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Violence in the Media

Teens will learn about how violence in song lyrics, video games and movies can negatively influence behavior.

When Emma Sleight returned home from school, she expected her day to be like any other: homework, chatting with friends on the phone, fixing dinner. Instead, her brother Tony seized her, bound her to a chair and proceeded to beat her. At one point he grabbed a knife and cut Emma's neck. The torture went on for four hours, and all the while Eminem droned in the background: "I strangled you to death then I choked you again ..."


In 2003, 19-year-old Josh Cooke of Oakton, Virginia, shot his mother and father multiple times with a shotgun similar to the weapon that Keanu Reeves' character used in the first Matrix film (he also owned a trench coat like the ones worn in the movie and hung a large Matrix poster in his room). A court-appointed psychiatrist said Cooke "harbored a bona fide belief that he was living in the virtual world of the Matrix." Others accused of murder in Ohio and California have also been linked to the movie, pleading insanity after saying they had been trapped in the movie's virtual world.


In 2009, 17-year-old Daniel Petric was convicted of aggravated murder and other charges after shooting his parents because they refused to let him play the violent video game Halo 3. Petric, who played the M-rated game 18 hours a day whenever he had the chance, plotted the murder for weeks, eventually taking a handgun from his father's lockbox. His mother was fatally wounded, while his father managed to survive the attack.


Entertainment. You look forward to it in the middle of a slow week. You think about it at school. It bookends your days, there when the sun rises and when you fall asleep. You talk about it with friends, family and even strangers. When others ask you about it, they're not just interested in small talk: it's your badge, your uniform, part of your identity. It's in your ears, your eyes and your mind. It's often chock-full of rage, aggression and brutality. And it can lead some to kill.

At the moment you might be thinking, "Whoa, whoa! I don't know anyone who's exploded into violence because of the movies he watches or the music he listens to. The examples you listed are extreme. You can't blame everything on media."

If that thought just crossed your mind, you're not alone:

"There's just no easy answer to this. If someone were to come to me with ironclad proof that video games caused gun violence, then, hey, I'd support a bill to get rid of video games. But as far as I can tell ... it falls into the area of conjecture."
— former Colorado House Majority Leader Doug Dean

"I don't know about all of you, but high school sucked. ... [B]ut when I sat down to my computer and whooped my brother's a-- at a little Half Life, it always made me feel better. I would even say that without these fantastic, violent games I would've probably been more prone to going out and shooting up the school, because I wouldn't have had any release at all ..."
— avid video game fan, Jake

"Let's not forget — the arts are a compelling solution to teen violence; they're certainly not the cause of it."
— former president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Michael Green

As you can see, many believe it's ridiculous to think that a completely normal person can be transformed into a homicidal maniac simply by watching a screen or popping on a pair of headphones. And they're right: Many factors contribute to violence. A bad home life, a lack of spiritual values, drug use and a justice system that acquits the guilty are all factors. But people often take the Goliath-sized step from saying that entertainment isn't the only factor in teen violence to saying that it isn't a factor at all. Are they right? Let's look at what the experts have to say!

Denying Gravity

"We'd have to be either extremely stubborn, in deep denial or lying to say that the violence in our games doesn't affect people," said Mike Gummelt, a programmer for Raven software (creators of Heretic, Hexen and Soldier of Fortune), after the Columbine shootings. Why? One of the basic principles of thought is that the more you're around something — like violence, real or simulated — the more you believe it to be real and normal. Sure, you may not go on an armed rampage because you've watched the latest thriller or listened to a gangsta rap album. But you've probably changed in ways you're not even aware of. Your temper. How you argue with others. And how you see the world. The subtle way in which violent entertainment works is a lot like obesity. No one goes to bed one night slim and wakes up the next morning a blimp. It's a candy bar here, an ice cream scoop there, a week without exercise, and the pounds pile on. Without a change, you soon can barely remember what life was like before. But violent media work even more subtly and change us more thoroughly.

