media influence child outcomes? A meta-analysis on media time, aggression, substance use, and sexual behavior. Developmental psychology, 52(5), 798.

[2] American Academy of Pediatrics. "'Good guys' in superhero films more violent than villains." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 November 2018. <>.

3 Gotz., M., & Lemish D. (2019) What scared you as a child? Center for Scholars & Storytellers. Retrieved from

[3] McGinn, D. (2017) “How to talk to kids about violence in the news.” The Globe and Mail.

[4] Ward, L. M., & Carlson, C. (2013). Modeling meanness: Associations between reality TV consumption, perceived realism, and adolescents' social aggression. Media Psychology, 16(4), 371-389.

[5] Strasburger, V. C., & Wilson, B. J. (2014). Television violence: Sixty years of research. Media violence and children: A complete guide for parents and professionals, 135-177.

[6] Bowman, N. D., Ahn, S. J., & Mercer Kollar, L. M. (2020). The paradox of interactive media: The potential for video games and virtual reality as tools for violence prevention. Front. Commun. 5: 580965. doi: 10.3389/fcomm.

[7] Rieman, A. (2020) Why Cops and Soldiers Love the Punisher.” Vulture. Retrieved from

[8] Miller E, Culyba AJ, Paglisotti T, Massof M, Gao Q, Ports KA, Kato-Wallace J, Pulerwitz J, Espelage DL, Abebe KZ, Jones KA. Male Adolescents' Gender Attitudes and Violence: Implications for Youth Violence Prevention. Am J Prev Med. 2020 Mar;58(3):396-406. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2019.10.009. Epub 2019 Dec 27. PMID: 31889621; PMCID: PMC7039734.

[9] Russo, C. E. (2014). The insidious sitcom: features of tween TV that increase tolerance of verbal insults (Doctoral dissertation).

[10] Linnemann, T., Wall, T., & Green, E. (2014). The walking dead and killing state: Zombification and the normalization of police violence. Theoretical Criminology, 18(4), 506-527.

[11] Freelon, D., McIlwain, C., & Clark, M. (2018). Quantifying the power and consequences of social media protest. New Media & Society, 20(3), 990-1011.

[12] Abdelmahmoud, E. (2021) The Pro-Trump Mob Was Doing It For The ‘Gram. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from

[13] Craig, W., Johnson, M., & Li J. (2015) Young Canadians’ Experiences with Online Bullying. MediaSmarts. Retrieved from 

[14] Kessel Schneider, Shari, Lydia O’Donnell, Ann Stueve, and Robert W. S. Coulter “Cyberbullying, School Bullying, and Psychological Distress: A Regional Census of High School Students,” American Journal of Public Health (January 2012) 102:1, 171-177.  

[15] Laubert, C., Parlamis, J. Are You Angry (Happy, Sad) or Aren’t You? Emotion Detection Difficulty in Email Negotiation. Group Decis Negot 28, 377–413 (2019).

[16] Voggeser, B. J., Singh, R. K., & Göritz, A. S. (2018). Self-control in online discussions: Disinhibited online behavior as a failure to recognize social cues. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 2372.

[17] Christin, A., & Lewis, R. (2021). The Drama of Metrics: Status, Spectacle, and Resistance Among YouTube Drama Creators. Social Media+ Society, 7(1), 2056305121999660.

[18] Hart, D. Quoted in Maher, J. System Shock. (2021) The Digital Antiquarian. Retrieved from