Youth Perceptions of Their School Violence Risks

Article excerpt

Children and youth are bombarded daily by a broad array of violent messages in the media. Recaps of the World Trade Center attacks and news footage of school shootings depict devastation and human loss, while action films and televised crime dramas depict violence as the norm, even part of the solution. Even MTV, a staple of youth TV consumption, counters violent images in music videos with personal documentaries about school violence. The mixed messages leave adolescent viewers to decide for themselves what is accurate, what is real, and what it all means. Their perceptions and interpretations may have real-world consequences.

Two distinct literatures provide insight into such adolescent misperceptions. Communication studies offer third-person perception; health psychology offers optimistic bias. Linking the literatures within the context of school violence may provide better understanding of adolescent perceptions of violence.

Davison (1983) introduced the third-person perception concept with a straightforward hypothesis: Individuals believe they are less influenced than are others by media messages. Nearly two decades and over 50 published articles later, third-person perception is well documented but not yet fully understood.

Multiple studies suggest that optimistic bias (Weinstein, 1980) is a promising explanation for third-person perception (Brosius & Engel, 1996; Duck & Mullin, 1995; Duck, Terry, & Hogg, 1995; Gunther, 1991; Gunther & Hwa, 1996; Gunther & Mundy, 1993; Rucinski & Salmon, 1990). Optimistic Bias predicts that people believe they are less vulnerable than are others to health risks. The similarities to the third-person perception hypothesis are obvious. Few studies empirically test such a relationship. Chapin (2000) reported a small inverse relationship between first-person perception and optimistic bias among urban minority at-risk youth. First-person perception emerges in studies that use pro-social messages (in this case, a safer sex message); participants believe it is positive to be influenced by such messages, so third-person perception is reversed, with some people believing they are more influenced than others by the messages. Chapin concluded that third-person perception and optimistic bias each contributed uniquely to understanding participants' perceptions and sexual risk-taking behaviors and urged further research linking the literatures. The current study furthers the linkage by utilizing negative media messages (media violence), which are more common in the third-person perception literature.

Purpose of the Study

The current study serves several purposes: (1) Linking third-person perception and optimistic bias, (2) understanding contributing factors to both perceptual biases, and (3) applying the concepts to the school violence context.

School violence is an ideal context for the study, given the longstanding interest of communication scholars in the relationship between media violence and youth behavior, the interest of health psychology scholars in understanding and reducing youth violence, and the current public concern over high-profile school murders.

H1 Students believe they are less influenced than are others by violent media (third-person perception).

H2 Students believe violence is less likely to happen in their school than other schools in the U.S. (optimistic bias).

H3 Third-person perception will increase as optimistic bias increases.

Contrary to predictions by proponents of the adolescent invulnerability hypothesis, third-person perception seems to decrease with age (Chapin, 2001; Huh, Delorme, & Reid, 2006; Scharrer & Leone, 2006). Increased experience with the media may explain this development.

Educational differences have been of some interest to third-person perception scholars, with the more educated participants exhibiting greater degrees of third-person perception, while also believing their less educated peers are especially at risk of media influence (Johansson, 2005; Peiser & Peter, 2000; Salwen & Dupagne, 2003). …