April 09, 1998
Harvard
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Music Videos Promote Adolescent Aggression

By William J. Cromie

Gazette Staff

Music videos may be hazardous to your health.

The largest sampling of music video content to date reveals a disturbing amount of violence, as well as unrealistic views of racial and sexual relationships, according to researchers at the Harvard Medical School.

"We did the first detailed analysis of interpersonal violence in the context of the powerful and well-documented association between media violence and real-life aggression," says Michael Rich, a pediatrician and former filmmaker. "Our findings raise concern for the effect of violent portrayals in music videos on adolescents' expectations about their own safety and the way they view people of another gender or race. Their approaches to interracial interactions and male-female relationships, and their strategies for conflict resolution are vulnerable to the effects of these portrayals."

Violence by teenagers, and even preteens, exploded into public consciousness recently as a result of shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss. As shocking as they are, such high-visibility incidents are just the tip of an iceberg that includes the murders of about 3,500 youths between 15 and 19 years old every year. More than 150,000 arrests of adolescents for violent crimes occur each year. Hundreds of studies have linked exposure to media violence to violent real-life behavior in adolescents.

 

A Dangerous World

Rich and his colleagues at Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital in Boston recorded afternoon and weekend broadcasts from the four most popular music video networks: Black Entertainment Television, Country Music Television, Music Television (MTV), and Video Hits-1. They then trained college students, aged 17 to 24 years, to analyze the videos for violence content.

Out of 518 videos examined, 76 (15 percent) showed acts of interpersonal violence. That percentage was surprising; estimates by others have ranged as high as 57 percent. But the number of videos containing interpersonal violence was not reassuring because of the amount and nature of the aggression.

Violent videos showed a mean of six acts of violence per 2-3-minute-long segment -- a total of 462 shootings, stabbings, punchings, and kickings in the 76 videos.

Males and females were victimized equally, "raising the perception that the world is a mean and dangerous place and that nobody is safe," Rich says. "That perception motivates people to protect themselves by carrying weapons, and to use those weapons to get others 'before they get me.' "

Males, often the stars of these videos, were more than three times as likely as females to be aggressors. That's bad, considering that adolescents often model themselves after popular music video stars, particularly physically attractive ones.

According to the study, reported in this month's Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, blacks were shown as aggressors in 25 percent of the incidents. They were victims in 41 percent of music video violence.

"Admittedly, a large amount of violence is committed by black males on black males," comments Rich, "but such numbers are an exaggeration given that blacks represent only 12 percent of the U.S. population."

White women comprised the largest group of music video victims. This finding indicates to the researchers that the videos may be perpetuating and reinforcing false stereotypes of aggressive black males and easily victimized white women.

"Multiple laboratory and field experiments have demonstrated that exposure to sexual violence in music videos and other media desensitizes male viewers to violence against women and heightens a sense of disempowerment among female viewers," notes the report. "These effects may have profound implications for the nature of adolescent male-female relationships and for both gender expectations and for conduct of those relationships."

 

Suspending Reality

Surveys conclude that music videos are watched by a majority of teenagers. Take the MTV network, for example. "Designed for and aimed at teenagers between 12 and 19 years old, MTV is watched by 73 percent of boys and 78 percent of girls in this age group for an average of 6.6 and 6.2 hours each week," the report states.

"The combination of music and images is more potent than either alone," Rich points out. "Music lulls and disinhibits, making it easy to suspend reality. The barrage of brief scenes allows images of violence and sex to be mixed in far more insidious ways than in a narrative drama," such as the "soaps" or sitcoms.

Rich, who spent 12 years as a filmmaker before going to the Medical School, insists it is the nature of music video violence, not violence per se, that leads to problems. "Violence is a fact of life and a staple of drama," he says. "What changes its quality is how it is presented and resolved."

Rich cites Japan as an example. Despite similar levels of media violence as the United States, Japan enjoys a far lower level of real-life violence. Rich and his colleagues explain this by noting that in Japan violence is perpetrated by bad guys and is punished, while in the United States it is done by heroes and is justified and celebrated. The Japanese show the suffering and loss that follows violent acts; Americans do not.

