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It's only entertainment – what's the harm?

Posted on 1 August 2016 by Deputy Chief Censor Jared Mullen

A lot of us enjoy violent entertainment. I, for one, enjoy a sci-fi shoot em up with lashings of explosions and special effects. I enjoy it even more in high definition and prefer it in 3D. You might not share my 'taste'. You may instead prefer immersive, realistic games such as Call of Duty and Halo, or perhaps you look forward to each new instalment of the modern parable The Walking Dead. It's hard to believe that something that we enjoy so much can be anything more than harmless entertainment.

Yet, as parents, many of us will instinctively try to shield our children from excessive violence — especially when they are younger. Our intuition tells us that it can't be good for kids to be exposed to excessive aggression, gore, torture and brutality. We worry that they might be shocked and disturbed by what they see. We may also fear that our children could copy the behaviours that they see on screen, or perhaps even grow into overly aggressive and uncaring people.

The Office of Film and Literature Classification in New Zealand recently surveyed 1000 kiwis and 92% said that classification information was important or very important when choosing entertainment for children and young people. When we asked whether children under 16 should be allowed to watch R16 movies — even with parental supervision — 60% of kiwis said "no". The figure was even higher (at 68%) for R16 video games.

Are we being overly protective?

A 2006 study, with the catchy title of Short-term and Long-term Effects of Violent Media on Aggression in Children and Adults (published in the Archives of Paediatric and Adolescent Medicine) combined the results of 431 previous studies involving 68,463 individual participants (both children and adults). The conclusion was that exposure to media violence was associated with more aggressive behaviours, thoughts, and feelings, as well as reducing behaviours that could help others. The short term effects of exposure to violence were found to be stronger for adults, but the longer term effects were found to be stronger for children and young people.

A more specific study called Comfortably Numb: Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media on Helping Others was published in the journal of Psychological Science in 2009. This study found that exposure to violent entertainment led to a measurable reduction in the willingness of participants to offer assistance to someone in need. In other words, exposure to violence made people care less about others.

A 2010 article, titled Health Effects of Media on Children and Adolescents — published in Pediatrics — sets out a useful survey of studies on children's media use and exposure and the range of evidence for the negative impacts of exposure to sex and violence in media. It contains a reference to the startling conclusion that "The impact of media violence on real-life aggressive behaviour is stronger than many commonly accepted public health risks and nearly as strong as the link between smoking and lung cancer."

So why isn't there more of a public outcry about the damage being done to our society and our children? First, as I stated at the beginning of this article — it's hard to believe that something that we enjoy so much as adults can be anything more than harmless entertainment. The science tells us that we may be in denial.

Second, entertainment is a multi-billion dollar industry with a vested commercial interest in the widest possible distribution of attention-grabbing product. This large industry lobbies governments around the world — including right here in little old New Zealand — to maintain and expand their production, distribution and profit.

We can't forget that commercial entertainment is a vital part of our society. It supports the expression of ideas that challenge, provoke, support and enhance society. A profitable, vibrant entertainment industry can be of great benefit and can do a lot of social good. And day to day, the reality is that most adults will not be harmed by consuming violent entertainment any more than they are by consuming alcohol.

Nevertheless, the science clearly tells us that there are significant risks attached to a regular or excessive diet of violence — particularly for children and young people. Increased consumption will be associated with an increasingly violent society over time. This probably shouldn't surprise us. Environment has long been proven to be a significant factor in determining developmental outcomes — and mass media is a big part of the environment for all of our developing children and young people.

It may seem like the problem is too big to fix. But that's not true. 92% of New Zealanders are already on the right track. They expect and look for good consumer information and they take an interest in what their kids watch and play. It turns out that our parental instincts were right all along.

Good on you kiwi parents. You are doing the right thing!

Let us know what you think in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter, or contact us by phone on 0508 236 767, or by email at info@classificationoffice.govt.nz.

Jared Mullen is Deputy Chief Censor at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. Keep up with our blog posts by following us on Facebook and Twitter.

Still image of person being beaten in 'The Walking Dead' Season 5
'The Walking Dead' Season 5

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