Toxic Culture

Popular CultureViolence Prevention In Our Schools

Through Community Mobilization

Schools can prevent bullying by helping students resist the influence of violence in entertainment. How teachers and parents can stimulate kids and teens awareness about violence in entertainment ? Why and how can children  wean themselves from the tube ?

by  Jacques Brodeur

Over the last quarter-century, violence in television programs, video games and other entertainment products has gradually polluted our children's cultural environment as effectively as some industries have poisoned our air, water and food. Of course, not all TV and other entertainment programs are toxic to children; many informative and even inspiring programs provide positive stimulation and help children and teens to understand the world. The majority, however, do not. As a result, parents and teachers need ways to protect children against mental manipulation and emotional desensitization. Fortunately, much can be done to reduce the impact of this type of pollution on young citizens. This article discusses the use of violence in media, the high cost of that use to young people, and some strategies to combat it.

Studies since the landmark 1977 LaMarsh Commission Report1 - where the analogy to environmental contamination was first drawn - routinely confirm that violent entertainment influences children. In 1995, University of Winnipeg researcher Wendy Josephson, author of Television Violence: A Review of the Effects on Children of Different Ages, found more than 650 studies linking real-life violence by children to violence that they have watched on TV.2 The American Academy of Pediatrics reported in 2000 that "violence in entertainment and aggressive behavior in children have a closer correlation than second-hand smoke and lung cancer."3 In a 2001 study, the Media Awareness Network found that "only 4% of violent programs have a strong anti-violence theme [and] only 13% of reality programs that depict violence present any alternatives to violence or show how it can be avoided."4 And University of Washington epidemiologist Brandon Centerwall estimates that TV violence could account for 50 percent of real-life violence.5

Violence in entertainment seems to have three kinds of influence on children, depending on their age, whether they watch with adults or peers, and how much they watch. Research suggests that children mimic TV violence and that some perceive it as approval for hitting, bullying and humiliating their peers. It also encourages between five and ten percent of victims to accept the treatment they suffer without seeking help. Finally, it reduces empathy in the witnesses, who then prefer ganging with the aggressor instead of helping the victim.6 With increasing exposure to violence in entertainment, children become mentally altered and physically inclined to commit, accept, or enjoy watching real-life violence.

Manipulating children

In recent years, children have been increasingly exposed to violence through toy manufacturers' television programs and by video games. In the early 1980s, the toy industry began to use violence as a marketing ingredient. In addition to advertising through commercials, companies such as Hasbro began producing their own TV programs and paid to have them broadcast on weekdays and Saturday mornings. In 1984, it was estimated that Hasbro's "GI Joe" included, on average, 84 acts of violence per hour and "Transformers" contained 81.7 This marketing strategy was so profitable that Hasbro reused it in 1989 with "Ninja Turtles," in 1993 with "Power Rangers," and in 1999 with "Pokemon." Their primary purpose was to persuade children to ask parents and Santa to give them Hasbro toys. Most of these programs, like many video games for children, include fantasies and stereotypes that support an aggressive culture of violence, sexism and war. Stereotypical "real" men are strong and insensitive, and solve conflicts by exterminating their opponents, while women are docile victims or decorative trophies incapable of solving problems. Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, explained at a 2002 World Health Organization conference:

Advertisers use many techniques to sell to youth. Mostly these involve manipulating their needs during the stages of their growth into adulthood. Some of the more common needs that advertisers take advantage of to sell products include youth needs for peer acceptance, love, safety, desire to feel powerful or independent, aspirations to be and to act older than they actually are, and the need to have an identity. Much of the child-targeted advertising is painstakingly researched and prepared, at times by some of the most talented and creative minds on the planet. Ad agencies retain people with doctorates in marketing, psychology and even child psychology for the purposes of marketing to youth. Advertisers are so successful at marketing to youth that they sometimes discuss it in terms of the battle over what they chillingly call "mind share." Some advertisers even openly discuss "owning" children's minds. ... In sum, corporations and their advertising agencies have succeeded in setting up their own authority structures to deliver commercial messages almost everywhere that children go.8