"The more realistic Japanese picture of violence as hurtful behavior with significant negative outcomes for aggressors and victims is less likely to produce imitators among its viewers than the repercussion-free violence typical of American entertainment," the researchers write.

"Our society has come to view violence as titillation; each violent movie or video strives to outdo what came before it," adds Rich. "No one seems aware of the consequences for young minds that are trying to learn how to get along in the world."

Rich draws the example of a teenager who is disliked and picked on by schoolmates. The boy sees a film where an ostracized hero gets revenge by killing or harming his tormentors and the adolescent immediately identifies with the violent actor.

"Young minds aren't always capable of separating fiction and reality," Rich comments. "They may see violence as an easy way to settle conflict or relieve stress. The media doesn't show the consequences, and they don't think about them."

What To Do?

Rich, who is also an instructor in public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health, has some ideas about how to break, or at least weaken, the link between media and real-life aggression. National censure or prohibition is not an approach he favors. "Such legislation doesn't work in a free society," he says. Nor does he favor technological solutions, such as the V chip, because he believes kids will find ways around them.

Rich prefers what he calls "inoculation." "Just as antibiotics may control an infection, there are 'antibiotics' we can administer for media violence," he notes.

Rich believes this inoculation can be done by giving the other side of the story. Before a violent video or film, visuals could be added to show how the upcoming violence is faked, a strategy to divorce fantasy from reality. The pain, suffering, and other consequences of violent actions could be portrayed with as much potency as violence.

"One group in California has started to do this, and preliminary results are promising," Rich says.

"We can scream our heads off about how dangerous this stuff is, and it will fall on deaf ears," Rich continues. "Things will only start to happen when Nielsen ratings drop and kids don't see the commercials on these programs. Dollars are the only thing that the entertainment industry listens to. We do have a choice between showing thoughtless violence and entertainment that moves us and guides us to think about how our lives and those of our children can be safer and better.

"We have to move from just saying the infection of violence is terrible to developing the antibiotics that will cure it."

 


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College

Music Videos Promote Adolescent Aggression
April 09, 1998
Harvard
University Gazette

 

Full contents
Notes
Newsmakers
Police Log
Gazette Home
Gazette Archives
News Office
Feedback

SEARCH THE GAZETTE

 

Music Videos Promote Adolescent Aggression

By William J. Cromie

Gazette Staff

Music videos may be hazardous to your health.

The largest sampling of music video content to date reveals a disturbing amount of violence, as well as unrealistic views of racial and sexual relationships, according to researchers at the Harvard Medical School.

"We did the first detailed analysis of interpersonal violence in the context of the powerful and well-documented association between media violence and real-life aggression," says Michael Rich, a pediatrician and former filmmaker. "Our findings raise concern for the effect of violent portrayals in music videos on adolescents' expectations about their own safety and the way they view people of another gender or race. Their approaches to interracial interactions and male-female relationships, and their strategies for conflict resolution are vulnerable to the effects of these portrayals."

Violence by teenagers, and even preteens, exploded into public consciousness recently as a result of shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss. As shocking as they are, such high-visibility incidents are just the tip of an iceberg that includes the murders of about 3,500 youths between 15 and 19 years old every year. More than 150,000 arrests of adolescents for violent crimes occur each year. Hundreds of studies have linked exposure to media violence to violent real-life behavior in adolescents.

 

A Dangerous World

Rich and his colleagues at Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital in Boston recorded afternoon and weekend broadcasts from the four most popular music video networks: Black Entertainment Television, Country Music Television, Music Television (MTV), and Video Hits-1. They then trained college students, aged 17 to 24 years, to analyze the videos for violence content.

Out of 518 videos examined, 76 (15 percent) showed acts of interpersonal violence. That percentage was surprising; estimates by others have ranged as high as 57 percent. But the number of videos containing interpersonal violence was not reassuring because of the amount and nature of the aggression.

Violent videos showed a mean of six acts of violence per 2-3-minute-long segment -- a total of 462 shootings, stabbings, punchings, and kickings in the 76 videos.

