Can Films Be Harmful?

Time to ask the big question and possibly the reason for most film censorship. Can viewing violent or shocking movies be potentially damaging or harmful in any way? It is not a rare occurrence to see some form of tragedy or atrocity happen and for a film to receive some part of the blame. So, maybe it would be apt to look at what some people have to say regarding this idea.

Christine Poulter, 61, is a counsellor who has a Masters in Psychology. When asked whether there was any evidence to suggest that films could be damaging in any way, she said: “There are many studies that would support the notion that viewing violent videos can cause psychological damage. There are issues with respect to any study in psychology that need careful consideration. Any investigation or experiment needs to take into account aspects such as individual differences, socioeconomic factors, sample sizes and ethical constraints. All of the factors mentioned can impact on the findings and when the findings are measured, these are done so using statistical analysis which looks at the level of statistical significance. Even a finding which is very highly significant is not an absolutely definitive result.”


It is important to remember this. No matter what evidence is discovered, a subject as broad as this is unlikely to deliver a definitive result. All it can really do is help us learn and maybe come to some sort of broad conclusion. But, with this in mind, it is still necessary to look at what evidence may be out there. Christine said: “A study was conducted by Dr Nelly Alia-Klein in which a sample of 54 men were split into two appropriate groups having being identified as either non-aggressive or aggressive. The aim of the study was to identify what is going on in the brains of people when viewing violent videos.

Virginia Tech Research Division logo

“Indications were that there was an inhibition of the pre-frontal cortex (the thinking part) and activation of the amygdala (the emotional centre) and depending on how aggressive individuals were to begin with would impact on the results.” This is not all though, as there have been other studies. Christine told us: “James Weaver III, of Virginia Tech Research Division, exposed students to non-violent movies followed by super-violent movies. This study indicated that violent movies can increase hostile behaviour.

“A study at the University of Alabama, following on from the study by Weaver, was conducted by Dolf Zillmann. This study showed similar results to Virginia Tech and they went on to say that not only does aggressive behaviour occur immediately after viewing violent videos but also remained for a considerable period afterwards. This study has a cautionary note for parents in that exposure to violence can have negative effects which could in turn increase or become embedded, resulting in either aggressive or less sympathetic behaviours.

University Of Alabama logo

“Both studies at Virginia and Alabama indicate the need to take into account personality traits. For example, participants were asked to view violent videos with the view to rating them for marketing purposes. The same group were later asked to undertake a task whereby they were to view scenarios with respect to assessing various violent and non-violent resolutions. Those who perceived themselves to be socially deviant and egocentric, which is Eysenck’s version of psychotic, were more likely to accept violence as a solution to resolving social conflict. Women generally were less inclined to favour a violent solution as being acceptable.”

Despite these studies, it is important to remember that this is not fully conclusive. Many people worldwide watch violent films and do not cause or commit violence or atrocities. Christine did re-iterate that these investigations are “by no means absolute in the findings. But such is the nature of human beings with all their foibles and differences and then there are the constraints of conducting experiments and studies. I think it is prudent to say that it is in the interests of film makers to distance themselves from links to damaging effect because it may well reduce their income.”

So, as said, this is by no means the absolute and final truth on this issue. There are many factors to consider. But, maybe there is evidence to suggest that some films can negatively shape a person’s actions. That being said, the vast majority do not act in such ways after viewing these movies. So, the debate will continue and it probably will not be long before a film is blamed again for something terrible.


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