Other aspects of this entertainment-induced social engineering project have also come under scrutiny. Apart from the tendency of video games to arouse aggression, researchers note that these games provide little mental stimulation. Professor Ryuta Kawashima and his research team measured the brain activity of hundreds of teenagers while they played a Nintendo® game and compared the results with those of another group who did a math exercise and read aloud. The researchers concluded that the thought processes required in playing computer games are too simple to stimulate crucial areas of the brain, leading to underdevelopment and such behavioural problems as violence.9 In particular, the video game did not stimulate the brain's frontal lobe, an area that plays an important role in the repression of anti-social impulses and is associated with memory, learning and emotion. Researchers believe that a lack of stimulation in this area before the age of 20 prevents the neurons from thickening and connecting, thereby impairing the brain's ability to control such impulses as violence and aggression. According to Tonmoy Sharma of the Institute of Psychiatry in the UK, Kawashima's findings are supported by other studies: "Computer games do not lead to brain development because they require the repetition of simple actions and have more to do with developing quick reflexes than carrying out more mentally challenging activities."10

Growing public awareness of the dangers of media violence aimed at young people has put pressure on governments to regulate it. To try to prevent such intervention, Canadian broadcasters declared in 1994 that they would regulate the industry themselves. Five years after self-regulation was implemented, professors Jacques deGuise and Guy Paquette of Laval University noted not only that it had failed to reduce violence, but that violence carried by private broadcasters had increased by 432 percent.11 Two developments during this period helped to ease public concern about the growth of television violence. First, many broadcasters provided funding for media literacy programs, on the assumption that, by studying media in class, students would discover that TV violence is not "real" violence. While such programs seem progressive and useful, many media educators worry that they have become a smokescreen to allow broadcasters to project an ethical image while continuing to intoxicate children and teenagers. A second development intended to ease parental concern about violent programming was the V-Chip. Many parents work full-time and cannot always monitor what their children are watching. Devices such as V-Chips allow them to block reception of certain programs. While better than nothing, the V-Chip system depends on ratings that are made by the broadcasters themselves. As the amount of television violence has grown, the V-Chip has helped industry and government to shift responsibility for regulating TV violence onto parents. Those who believe that government regulation of media is an attack on freedom of expression tend not to see that manipulating children with sophisticated marketing strategies is closer to being a form of child abuse than a constitutional right.


1 The Report of the Ontario Royal Commission on Violence in the Communications Industry (LaMarsh Commission, 1977) brought forward a plethora of research on the potential harm to society of violence in the media. The prevalence of violence in the North American intellectual community is compared to chemical food additives and air or water pollutants such as lead, mercury and asbestos.

2 Wendy Josephson, "Television Violence: A Review of the Effects on Children of Different Ages," Department of Canadian Heritage, 1995, available free of charge from National Clearinghouse on Family Violence, Health Canada, (800) 267-1291.

3 Media Resource Team of American Association of Pediatrics, "Media Violence," Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 108:5 (2001), pp. 17-23; report online at time of publication at

4 Media Awareness Network, accessed online September 30, 2001, at (URL at time of publication

5 Brandon Centerwall, "Exposure to Television as a Risk Factor for Violence," American Journal of Epidemiology, 129:4 (1989), p. 645.

6 Fred Molitor, "The effect of Media Violence on Children's Toleration of Real-Life Aggression," Southampton Institute of Higher Education, UK, Presentation at the International Conference on Violence in the Media, New York City, October 3-4, 1994.

7 ICAVE, International Coalition Against Violent Entertainment, quoted in "Cessez-le-feu," Fides, 1987.

8 Gary Ruskin, at World Health Organization Conference on Health Marketing and Youth held April 2002 at Treviso, Italy; presentation online at time of publication at:

9 "Computer Games Can Stunt Kids' Brains," Daily Telegraph, August 20, 2001.

10 ibid

11 DeGuise, Jacques and Guy Paquette, Centre d'études sur les médias, Laval University, "Principaux indicateurs de la violence sur les réseaux de télévision au Canada," April 19, 2002, p. 35.