Media Violence Leads to Real Violence

A few short decades ago, the most violent scenes we were exposed to in the media involved Wile E. Coyote and an anvil. The nightly news did not display graphic evidence of riots or murders or even war. Movies did not market themselves based on the amount of gunfire packed into two hours. Video games were little more than a bouncing ball controlled by a joystick. But, society has changed and, now, violence is everywhere. Children and adolescents are exposed to violent images everyday and the line between reality and fiction is blurred. Now, the consequences of such exposure are becoming evident and recent studies show neurological adaptations and desensitization that lead to aggression and violence in real life.

Adolescents spend a significant amount of time watching violent television programs and movies and playing violent video games. A recent neurological evaluation of adolescent brain function reported an association between violent media exposure and decreased brain activation in response to increasingly violent images and scenes. The adaptation was primarily seen in the fronto-parietal network, an area that has been associated with decreased control of aggressive behavior. Essentially, repeated exposure to violence blunts emotional responses to violence and decreases the association of consequences with aggression, leading to more aggressive attitudes and behaviors over time.

A similar study did report that the presence of innate aggressive personality traits or tendencies does moderate brain responses to media violence. Adolescents with diagnoses of aggressive behavior disorders with repeated exposure to media violence showed decreased brain activation in response to emotional stimuli compared to healthy controls with low violence exposure and compared to aggressive adolescents with low violence exposure. Still, another examination of adolescents showed that brain activation and emotional responses to violence were similar between healthy, non-aggressive adolescents with high exposure to media violence and adolescents diagnosed with aggressive behavior disorders.

Violence is everywhere. As a society, we are desensitized to viewing aggressive and brutal scenes every day. But, is it as simple as desensitization or does exposure to violence really change who we are? The findings of the neurological studies suggest that brain function is actually altered in response to violence and, as a result, individuals are less able to react emotionally to violence and control their own aggressive behavior. Our choices in entertainment are becoming self-fulfilling prophecies, of sorts, and the more violence we see, the more violent we are.


Kalnin AJ, Edwards CR, Wang Y, Kronenberger WG, Hummer TA, Mosier KM, Dunn DW, & Mathews VP (2011). The interacting role of media violence exposure and aggressive-disruptive behavior in adolescent brain activation during an emotional Stroop task. Psychiatry research, 192 (1), 12-9 PMID: 21376543

Kelly CR, Grinband J, & Hirsch J (2007). Repeated exposure to media violence is associated with diminished response in an inhibitory frontolimbic network. PloS one, 2 (12) PMID: 18060062

Mathews VP, Kronenberger WG, Wang Y, Lurito JT, Lowe MJ, & Dunn DW (2005). Media violence exposure and frontal lobe activation measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging in aggressive and nonaggressive adolescents. Journal of computer assisted tomography, 29 (3), 287-92 PMID: 15891492

Strenziok M, Krueger F, Deshpande G, Lenroot RK, van der Meer E, & Grafman J (2011). Fronto-parietal regulation of media violence exposure in adolescents: a multi-method study. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 6 (5), 537-47 PMID: 20934985

Image via Phase4Photography / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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