Barbara Osborn had finally had enough.
A journalist and media-literacy teacher, Osborn had seen plenty of on-screen violence in her time. But sitting in the darkness of a Los Angeles cineplex in the early 1990s, watching a movie from an up-and-coming filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino, Osborn knew she had reached her breaking point.
An editor at the Center for Media Literacy's Media & Values journal at the time, Osborn understood what writers and directors aim to accomplish when they insert violent scenes into movies.
But she found no humor in what she calls the "artsy, ironic violence" Tarantino is now infamous for.
When Osborn realized everyone else in the theater that day was guffawing at violent content she found appalling, she made a decision: no more going to movie theaters.
Osborn still adheres to that strategy today, which is one reason she missed out on the top two movies of the first weekend of 2013 at the domestic box office: "Texas Chainsaw 3D" and Tarantino's latest, "Django Unchained." Both films depict gory, gratuitous violence. The success of "Django" has extended beyond the box office: it was nominated last week for five Oscars, including best picture and best original screenplay.
What the success of these films says about America in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is a subject of debate, but there's little argument that it's becoming increasingly difficult to avoid depictions of on-screen violence.
In fact, over the holidays, ads for "Texas Chainsaw 3D" ran in heavy rotation during prime time on Disney-owned ESPN, especially during college bowl games.
The days when television programmers considered football games and evening sitcoms a safe zone are over. A Parents Television Council analysis found that on-screen violence is on the rise for every time slot of over-the-air prime-time programming. "TV violence has become a paradox of sorts," the study concluded. "Medical and social science have proven conclusively that children are adversely affected by exposure to it — yet millions of parents think nothing of letting their children watch … violent programs."
The prevailing belief among academics is that on-screen violence can negatively impact viewers — but it's virtually impossible to know in advance which viewers will be affected and what the impact will be. Austrian scholars Markus Appel and Susanne Jodbauer found that most studies that look at the impact of media violence have focused on aggressive thoughts and behavior, according to their 2011 article "The Effects of Media Violence."
"A consensus about the interpretation of the scientific evidence is shared by a majority of academic researchers," Appel and Jodbauer wrote. "This consensus has two parts: (a) Media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior among the audience, short-term and long-term. The magnitude of the effect depends on person, product and situation characteristics. (b) Media violence is not the only, and likely not the most important, factor contributing to aggressive thoughts, feelings and behavior."
As a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School and the director of residency training for child and adolescent psychiatry at two major Massachusetts hospitals, Eugene Beresin is well-versed in the academic literature regarding how media violence can adversely impact children and adolescents.
"There are over 3,000 studies that link violence in movies (and) television with an impact on kids and adolescents," Beresin said in a recent interview. "But I think it's unclear from the literature that violence on television or movies will have a detrimental impact on every child. … We don't know which kids are vulnerable."
Other media violence
At the same time, Beresin said that via his experience as a child psychiatrist, he has personally treated dozens of children who suffered acute mental trauma from seeing violent images on television screens.
However, the damage-inducing programming wasn't the kind of "media violence" that scientists typically study.
"Kids can remotely develop post-traumatic stress disorder from witnessing traumatic events on television through the news," he said. "I can tell you anecdotally that after 9/11, many children did not want to watch the local news.
"This is not confirmed scientific research, but I can tell you from a clinical standpoint having talked with many, many children and families, the local news is much scarier for children than many fictional movies. … For example, a 5-year-old that watches the twin towers fall over and over and over again for a week has no concept that it's not really continuing to happen over and over and over again."
When violence works
Could movies like "Passion of the Christ" and "Schindler's List" have successfully depicted emotionally charged historical events without including realistic depictions of violence?
For his part, Hollywood.com's Brian Salisbury believes there is an appropriate time and place for violence in movies.
"Violence can do a really good job of conveying what's at stake," Salisbury said. "If you don't have adequately established stakes, then your tension is gone."
