Offscreen violence:A female member of the 8-tray Houver Crips gang in Los Angeles
takes aim.© JIM TYNAN/ IMPACT VISUALS/PNI
A teenage boy has become an outcast at school: his classmates dislike and pick on him. One afternoon he sees a music video in which the protagonist, similarly ostracized, gets revenge on his tormentors by killing some, injuring others. Furthermore, the "hero" is celebrated. The troubled teenager instantly identifies with the violent star--and may act out a violent catharsis in his own life.
"Their grasp of the reality of what firearms can do extends only to the power it confers on them when they have that gun in their pocket," says instructor in pediatrics Michael Rich, M.D. '91, M.P.H. '97, describing the adolescent murderers whose schoolyard assaults have made headlines in recent years. "They have no concept of what happens on the other end of that bullet." Rich, a specialist in adolescent medicine, decries the "cartoon violence" of music videos, which he compares to the unreality of an animated cat being flattened by a steamroller and then instantly popping back into shape. "It's not connected with violence in the real world," he says. "And some of these kids are barely out of the cartoon-watching stage when they are carrying firearms."
Young people learn by imitation, and music videos provide much to imitate: about 75 percent of the 12- to 19-year-old target audience watches MTV, typically for more than six hours each week. Rich recently published a study in the journal Pediatrics of 518 music videos culled from four cable channels--MTV, VH-1, Black Entertainment Television, and Country Music Television. Specially trained college students analyzed the videos for violent content, and found it in 15 percent of the segments: a total of 462 stabbings, shootings, kickings, and punchings--or, on average, six violent acts per two- to three-minute video. Some smaller-scale studies have found violence in up to 57 percent of videos; Rich's work indicates that although only about one video in seven is violent, that subset can be very violent indeed: one Guns N' Roses offering contained 37 violent acts.
This was patterned violence. Males were three times as likely as females to be aggressors, and the vast majority of violent scenes were male-only. Blacks (who represent 12 percent of the U.S. population) were shown as aggressors in 25 percent of the incidents, and as victims of violence in 41 percent. White women were the primary targets in 36 incidents of violence, but a black woman was targeted only once. There were also differences among the TV channels: Country Music Television had less violence overall, and specifically less weaponry; rock channel MTV was the most violent outlet.
Rich brings a filmmaker's credentials to his research: before beginning medical school at age 33, he worked for 12 years in Los Angeles on documentary and feature films, including a stint as assistant director to Japanese master Akira Kurosawa on the film Kagemusha. To describe how the image track affects the viewer cognitively, while the music taps into the emotions, Rich cites the 1994 Guns N' Roses video Don't Cry, which shows brawls, gunplay, and a car crashing and bursting into flames, all accompanied by a seductive love ballad. "The music subverts your usual defenses, lets the violence come in under the radar," Rich says. "You are lulled by the beautiful love song--what you remember is the violence, but your emotional feel for it is warm and fuzzy."
Usually it is not the villains but the stars who are the aggressors. "This [music-video] experience presents violence as normative behavior, and quite possibly desirable behavior," Rich explains, "because you see it being done by the star musicians or actors--the heroes, the people you idolize."
Imitation of admired persons begins when young children mimic their parents; later they emulate peers. "As society gets more media saturated, television is becoming what some researchers call a 'super-peer'--an amalgam of all other peers, " says Rich. "The super-peer demonstrates the accepted way to be--how to be a teen, how to be a man, how to act in any situation. Parents often look at TV as a relatively benign electronic companion or baby-sitter for their children. However, while television producers are not trying to hurt people, their goals tend to be very different from those parents would want for their children."
The images we purvey to teenagers, Rich says, deserve thoughtful consideration in a society whose adolescent population suffers an estimated 357,000 violent crimes--including 3,500 murders--annually. These untimely ends occur at a life stage that is, ironically, "as healthy as the human body gets," says Rich, "but their risk behaviors get [teenagers] in trouble. One way to look at adolescent medicine is 'giving medical care to people who are healthy from the neck down.'"
~ Craig Lambert