Thursday, May 7, 2009

Television Dramas and the Making of a Shut-In Society

It has been argued that people's perception of danger in society is directly affected by the crime coverage on the nightly news, which far and away overstates the actual danger to any given individual or family. Stories on the news have increasingly led to a society where families attempt to shelter their members from the outside world, preventing any possible access to violence, including stopping children from going outside, or playing in parks. While I believe that these reports of the over representation of violence on the news are true, I believe it fails to address a major source of fear and possibly even crime.

Sociological studies have shown that violence in today's television drama's inures us to it while actually leading to increased violence. This is especially pronounced among people who "game" as they regularly commit acts of violence virtually, blurring the boundary between thoughts and actions of violence. Other more recent studies have demonstrated that teens who watch Sex in the City and related, heavily sexual, shows are much more likely to be sexually active and become pregnant at an early age outside of marriage. This is not surprising since behaviors are regularly copied in society as a whole when its most influential members practice them. This is true whether it be suicide, pregnancy, violence, drugs, etc. For more on this, see M. Gladwell's "The Tipping Point;" not a very good book overall, but it has some interesting and valuable parts.

And now to my point. Violence and underage pregnancy are effected by television dramas, and I believe that fear is as well. Rather than simply stories on the news, dramas are more creative, contain more suspense, and attempt to incite particular emotions. These emotions carry over into day-to-day life, leading people to distrust one another more and avoid contact with other people or places with which they are not familiar. Dramas are more effective than simple TV news because of the emotions and detail with which they cover murders, rapes, etc, leading people to become ever more creative in imagining a society that is much more violent than it is in reality.


  1. Bonjour, diggity-dawg. Good to see that you are merrily chugging along.

    I comment, however, because I take strong issue with this post. I see a lot of declaration without citation--sure, a blog is essentially an editorial, but I feel like you're straying very far into the dangerous realm of citing "common sense" instead of harder evidence, and treating it as widely agreed-upon fact.

    This is far and away the biggest problem I've had in my abortive efforts to write seriously, because even if I did have citations in mind (I usually didn't), the process of finding and linking would be too much effort for me to want to bother with.

    One quote I especially don't like is, "Sociological studies have shown that violence in today's television drama's inures us to it while actually leading to increased violence."

    I am sure that there are many, many studies that show a link between the two, but I would wager a lot of money that most or all of those studies have awful controlling mechanisms for their variables. I can't dispute that what you say is true, but my knowledge of popular media as they relate to human behavior makes me extremely wary of any scientist who would claim that they could dispute the null hypothesis that fiction depicting violence increases its incidence. (I would be much more willing to accept this, however, if we're only talking about the difference between no exposure and some exposure, but I would still want evidence.)

    Similarly, you claim that sensationalist news stories "have increasingly led to a society where families attempt to shelter their members from the outside world, preventing any possible access to violence, including stopping children from going outside, or playing in parks." I'm not saying this isn't true, but I don't have any particular reason to believe that it is true aside from your personal declaration.

    My least favorite, however, is this: "This is especially pronounced among people who "game" as they regularly commit acts of violence virtually, blurring the boundary between thoughts and actions of violence." I know that there are a few studies who proclaim this, and I also know that the ones I've seen are junk. I've heard about (but never read) studies that say this is completely untrue as well. I believe I may have heard about them in Everything Bad is Good For You--which I liked about as much as The Tipping Point, which was a lot; hopefully you will like Everything Bad better, even though its conclusions probably won't please you.

    Also, when you cite Gladwell, are you just talking about the chapter at the end with the kids committing suicide on the island? I don't think he said anything about pregnancy, violence or drugs (but I think there may be an interesting parallel for pregnancy in some school in Massachusetts not seen by Gladwell). I can't even remember what Gladwell's conclusion actually was about those suicides, but those were all based on other adolescents actually doing it, not what's portrayed in fiction.