Salisbury prefers to distinguish graphic violence ("someone gets shot and you see 10 buckets of blood come out") from gratuitous violence ("dealing with elevated quantity or wantonness, like seeing a lot of people getting shot in a small amount of time"). And on the occasions when a movie's violence reaches excessive levels, he lays the brunt of the blame with the Motion Picture Association of America, which doles out movie ratings.
"I feel like whether or not the violence is justified within a story (depends on) whether the thematic elements of that story (require) the use of violence," Salisbury said. "There are some movies that have recognized where the MPAA is getting lax, and are using that to their advantage to make something that is purely exploitative that plays to the baser crowd, the baser things that we want to see in movies. And that's unfortunate."
An adaptable approach
To protect children from media violence, Beresin encourages parents to adopt a customized approach based on factors such as a child's age and maturity.
"First of all, parents need to have different stances with different children at different ages. For example, parents need to know what young school-aged children — say, ages 5 to 13 — what they're actually doing. Parents need to actually monitor them. I don't think that an older adolescent needs to be or should be policed as much.
"... You have to get to know your child, and then do the best you can. There's no absolute formula for this, except trying to know your child, talk with your child and then tailor your limits, your prohibitions, your rules to the age — not just the chronological age, but the emotional and developmental age of your child."
Beresin also believes children will consume media more responsibly if they can be made to understand that wise media consumption will catalyze greater freedoms, and vice versa.
"If parents actually know that their kids are more responsible, they should give them more freedom," he said. "And if the kids are not so responsible, the parents should be much more reluctant to give them free rein for many things — including the use of media."
Solutions start at home
Osborn no longer works in media public policy, but she remains active in the teeming Southern California media landscape hosting the radio show "Deadline L.A.," which critiques the news media, and teaching the class "Research, Practice & Social Change" to USC doctoral students.
Twenty years ago, though, she penned a piece for Media & Values titled "Violence Formula: Analyzing TV, Video and Movies" in which she described the formulaic aspect of media violence and its consequences.
"Children model behavior they see in the media," she wrote in 1993. "If kids don't see the consequences of violence, it teaches them that violence doesn't cause serious harm. When heroes use violence it sends a message that violence is an appropriate way to respond to problems."
Two decades later, Osborn's violence analysis looms large in how she educates her own elementary-age daughter about media. For example, on Friday nights mother and daughter watch a DVD together and then talk about it.
"I don't think of myself as (an especially) vigilant mother, but I'm uncomfortable with violence, period," Osborn said. "With other topics, I'm reading her — she's 8, and there's an emerging interest in sex and boys and babies. And so as I see her trying more to make sense of that, I try to bring it up by allowing her to see 'tween stuff.'
"... But I don't think I'm ever going to get to the point where I purposely expose her to violence. Violence is never going to be a part of my parental repertoire."
Violent media's influence
Researchers began to study the possible effects of violence in the media with the introduction of television in the 1950s. Since then, the number of studies on the issue has exploded.
The Center on Media and Child Health website, operated by Children's Hospital Boston, lists 368 studies on television and movies and their relationship to bullying and violence in children. The site also provides 125 studies about the effects of video and computer games on bullying and violence in youth.
The articles focus on different age groups and genders. They also offer different results. A longitudinal study from last year evaluating 700 elementary school-age children found that those who witnessed violence, including television violence, were more likely to consider it "normal." Researchers concluded that this desensitization could mean these children were more likely to use aggression with others.
Another article, published in 2009, evaluated 800 teenagers on their preferences in video games, television and movies. Researchers found that those who preferred violence in the media they consumed were more likely to behave aggressively, suggesting, according to the abstract, "use of violent media may increase the risk of violent behaviors among teenagers."
Because of the long history of this branch of study, some researchers have reviewed the literature in order to examine all the evidence. John Murray of Kansas State University published a review in 2008 titled, "Media violence: The effects are both real and strong."
In his abstract, Murray asserts that "50 years of research on the effect of TV violence on children leads to the inescapable conclusion that viewing media violence is related to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behaviors."
Similar views have been published by a number of institutions, including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians. They conclude that exposure to violent media can result in desensitization, increased aggression and an exaggerated view of the amount of violence in the everyday world. — Laura Marostica, Deseret News