The Film and Publication Board is very concerned by the spate of violent acts committed against children online, and sadly in most of these, children themselves are the perpetrators. This violence is recorded then shared online, spreading like wildfire and reaching a significant number of children who spend on average between 2 to 4 hours on social networks daily. The media as they say, is a reflection of society – showing its beautiful, virtuous, inspirational side; as well as its underbelly of ugly cruelty and ‘mindless’ brutality. It is therefore unfair to lay the blame for violence in our society on media’s portrayal of violence. South Africa is generally a violent society and the media is simply a mirror reflecting this reality.
Violence, it would seem, has become the nation’s twelfth official language, as the title of a recent study on violent protests suggests: “The smoke that calls”. Protagonists in the endemic violent service delivery protests remarked to the authors that officials in local government often ignore their complaints about the lack of service delivery, and only respond with speed when violence erupts and buildings go up in flames. The authors of the study point out that this suggests that South Africans have adopted violence as an effective method of resolving conflict.
Violence is employed for more reasons than just as a tool to get a reaction or resolution to social problems. Increasingly we witness violence also used to subjugate, humiliate or settle scores. What, for instance, were Willem Oosthuizen and Theo Jackson after when they assaulted Victor Mlotshwa and took a video as they forced him into a coffin if not to injure his dignity and humiliate him? The 2015 rape of a school boy by a group of four schoolmates in the Northern Cape was also recorded on a cellphone. Perhaps to achieve similar ends?
As the FPB, we have noted that children are not only the victims. This week talk shows were abuzz with the viral video of two learners in full school uniform assaulting a teacher who had confiscated a mobile phone from one of them, as per school policy on the use of mobile phones during class. Another video doing the rounds these days depict two school girls fighting in a classroom with one seeming to pass out during the fight. Surrounding them and loudly egging them on are their classmates.
So what does this violence tell us? This violence is one of the bitter fruits of the poisonous concoction South Africa has inherited from its colonial and apartheid past. The physical violence of colonialism, the Frontier Wars and the violent repression that visited African resistance to the colonialists’ encroachment to their territories, as well as the well documented violence of apartheid’s police state on all who fell afoul of its unjust laws, meant that violence was an integral part of the war of resistance against the system and its proxies. Violence has since remained the language of persuasion in any conflict situation in South Africa. In the past 24 years of our democracy, we have seen social inequalities increase. Efforts to transform our society have not kept up with the widening wedge between the few haves and the many have-nots. Thus the structural violence experienced by the majority of this land’s people also fuel toxic interactions between and amongst communities.
Violence is a tool of choice also, it would seem, if you want to humiliate your enemies. Social media, with its nimble and lightning speed reach, is an effective vehicle to this end.
So how come we are seeing more and more violent content in social media; and what is the likely impact of exposure to such content on growing children? A number of studies have shed some light into what to expect should this trend continue. The American Psychology Association cites a follow up of a longitudinal study that looked at the link between exposure of children to violent television content and violence and aggressive behaviour in adult life. A positive association was established between adults who had been exposed to violent television content. The study, conducted by Huesmann, Moise, Podoloski and Eron, broke new ground as it tracked behaviour beyond the usual methodology that could only assess short-term effects of such exposure on the study subjects. Of cause this does not mean violent media content is a dependable variable in adult violent behaviour. Other factors do play a role in determining proclivity to violence in adult life, such as environmental factors.
The other possible driver of this scourge could be the fact that children are being desensitised to media violence. In 2015, the FPB commissioned a UNISA study to assess the impact of media content on South African children. In the focus group discussions that followed a screening of movie clips with different classifiable content, most children hardly noticed the violent content. Those who did reported that the impact on them was mostly minimal. This, the report argued, suggested that children in South Africa were getting desensitised to violence, and this was corroborated by participants who pointed out that they were exposed to real-life violence and they were aware that violence in the movies or video games was not real, therefore did not bother them much.
Parents also are seemingly oblivious to violence in the media. In the Film and Publication Board’s 2016 Convergence Survey, that looks at levels of agreement to our classification ratings and the social norms and values of South Africans, parents are most concerned by any suggestion of sexual content, from fondling and kissing prevalent in soapies, to sexually suggestive clothing and dancing in popular music videos. Yet violent content in the films the FPB classified in 2016 and 2017 outnumbered sexual content more than tenfold. This prurient approach to media content means parents are failing to make a connection between violent media content and the general real life violence in society.
At this point we reiterate our earlier assertion that violence in the media is merely a reflection of a violent society. Yet, these studies and the conversations the FPB has with learners, educators and parents all suggest that our children’s exposure to violence in the media tends to desensitise them to violent media content.
Unfortunately, those at the receiving end of online bullying, or cyber-bullying as it is called, do not get through these experiences lightly. Trauma, a sense of shame and humiliation, all leave victims badly affected. There have been cases of teenagers resorting to suicide as an escape from bad online experiences. At the moment we are unaware of any studies that assess the impact of exposure to violent media content on children, yet the studies cited above suggest a possible link to offline violent behaviour, while also fueling more of the same by making it easily available and desensitising young children particularly to the scourge.
The FPB believes that a multi-pronged, multi-disciplinary effort is a more desirable approach to addressing this problem. This means every stakeholder should play their part, with prevention the primary point of intervention. As a media content regulatory body in South Africa, the FPB is committed to tirelessly playing its role, monitoring, reporting and instructing online platforms to take down offensive content. It is common cause that the sheer volumes of videos uploaded every hour on the internet will overwhelm any one body, however well resourced. We believe therefore that public education and cooperation of the online platforms where such content is posted can go a long way to fighting this problem. Parents should also play their part, and pay attention to what their children watch and do online. After all, as Nelson Mandela pointed out, “there is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way it treats its children.”
Issued by the Film and Publication Board
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