One night as Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith treated a young gunshot wound victim in the emergency room, she was shocked when he said he was surprised the wound hurt. "I thought, boy, he's really stupid, anybody knows that if you get shot, it's going to hurt. But it dawned on me that what he sees on television is that when the superhero gets shot in the arm, he uses that arm to hold onto a truck going 85 miles an hour around a corner. He overcomes the driver and shoots a couple hundred people while he's at it."

Hopefully, you'll never be faced with the receiving end of a gun or tempted to use one on somebody else. But don't think that you can fill your mind with hack-'n'-slash games or gun-'em-down spy dramas and not be influenced. Psychologist Jeff McIntire puts it well when he says that doubting violent entertainment changes people "is like doubting the effects of gravity." A coalition of organizations ranging from the American Medical Association to the American Psychological Association said, "Its effects are measurable and long-lasting. Moreover, prolonged viewing of media violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life. ... The conclusion of the public health community, based on over 30 years of research, is that viewing entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values and behaviors.… " And Dr. Christine Woodman hits the nail on the head when she declares, "If a kid sees his idol shooting a gun or getting in fights or driving a car at breakneck speeds, those actions become more acceptable. That doesn't mean the child is going to go out and do it. But certainly that action is seen in a more favorable light."

Sometimes, though, the circumstances line up in just the right way so that a person moves from thinking to acting. The three examples in the beginning might be rare and extreme, but they happened. And similar incidents continue to crop up day after day. The risk of real violence exists and can't be ignored. "It is unlikely that a [single] movie or television show alone would [make someone act violently]. We have to realize that many times, these images are watched hundreds of thousands of times, over and over. That, combined with depression, being rejected, feeling angry, having access to a weapon and seeing images of people killing to deal with their problems, sets the stage."

Changes in attitude. Changes in perceptions. Changes in action. Exposure to violent entertainment causes all of these things, but there's one change we haven't talked about. That's the change between you and God.

Go On, Enjoy Yourself

Remember how we saw before that the more time you spend with a thing, the more real it seems to you? Well, not only that, but you also grow to like it more and more. That's what Jesus means when He says, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). Let's think about that for a second. You don't invest time and energy into something you don't value. And the more you value something, the more you become attached to it. The more you desire it. Do you think God, whose "eyes are too pure to look upon evil" (Habakkuk 1:13), enjoys it when His children regularly take pleasure in watching prerecorded drive-by shootings? Would Jesus, who wants us not even to look at a vile thing (Psalm 101:3), be glad that His followers delight in lyrics that advocate assaulting an ex-girlfriend? Consider what the writer of Psalm 119 focused his energy on.

"I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. ... The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold. ... If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction" (Psalm 119:11,72,92).

None of this is to try to give you some massive guilt trip or to convince you once and for all that God's a cosmic spoilsport, ready to squelch all your fun. On the contrary, "in [God's] presence is fullness of joy; at [his] right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Psalm 16:11, NKJV). Not only does He want us to enjoy ourselves, but He's completely committed to our delight. Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). He wants us to enjoy what's really pleasurable, unlike sin that only offers second-rate, temporary satisfaction.

Pastor John Piper put it like this: "I find in the Bible a divine command to be a pleasure-seeker — that is, to forsake the two-bit, low-yield, short-term, never-satisfying, person-destroying, God-belittling pleasures of the world, and to sell everything 'out of joy' (Matthew 13:44) in order to have the kingdom and thus 'enter into the joy of [our] Master' (Matthew 25:21,23)."

If God really does offer us the best in life (and the Bible says He does), then we're really looking out for our own interests when we do what He commands. If even good things can't possibly compare to the delight He offers, then sin — no matter how fun it might seem — means missing the greatest pleasure we could possibly have. It's not enough to realize there's a problem and want to change, although that's the start. You have to have a plan.

The Discernment Principle

Realizing that reveling in violent entertainment can lead to sin, some have decided to completely isolate themselves from mainstream media. "Out with the secular! In with the Christian!" they cry. But there are problems with this approach. It fails to recognize that what's labeled as "Christian" can sometimes have just as many problems as what's "secular." It hinders you from learning to discern between right and wrong, good and bad.

