How are teens desensitized by viewing violence in their everyday lives?


Adults working with teens say they see an unsettling strain of desensitivity among young people.

The University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research issued a report on an analysis of 72 studies on the empathy of nearly 14,000 college students between 1979 and 2009. The result: Those college students are about 40 percent lower in empathy than students two or three decades earlier.

Another study concluded that watching violent films, TV programs or video games desensitizes teenagers, blunts their emotional responses to aggression and potentially promotes aggressive attitudes and behavior, according to research published online in the Oxford Journal Social Cognitive and Effective Neuroscience on October 19, 2010.


Exposure to aggressive media results in a blunting of emotional responses, which in turn may prevent the connection of consequences of aggression with an appropriate emotional response, and therefore may increase the likelihood that aggression is seen as acceptable behavior.

“Adolescence is a time when the brain is changing and developing, particularly in the parts of the brain that control emotions, emotional behavior and responses to external events," said Dr. Jordan Grafman, senior investigator at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Institutes of Health.

Researchers suggested that this disheartening trend may have to do with numbness created by violent video games, an abundance of online friends and an intensely competitive emphasis on success, among other factors.


Desensitivity may start with the impersonal nature of technology in the hands of impulsive, immature people ill-equipped to think through the consequences of what they say — or text, or post on Facebook.

“Previous generations typically were forced to speak directly to someone, even if it was on the phone, or perhaps write a note or letter to the person they had an issue with”, Jay Kyp-Johnson, a psychologist at Prospect High School in Mount Prospect, said. With texting and social networks, "it's all at your fingertips and it's instantaneous." And, with a couple of keystrokes, venomous attacks can spread to thousands of people.

That environment, along with the "glib, harsh" language that has become the norm on TV shows, especially reality TV, and coarse content "all over the Internet" have popularized desensitivity, he said.

"Continued exposure to violent videos will make an adolescent less sensitive to violence, more accepting of violence, and more likely to commit aggressive acts since the emotional component associated with aggression is reduced and normally acts as a brake on aggressive behavior," said Dr. Grafman.



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