Epidemiology and Criminology

Article excerpt


The motion picture industry began depicting delinquent youth in the 1930s, and the practice continues to the present day. Since the 1950s, youth between the ages of 12 and 20 have comprised about 40% of all admissions to American movie theaters (Squire, 1983). Further, the proliferation of videocassette recorders has increased the ability of adolescents to view motion pictures. A large youth audience exists for movies dealing with adolescent themes, such as juvenile delinquency. Given the high incidence of juvenile delinquency and conduct disorder in the United States (Lewis, 1991), it is logical to conclude that a large number of delinquent youth are viewing contemporary films, especially those dealing with topics relevant to them.

Due to the relative ease of access to videocassette recorders and cable television, there is increasing evidence that the age at which youth are exposed to the movies is becoming lower. Current evidence suggests that the use of aggression as a means of solving social problems usually develops early in life; the more aggressive child is very likely to become the more aggressive adult. But the central question is the degree to which such childhood aggression is predictive of adult criminality. Again, research has demonstrated a very significant correlation between aggression at age 8 with aggression at age 30, especially for boys. Harmful lifelong consequences can result from aggressive habits learned early in life (Huesman, 1986).

One of the main psychological processes through which excessive exposure to media violence may produce aggressive behavior in delinquent youth is known as observational learning. Youth learn to behave aggressively by modeling violent actors in the media (Bandura, 1986). Although research indicates that the period between 6 to 10 years is an especially sensitive one for learning by observation, Hearold's (1979) review indicates that such imitation of violent behavior in the media might also increase among adolescent boys. The theory of "resonance" is relevant to such social learning of violence. This theory states that when what is viewed in the media is congruent with real-life experiences of the audience, the result is a significant increase in the reality of the media messages (Gerbner et al., 1986). For example, Frost and Stauffer (1987) found that residents of an inner-city housing project were much more aroused by film depictions of rape than were college students. Attitudes supportive of male tendencies to behave aggressively toward women and to engage in rape are increased by exposing males to violent pornography, according to most of the research available (Ellis, 1989). It is therefore important to know the extent to which today's movies are reflective of actual factors associated with juvenile delinquency. If film depictions of delinquency are consonant with delinquent youths' own experience, a powerful interactive effect could occur in which the delinquent, or future delinquent, may be even more desensitized and disinhibited to engage in delinquent acts. Youths' willingness to accept delinquent behavior in other children can be increased by even brief viewing of violent movie scenes, and such accepting attitudes make it more likely that the youths will behave aggressively toward others, a process known as "desensitization." When a subject sees violent acts in the media which are perceived as justified, the probability increases that the subject will act aggressively, a process known as "disinhibition" (Huesmann, 1986). Feshbach (1976) found that the observer of visual media stores for later retrieval only those scenes viewed as likely solutions to real social problems. Delinquent acts perceived as unreal would not be modeled as readily.

Much evidence for the concept of bidirectional causality has developed-that viewing such visual media leads to violent and delinquent behavior, and this behavior leads to violent media viewing. …