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Tremendous effort and resources have been invested in school violence prevention programs. Unfortunately, bullying, especially cyberbullying, continues. In the 1980s, schools reported that about 20 percent of students were bullied. By 2008, about one-third of students reported being bullied. In many schools, more than half of students report being victims.

In the short term, bullying results in the victims’ poor performance at school, absenteeism, and, at times, even suicide. Unfortunately, the latter phenomenon is so common it even has its own term: bullycide. If bullies are not held accountable, they develop a tendency to be bullies when they grow up, continuing their behavior in the home, in the workplace, and in public places.

The causes of the escalation of school violence have been debated for decades. This debate, which focuses on the influence of violent entertainment media and violent video games, has been confounded by misinformation and disinformation. An example of such misinformation is an op-ed in the New York Times last year that concluded that violent video games do not have much of an effect. The piece, however, failed to include recent and compelling psychological and neuroscientific research.

Video Game Violence

The violent video game industry, which has annual global sales of $114 billion, actively misinforms the public. The Electronic Software Rating Board’s lobbying arm, the Electronic Software Association (ESA), spends millions of dollars annually to protect its voluntary rating system and its manufacture of increasingly violent video games. The ESA ignores the accumulating mass of research findings that conclude that violent video games are detrimental and even dangerous.

In recent years, hundreds of psychological and neuroscientific research studies conclusively demonstrate a causal relationship between violent electronic entertainment media and aggressive and violent behavior in the short-term and over time. This especially is true for violent video game exposure. The more a person plays violent video games, the more aggressive or violent he or she is.

Playing violent video games results in a culture of disrespect. Repeated exposure results in a “hostile bias” and can lead to the development of an aggressive and narcissistic personality. Violent video games also are becoming more misogynistic.

Violent video game exposure is connected to a general decrease in prosocial behavior. It is associated with a decrease in academic performance. In part, this is due to displaced time spent on playing video games. This also is connected to electronic entertainment media’s tendency to disengage the involvement of the left cerebral hemisphere, which is involved in reading, writing, and math, as well as in critical thinking. The right cerebral hemisphere is activated during electronic entertainment media and games consumption. This hemisphere is involved in processing movement, color, facial recognition, fun, and drama.

My book, School Violence: Crisis and Opportunity, includes neuroscientific research conducted during the past decade and points to a causal connection between first-person shooter games and rampage school shootings. This also is evidenced by most rampage shooters being heavily involved in first-person shooter combat video games, using military rampage tactics, and wearing military combat gear during the shootings.

Violent video games are addictive. The World Health Organization recently has found that between one-half percent and 1 percent of gamers worldwide are addicted and has formulated criteria for “gaming disorder.” In the United States, between 8 percent and 10 percent of gamers are addicted. The American Psychiatric Association is considering including gaming disorder as part of its new Diagnostic and Statistics Manual, which is a compendium of behavioral and emotional disorders.

Meta-analyses conducted by such organizations as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics reinforce the conclusion that violent video games are connected to aggressive and violent behavior. The American Psychiatric Association, for example, issued a statement concluding that the debate about the influence of violent electronic media and games is over. During a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, a spokesperson for the American Psychological Association succinctly stated: “To argue against it is like arguing against gravity.”

Limit Exposure

Many industrialized countries have policies and legislation that limit children’s exposure to violent video games. The ESA cites the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech as its protection. Other countries that guarantee freedom of speech, such as Canada and Germany, do not recognize video games as art. Also, they weigh this expression of violence against the public good and have decided in favor of the public good.

Germany, for example, 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.

I recommend the following course of action.

  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.
  2. Provide media literacy resources and training to teachers and staff and to parent-teacher organizations.
  3. Provide classroom media literacy resources and material (much of which is inexpensive or free).
  4. Encourage teachers to incorporate media literacy in curricula across a range of subjects.
  5. Require school psychologists and counselors to screen for violent video game exposure and refer students and their families to family media literacy training.

Media literacy and advocacy resources include the Center for Media Literacy, Mothers Against Video Game Addiction and Violence, and Media Smarts.

Media literacy is a necessary component of effective school violence prevention for schools; however, it is not enough for schools to work to prevent school violence. For any violence prevention program to really take effect, the outmoded legislation in the U.S. needs to be corrected. School boards are highly credible educational advocates. Their powerful voice would be instrumental in bringing about necessary policy and legislative advancements.

Media literacy is integral to this process because it raises consciousness and inspires advocacy. When people become more aware of the causes and the magnitude of the problem, they are motivated to join to take effective action.

We cannot hope for peace in our communities and world if we do not have peace in our schools. School culture can teach violence, or it can be a culture that promotes educational excellence and sustains peaceful and respectful relations. Effective school violence prevention programs play an essential role in creating a future that is more harmonious and safer.

Schools are crucibles of the future. School boards can be and should be their guardians.

Marianna King (marianna.king@csupueblo.edu) is the author of School Violence: Crisis and Opportunity (www.schoolviolencebook.com), which will be published by Michigan State University Press in early 2020. She is an educator, sociologist, and program development consultant.

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