Educating Students to be Critical of Violent Media

Media literacy as a tool to promote peaceful classrooms

At the beginning of the 21st century, about 8% of students reported being bullied. Currently it is not uncommon for 25% of students to report being bullied, and as many as 50% of students are cyber-bullied.

It is critically important to address school violence for many reasons. First, bullying can result in a lifetime of emotional scars. Second, violent schools are low-performing schools. And perhaps most importantly, violent schools are crucibles for future violence, including rampage shootings.

Although some school violence prevention efforts, such as counseling and mediation, are moderately successful, very few schools have effective prevention programs. Recent neuro-scientific and psychological research show that these programs do not work because they do not account for the potent influence of violent entertainment media and violent video games.

The persistent themes and messages of these forms of entertainment are power over others, violence is preferred behavior, and killing is fun. As Nicholas Carnagey and Brad Bushman, in their Journal of Experimental Social Psychology article express it, “In short, the modern entertainment media landscape could accurately be described as an effective systemic violence desensitization tool.”

Violent Entertainment Media

More than 60 years of research about the effects of television violence has culminated in the conclusion that there is a causal relationship between entertainment media violence and increased aggressive and violent behavior. Researchers, including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree that media violence is linked to increased aggressive and violent behavior. The American Psychiatric Association writes that the debate about media violence is over. As stated by Jeffrey McIntyre of the American Psychological Association at a Senate hearing, “To argue against it is like arguing against gravity.”

Violent Video Games

Since the 1990s, psychologists and neuroscientists have conducted hundreds of studies about the ways violent video games affect the brain. Their findings show that these video games have a profound effect on behavior and academic performance.

Violent video games activate aggressive behavior scripts in the brain and suppress executive structures that normally inhibit aggressive and violent actions. They reduce the brain’s emotional processing, which underlies the effects these games have on aggression and desensitization. Repeated exposure to this violence can create an aggressive personality.

Consider the following:

John, a middle school teacher, wrote to the author with the following story. In the summer of 2010, John introduced his friend, Mike, to first-person shooter combat video games. One day at the end of the first week they played, they played for about five hours then took a break. Mike went outside to shoot a target with his .22 rifle. John walked onto the porch and saw Mike aiming at something in the distance. John pulled the sliding glass door open quickly and it made a loud bang sound. John wrote, “Without hesitation and without thought, my friend of over 10 years swung around, shouldered his rifle, and aimed it right at my face. His eyes were black, the color you see when someone has lost touch with reality. His facial expression and aggressive body language startled me.” Alarmed, John shouted, “My God!” and Mike snapped out of it. Mike dropped the gun and instantly apologized saying, “I don’t know what came over me.” He walked aimlessly around the porch for a while and then told John that he wanted the computer out of the house. Still shaken, John didn’t protest, took the computer home and uninstalled the video games. John added, “I became an excellent student, focusing all my energies on college, and graduated in the next two years.”

Mike was a young man with no apparent risk factors and no history of delinquent or violent behavior. What would have been the long-term results of Mike playing violent video games? How often do unrecorded scenarios like this one occur?

Research shows that the long-term effects of video game violence on later aggression and violence is larger than other known risk factors for adolescent violence, including childhood abuse, antisocial parents, and poverty. Only gang involvement presents more of a risk factor than violent video games.

Academic Achievement

Consuming entertainment media and video games inhibits academic achievement because it displaces time that could be spent in constructive activities. These forms of entertainment also tend to require the involvement of the right cerebral hemisphere. Whereas the left cerebral hemisphere is specialized for language, reading, writing, mathematics, and the sciences, the right hemisphere processes information that is dramatic, exciting, funny, colorful, musical, and involves facial recognition. Playing violent video games requires some left hemisphere activity, however most gaming activity requires the right hemisphere.

Long-term involvement with media and video games that require a high degree of right hemisphere engagement results in the use of the right hemisphere becoming predominant over time. This is a key reason for the epidemic problems young people have with reading, writing, math, and science.

What We Can Do

Media literacy educates people about the influence of the violent entertainment and video game industries. In the process, it promotes critical thinking, self-understanding, and more peaceful interaction. It also facilitates developing a lifestyle that is not so dependent on electronic entertainment.

Some practical suggestions for middle school teachers, staff, and administrators include the following:

  1. Educate yourself about media literacy and become media literate.
    Media literacy sparks critical thinking by providing insight and the ability to deconstruct images, messages, and portrayals of events and provides opportunities for young people to create their own media. Resources include

  2. Advocate for media literacy training for staff, students, and families.
  3. Incorporate media literacy into your classroom curricula.
    Media literacy can be applied across diverse subjects and included in advisory programs.
  4. Counselors and school psychologists can screen bullies for violent media and violent video game exposure and refer them and their families to media literacy educational opportunities.
  5. Become involved in organizations that advocate for effective legislation and regulation and encourage your colleagues, parents, and your parent association to become involved.
    TRUCE (Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Education) ( offers resources for educators and parents on critical thinking skills regarding media.

Many industrialized countries have enacted legislation and implemented policies that limit the amount of electronic entertainment violence available and limit children’s accessibility to this violence. Germany, which does not recognize video games as art, is having public policy debates to ban violent video games from all children and, in the meantime, enforces an index of products that cannot be sold or marketed to minors.

Media literacy raises consciousness and inspires advocacy. When people become more aware of the causes and the magnitude of the problem, they become motivated to join with others to take action for legislative change.

More Resources

AMLE Position Paper on Violence Prevention

National Association of School Psychologists – School violence prevention resources including how to talk with children about violence, bullying prevention, a framework for safe and successful schools.

Common Sense Media – News and Media Literacy toolkit for grades 6-8 educators.

National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) – Curricula, parent’s guide.