    Anyway, sir, I'm sorry to come down so coarsely. But I had to say what I had to say. Good luck, honey-bunny. May your blog shine and continue to update relatively often.

  2. Hi Cantay. Thanks for reading and for commenting. Critical comments do nothing but for an argument to be strengthened. In regards to this one, I really could have spent more time looking up the sources, but, that said, I was not really in the mood to do that when I wrote this post. So, here are a few sources that would be valuable for the article.
    Another source is the book, "Last Child in the Woods."

    What these articles are saying is that people are impacted by the world in which we live. As our world becomes more digital, we will be impacted in ways we had not previously understood. The arguments presented in the post come from personal experience and observations on the change in human behavior. I initially started writing this post after I found myself more frightened of walking in the city alone after watching crime dramas than before. I knew of the impact that over-exposure to violence and over-reporting of violence through the news had had on people's perceptions of crime in their community, so I was curious that I felt the same response watching a crime drama. To prove this I will point to something simple and observable. Just like with drugs that require ever-increasing doses in order to stimulate, our games and other media have become progressively more violent as we become more used to it. I mean, people were terrified of King Kong and radio shows of aliens attacking. As people became used to special effects, we developed them more in order to obtain the same response from the audience. In other words, we became inured, we reacted by increasing exposure.

    While I distrust the psychology studies as much as you do, I also believe that even though they cannot be taken at face value, they do point to possible connections that should AT LEAST be considered. I have not read Everything Bad is Good for You, so I will at least try to read the synopsis (knowing how subjectivity works and being familiar with popular literature, however, I imagine I will find as much BS in there as you find in scientific studies).

    The three sources I listed up top deal with three potential issues relating to what I referred to as the shut-in society. In the case of the book, it talks about how perceptions of danger have played a significant role in the move from playing out of doors to indoors; even though it is safer today than in the past, people are more afraid (surveys show this, Google it). The article on pregnancy in teens discusses what I am sure is not a perfect study; however, it IS demonstratable through evidence like that presented in "The Tipping Point" (relating to the suicides) that people gravitate toward behavior they view as socially normal. Your point on those girls in Connecticut getting pregnant is well noted. For the article on soldier's training, it points toward the obvious: video games prepare soldiers well for combat in many ways. The army used to have a problem with low rates of weapon discharge by soldiers in previous wars. As they increasingly introduced VR training methods, rates of soldiers actually firing their weapon increased-I do not have time to look this up right now, I probably heard it on NPR, though). What these games do is psychologically prepare us to commit whatever action is required by the game. First person shooters do this by improving reaction time, coordination, and ability to shoot first think later. I personally have felt and observed more aggressive behavior after playing a violent game than before. So sure, we lack scientific studies, but we do know that games work for training for a reason. Besides, we use it as a RECRUITING TOOL! We are getting people to join the army because they actually get to kill! The point of this is that denying that everything we experience in our lives affects us psychologically is blind. When exposed to real-life violence, people do become inured (as is demonstratable in post-war places). I see how games are used, I see how killing is normalized in them, I know how people are afraid from watching real crime and I can observe that people's imaginations are sparked by TV crime. I am arguing that the difference between truth and fiction is more blurred than you argue because we have done whatever possible to emulate truth with fiction. I cannot remember where I heard this other point, but I remember a story about copy-cat crimes and people using what they learn from cop shows to commit crimes. You overestimate our ability to distinguish, even though we KNOW what is fact and fiction, fiction has often in history opened us up to what later became fact (see this in old fiction from a hundred years ago when they talked about fantastic ideas, see this in people watching out for Big Brother, we use fiction along with fact and the two are regularly mixed).

    Even though you dislike what I have written about the line between real and virtual violence, I believe we are foolish to think that we can be exposed to very realistic virtual death and not be at all affected or inured to it. The army uses games to train because it knows that you can prep people for situations by placing them in it virtually. Games, as we will see over time, are no different.