Your Watchlist Might be Desensitizing You

Movies, whether you watch them on your very own computer or the big screens of your local cinema, play a huge role in the way we perceive entertainment. At least, it sure does for me. Got nothing to do? Open up Netflix. Want to procrastinate? Open up Netflix. Not sleepy yet? Open up Netflix. Your friends all went out without you and they posted on their Snapchat stories having fun? Open up Netflix. But sometimes, these films tend to include invasive and disturbing topics that we can’t even begin to imagine. Violence, abuse, murder, smoking, drugs, and anything else of the sort. Just this summer, Netflix pledged to cut back on the portrayal of smoking on their PG-13 original shows as “smoking is harmful and when portrayed positively on screen can adversely influence young people” (CNN). And this is exactly the debate of this century: Do films truly influence our tolerance to unorthodox subjects? 

When I first heard about Netflix’s vow to reduce the number of scenes containing tobacco use, I was taken aback. How is Hopper (A character from Stranger Things played by David Harbour for those who aren’t familiar) supposed to assert his dominance now that he can’t silently smoke when he’s pissed? 

Chief Hopper in Stranger Things played by David Harbour. Image Source

To truly determine whether sacrificing Hopper’s character is worth the change, I decided to look at current and past research regarding the effects of films.

Researchers from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania reported a study that illustrates how parents with repeated exposure to films containing violence are more susceptible to allow their children to watch equally as graphic clips. Before the experiment, the parents labeled films containing violence and sex appropriate for teens around the age of 17. After the experiment, the parents indicated that children around the age of 14 are an appropriate age to watch graphic films. 

Taken and The Grudge are two famous films that are rated PG-13… Image source for Taken, The Grudge, and PG-13 label

Although this study was conducted by a reputable third-party, I can’t help but stay skeptical. My parents are film fanatics but I don’t see them shoving inappropriate films down my esophagus. Rather, my father does not even let me leave the house wearing clothes that show the slightest bit of skin. So how accurate is this research?

Other researchers, however, argue that films with violence do not have a very large long term effect. Dr. Craig A. Anderson of Iowa University, for example, asserts that media violence is just one of the many different factors that can influence one’s behavior. Moreover, Christopher J. Ferguson, a psychologist and professor at Stetson University in Florida, wrote for the HuffPost in a far more psychological stance. Ferguson mentions a concept called “transfer of learning”. In summary, transfer of learning is when “learning in one context is applied to another similar context”. However, “far transfer of learning” is the attempt to transfer learning between two contexts that are not similar. But far transfer of learning is very improbable, and Ferguson asserts that “media violence theories of desensitization implicitly require far transfer of learning”. To elaborate, watching a detailed film about someone operating guns won’t necessarily mean you would be agile at operating guns yourself. Likewise, watching delusional characters commit murder wouldn’t coax you to murder people as well because you have a proper conscience and understand the concept of morality. Hence, the likelihood of violence portrayed on the media influencing our behavior is very low. 

But media violence theories of desensitization implicitly require far transfer of learning.

– Christopher J. Ferguson, a psychologist and professor at Stetson University in Florida.

Unfortunately, it seems like even scientists are struggling to come to a consensus regarding this issue. Nevertheless, I surveyed students from SAS to receive their opinion on the topic and discover whether the answer lies right here on our school campus.

I approached students and started the survey by asking their opinions on Netflix’s decison to regulate the portrayal of smoking.

After giving the participants context regarding Netflix’s decision, many expressed their disagreement.

I was caught off guard by the participants’ strong opposition against Netflix’s decisions. The shared idea between most was that apart from Netflix shows, children get exposed to smoking regardless of where they are from, as smoking is a prevalent issue worldwide. The moment you step outside, you can observe multiple people smoking in small, tight groups. Many of the participants implied that reducing the portrayal of smoking merely makes character development shallower.

Because many participants indicated that media leaves no inherent encouragement for smoking, the next question that followed was whether behaviors portrayed in teenage films or shows are reflected in our school. Interestingly enough, there was an overwhelming response in agreement that SAS students manifested behaviors depicted in films.

The majority of the participants declared that SAS students exhibit behaviors similar to the teenagers in high school films.

When asked to give an instance of such behaviors, many students bombarded me with thousands of examples. I grouped them into four categories that seemed most fitting, as shown below.

Most students claim feeling more conscious about their self-image.

One student, who remains anonymous, indicated that our school possesses a type of “hierarchy”. The student elaborates, “One example is High School Musical. You can see a hierarchy separated into cliques… it’s apparent here [at SAS] as you can see the clear distinctions in which groups are more well known… people who have more of a voice have more power”.

One example is High School Musical. You can see a hierarchy separated into cliques… it’s apparent here [at SAS] as you can see the clear distinctions in which groups are more well known… people who have more of a voice have more power.

– An anonymous student at SAS

As expressed by these few students from SAS, they were able to draw a connection between behaviors depicted in films and the attitudes most SAS students hold. This indicates the potential implications of films and possible impacts they can have over our lifestyles.

But at the end of the day, films are simply artistic projects that the film industry creates. Next time when you’re adding films to your watchlist, make sure to double-check its age ratings!

Author: Eugenie Min

Eugenie Min is currently a junior at SAS, and this is her first year as a reporter for The Eye. Eugenie is Korean but was born in Seattle, Washington. At the age of 5, she moved to Singapore and has been attending SAS since then. It is her 12th year in SAS and Singapore. Eugenie is an avid Stranger Things fan and, when she isn't sleeping for 10+ hours straight, loves to watch random movies and shows that she comes across on Netflix, regardless of ratings. Feel free to contact her at min34927@sas.edu.sg.

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