Males and females were victimized equally, "raising the perception that the world is a mean and dangerous place and that nobody is safe," Rich says. "That perception motivates people to protect themselves by carrying weapons, and to use those weapons to get others 'before they get me.' "

Males, often the stars of these videos, were more than three times as likely as females to be aggressors. That's bad, considering that adolescents often model themselves after popular music video stars, particularly physically attractive ones.

According to the study, reported in this month's Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, blacks were shown as aggressors in 25 percent of the incidents. They were victims in 41 percent of music video violence.

"Admittedly, a large amount of violence is committed by black males on black males," comments Rich, "but such numbers are an exaggeration given that blacks represent only 12 percent of the U.S. population."

White women comprised the largest group of music video victims. This finding indicates to the researchers that the videos may be perpetuating and reinforcing false stereotypes of aggressive black males and easily victimized white women.

"Multiple laboratory and field experiments have demonstrated that exposure to sexual violence in music videos and other media desensitizes male viewers to violence against women and heightens a sense of disempowerment among female viewers," notes the report. "These effects may have profound implications for the nature of adolescent male-female relationships and for both gender expectations and for conduct of those relationships."

 

Suspending Reality

Surveys conclude that music videos are watched by a majority of teenagers. Take the MTV network, for example. "Designed for and aimed at teenagers between 12 and 19 years old, MTV is watched by 73 percent of boys and 78 percent of girls in this age group for an average of 6.6 and 6.2 hours each week," the report states.

"The combination of music and images is more potent than either alone," Rich points out. "Music lulls and disinhibits, making it easy to suspend reality. The barrage of brief scenes allows images of violence and sex to be mixed in far more insidious ways than in a narrative drama," such as the "soaps" or sitcoms.

Rich, who spent 12 years as a filmmaker before going to the Medical School, insists it is the nature of music video violence, not violence per se, that leads to problems. "Violence is a fact of life and a staple of drama," he says. "What changes its quality is how it is presented and resolved."

Rich cites Japan as an example. Despite similar levels of media violence as the United States, Japan enjoys a far lower level of real-life violence. Rich and his colleagues explain this by noting that in Japan violence is perpetrated by bad guys and is punished, while in the United States it is done by heroes and is justified and celebrated. The Japanese show the suffering and loss that follows violent acts; Americans do not.

"The more realistic Japanese picture of violence as hurtful behavior with significant negative outcomes for aggressors and victims is less likely to produce imitators among its viewers than the repercussion-free violence typical of American entertainment," the researchers write.

"Our society has come to view violence as titillation; each violent movie or video strives to outdo what came before it," adds Rich. "No one seems aware of the consequences for young minds that are trying to learn how to get along in the world."

Rich draws the example of a teenager who is disliked and picked on by schoolmates. The boy sees a film where an ostracized hero gets revenge by killing or harming his tormentors and the adolescent immediately identifies with the violent actor.

"Young minds aren't always capable of separating fiction and reality," Rich comments. "They may see violence as an easy way to settle conflict or relieve stress. The media doesn't show the consequences, and they don't think about them."

What To Do?

Rich, who is also an instructor in public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health, has some ideas about how to break, or at least weaken, the link between media and real-life aggression. National censure or prohibition is not an approach he favors. "Such legislation doesn't work in a free society," he says. Nor does he favor technological solutions, such as the V chip, because he believes kids will find ways around them.

Rich prefers what he calls "inoculation." "Just as antibiotics may control an infection, there are 'antibiotics' we can administer for media violence," he notes.

Rich believes this inoculation can be done by giving the other side of the story. Before a violent video or film, visuals could be added to show how the upcoming violence is faked, a strategy to divorce fantasy from reality. The pain, suffering, and other consequences of violent actions could be portrayed with as much potency as violence.

"One group in California has started to do this, and preliminary results are promising," Rich says.

"We can scream our heads off about how dangerous this stuff is, and it will fall on deaf ears," Rich continues. "Things will only start to happen when Nielsen ratings drop and kids don't see the commercials on these programs. Dollars are the only thing that the entertainment industry listens to. We do have a choice between showing thoughtless violence and entertainment that moves us and guides us to think about how our lives and those of our children can be safer and better.

"We have to move from just saying the infection of violence is terrible to developing the antibiotics that will cure it."

 


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College