Jesus himself placed a high priority on discernment. When unfairly questioned about His religious qualifications, He responded, "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment" (John 7:24). In other words, don't say that a person or an issue or a song is good or bad just because it seems like it. Find out for sure. In another place, God says, "My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge" (Hosea 4:6). The Israelites of Hosea's time didn't know God's law well enough to obey it. Remember when it was cool to wear the "What Would Jesus Do?" bracelets? A pretty good thing in and of itself. Unfortunately, people didn't know enough Scripture to have any idea what He would have them do. The beginning of better media discernment is simple: Read your Bible.

Interestingly enough, some forget to turn on their minds when the cover opens. They skim through and think, "The Bible doesn't say anything about violent video games or television or music." Take actress Salma Hayek, for example. When questioned about the sex scenes in her movies, she responded, "I never found in the Bible where it says you cannot do movies where you kiss the guy and take your clothes off." Of course the Bible doesn't specifically mention movies because they weren't invented when God decided to reveal himself to mankind! But He did give us some timeless principles which apply to our entertainment choices. And while they don't mention anything about movies, they do have a lot to say about lust ("It is God's will that you should be sanctified; that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable …" 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4). And modesty, too ("Dress modestly with decency and propriety …" 1 Timothy 2:9).

Another step that might help is the development of your own biblically based entertainment standard. What entertainment is in-bounds for Christian consumption? What should we avoid altogether? How does one handle the gray areas? Can non-Christian messages be used to glorify God? And just what does it mean to be "free in Christ"? The best way to find answers is to open the Book often, and with an open heart. This list of references should provide a starting point:

  • The Greatest Treasure (Proverbs 8:1-11)

  • Where Can You Find What's Right? (Psalm 119:1-4; 2 Timothy 3:16-17)

  • What's God's Will for Your Life? (Ephesians 5:1-21)

  • An Awesome Workout (1 Timothy 4:7-10)

  • Sprint from Sin and Toward What's Good (2 Timothy 2:19-26)

  • How Can You Know What Good Looks Like? (Galatians 5:16-26)

  • The Bad, The Ugly and the Naturally Depraved (Romans 1:8—2:1)

  • Paul and Pagans (Acts 17:16-34)

  • Paul on Disputable Issues (1 Corinthians 8:1-11)

  • Paul on Liberty and License (Galatians 5:13-14)

  • A Prayer for Holiness (Psalm 19:7-14)

Whether you're setting an entertainment standard for yourself or finding out what the spiritual issues behind media choices are, check out:

When It's Tough

Every time you try to change an ingrained habit there comes a point when you hit a brick wall. You feel as though you're making great progress, like you've really begun a change, then smack! It all grinds to a halt. The change gets difficult. You miss your favorite CD, that hour-long slot in front of the tube on Tuesday nights and firing up your PC to blast zombified Nazis. You can't find any wholesome alternatives that even come close. You begin to wonder if you've made the best choice, if it might just be easier to go back to the way things were. ...

It's a predicament that's easy to understand. Here's something you've really enjoyed that you know you should give up. If you had to let go of something entirely unpleasant — like eating asphalt — you probably wouldn't find it all that difficult. The key to success isn't just gritting your teeth and suffering through it, but changing your thought processes, emotions and will. That's what Paul urges the Roman church to do as they "present [their] bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God" (Romans 12:1-2, NKJV). You see, in the end, sin never really gratifies. It kills (James 1:15). Of course, it rarely seems that way at the time. But giving in means that you'll miss out on the best — the real enjoyment that God has for you.

The Bible says, "Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance" (Isaiah 55:2, NKJV).

While it can be frustrating to not find a good replacement for your favorite kinds of entertainment, don't believe that the lack of a substitute means you can go back to old habits. Bob Smithouser comments, "That would be like a heart attack victim refusing to quit eating bacon simply because there's no low-fat alternative that tastes as good. Our spiritual health has to take priority over our artistic appetites."

When the going gets tough, remember you don't have to go it alone. "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1).

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this publication are from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® NIV Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. All Rights Reserved.


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