Visual media as an impetus to youth violence in South Africa

Visual media as an impetus to youth violence in South Africa

Visual media serves an impetus to violence in South Africa, with people constantly exposed to violent video games, news, movies and YouTube clips.

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By Tendaishe Tlou

The consequences of South Africa’s violence are both stark and unsettling. Since 1994 when the country attained independence, the government has struggled with a spate of armed robberies and murders. The shooting of Lucky Dube and, most recently, Senzo Meyiwa left everyone perplexed and heartbroken. This surge in criminal activities has led the international community to write-off South Africa, labeling its citizens as people with a violent history destined for a violent future. At one point or another, the media is full of reports of murder or armed robbery. Indeed, visual media serves an impetus to violence in South Africa, with people constantly exposed to violent video games, news, movies and YouTube clips.

Cultivation theory was derived from several large -scale research projects by Professor George Gerbner in the 1960s “concerned with the effects of television programming (particularly violent programming) on the attitudes and behaviors of the American public” (Miller, 2005:281). He assumed that reality is developed from what people watch on TV. Cultivation theory assumes that over time, particular symbols, images, messages, meanings from television messages become dominant and are absorbed as the truth. Television has long term effects which are small, gradual, indirect but cumulative and significant. According to cultivation theory, the frequency of viewing also has a bearing on the subsequent influences. For instance, heavy viewing of television is seen as ‘cultivating’ attitudes which are more consistent with the world of television programs. This paper will endeavor to qualify or disqualify these assumptions.

South Africans are no strangers to organised violence and criminality. In its twenty years of freedom, South Africa is a country where visual media continuously, deliberately or undeliberately, inculcates a culture of violence. It is not surprising that the significant number of reports of violent crime from human rights groups, the civil society and the police itself has prompted pervasive condemnation locally and internationally.

Television is a very powerful, most popular and ubiquitous medium of expression. It has both ideological and hegemonic functions which tend to dominate the life styles of its viewers, especially youths who are vulnerable to its attractively packaged messages (Tomlison, 1991). It is no doubt that “people instinctively imitate actions and model the behaviour they observe; however they do not have the intellect or maturity to determine whether the action is appropriate or good” (Larsen, 2001:1).

Various South African movies – ranging from Jerusalem, How to Steal 10 million and the recent Number-Number – have impacted strongly on consolidating the violent culture of youth by deliberately justifying violence through images of crime. It automatically becomes ‘stylish’ to flaunt a gun around because this is what is portrayed on mass media. Television messages have strong influences on individual and group behaviors, and views on issues of peace and human security.Therefore youth can be defined as a period of psychological and social turmoil-transition between childhood to adulthood which renders them vulnerable to television influences (Hines, 1999). This implies that television ideas of ‘reality’ have come to dominate the views and lifestyles of youth.

Many scholars such as Platt (1983), Orwell (1986) and Hechtman (2003) assert that television has authority over young people’s decisions. They assert that youths just accept what the television tells them without demur. Keyes (2000) raised fears about the negative influences that the media have on youth culture. “Youths are particularly vulnerable to outside influence from their television sets because their values and ideas have not yet fully developed” (ibid).

In South Africa, like elsewhere in the developing world, television is conceived as the major culprit in the marketing of alien cultures which have dominated local knowledge systems (Malleus, 2001). That is why coloureds in Cape Town dub their cliques ‘America’, because they want to be viewed in the same way as American gangsters characterized by gang violence. Parents are apparently preventing their children from going to school in Parkwood, fearing that their children will be caught-up in gang violence. The television is one of the most powerful tools that shape attitudes, behaviours and structures. If television is being used to entrench violence, then it is essential that the government and actors collaborate to broadcast movies with a strong orientation towards peace and human security.

Although video games are not relatively popular compared to TV, they are increasingly shaping the attitudes and behaviors of criminals in South Africa. As video games are a newer medium, there is less research on their impact. Video games bring other cultures in their real form and as a result have managed to connect its audiences, especially youths. For example, Play Station brings with it a training kit and context specific package that trains the user to use guns and bombs in war zones such as Afghanistan or Iraq. Gentile and Anderson (2003) indicate it is likely that violent video games may have even stronger effects on youth aggression because the games are highly-engaging and interactive, they reward violent behavior and the player repeats these behaviors over and over as they play.

Video games will be pivotal in socializing young people through engagement and interaction. A content analysis by the Children Research Organization (2001) shows that a majority of video games include violence, about half of which would result in serious injuries or death in the ‘real’ world. Since this research was done in 2001, the violence that has engulfed South Africa can in part be attributed to video games. Playing a lot of violent video games is related to having more aggressive thoughts, feelings and behaviors (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). Violence begins in the mind; hence direct violence is an indication that it has been preconceived and the portents of aggression were already present. Furthermore, playing violent games is also related to youths being less willing to be caring and helpful towards their peers. Research has shown that these effects happen just as much for non-aggressive youth, and those who spend more time on violent video games tend to become desensitized and slow to react to violence. This surge in youths participating in criminal activities must inform the government to review their approach to crime prevention and visual media is pivotal in this endeavor.

Another phenomenon gathering momentum exponentially is social networking. One of the fastest and easiest ways of communicating and perpetuating violence in South Africa is through social networks. In recent months, there have been reports that some South Africans are engaging in social bullying through these platforms. Violent attacks and xenophobia have been communicated over these platforms at the expense of peace and security. Armed robberies are also planned through social networks and messages conveyed through Twitter, Facebook and Watsapp because they uphold privacy. Videos are also uploaded onto these sites, meaning that people can share an experience. For example, in 2009 xenophobic attacks spread to other parts of South Africa through social networks by uploading videos which were ought to be case studies.

Violent movies, video games and social networks have contributed to the passivity of some South African citizens towards violence. In some worst cases, it was reported that some people actually cheered a man who wanted to commit suicide by jumping off a building, which he eventually did in Newtown in late 2014. This numbness can be attributed to visual media which desensitizes people to become reactive to violence. The media socializes people to normalize things that are not normal which is increasingly becoming a concern in South Africa. Hence, playing violent games, watching vicious movies and education through social networks is related to youths being less willing to be caring and helpful towards their peers, especially during violent confrontations, but rather preferring to participate in the violence so as to be part of the group.

Tendaishe Tlou is a freelance researcher and writer specialising in human rights, environmental security, peace and governance issues. He holds a BSc (Honours) Degree in Peace and Governance with Bindura University of Science Education and a Post-graduate Certificate in Applied Conflict Transformation. He works with various NGOs and Government Ministries in Zimbabwe and South Africa. However, these are his personal views; no authors, NGOs, Universities or any other Institution must be held accountable for the arguments in this article.


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