Your Brain on Media: A Media Psychology Expert Shares How Media Impacts Our Lives

When I was teaching video production and journalism, I took up my most passionate cause—educating my students and their families about the influence and impact of media and advertising. I knew if I was going to teach students to create media, I needed to teach them how to use it and produce it responsibly. 

As I watched their behaviors in the classroom day in and day out, as I watched how they treated each other, as I watched their habits (and addictions), I realized I needed to teach how media was impacting their brains, their beliefs, their decisions, and their lives. That led me on an quest for data and research about everything related to what’s known as “media psychology.” 

Doing that research was one of my major hobbies for years (yup, total nerd). 

The Call to Action

… And then Sandy Hook happened. I learned about the shooting at lunch, and it was very hard for me to teach for the rest of the day. It was a Friday, and I had a lot of time to think over the weekend. 

On Monday, my 8th-grade students started asking me questions none of my education classes ever prepared me for: If there was a shooter here, where would you hide us? Would you take a bullet for us? 

While the second question was asked by a student half-asking it in jest, I knew the other half of him was asking because he wanted to know the answer. … and the rest of the class did too.

Be the Change

Something snapped in me that day. No child should ever have to ask those questions. I began to search for what more I could do to be the change I wanted to see in the world. For the next two years, I ran a violent media buyback program out of my classroom—my little attempt to get kids to commit to giving up negative media piece by piece. (We eventually named the program Peace Buy Piece.)

Fellow teachers were supportive, many parents wanted to sign their kids up for my class, and some parents called me a wacko. Some kids got the message, and others just wanted to cash in on better buyback prices than GameStop. I spoke at churches and universities, bringing some of my students with me. The local media did stories about it, then strangers criticized me (despite the fact that none of them had done any research), and CNN school news polled students on their thoughts about our program. 

What did I learn as part of my research? The following things:

This is Your Brain on Media

To this day, I have a collection of some pretty impressive stats on media’s impact on us. Did you know that the brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than the written word? Did you know that visuals are processed and stored in your long-term memory, meaning that every image you’ve ever seen is still somewhere in your head? So you could say, it’s not just highly improbable, but totally unreasonable to believe that the things you’re watching aren’t impacting your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions. But can we prove it?

The Big Lie

Mainstream media will tell you that the research is “inconclusive,” that we don’t really know if negative media (anything promoting or displaying negative behaviors) causes people to display negative behaviors. Mainstream media also produces all of the violent and inappropriate television it wants you to watch in order to sell advertising time for top dollar.

They will tell you that ALL the data supporting this theory is “correlative,” meaning that many studies show a “relationship” between things like violent media and violent behavior. 

However, they don’t really show that violent media is the cause (that would be “causative” data). They also point out that many studies aren’t able to isolate violent media as a variable, meaning that there could likely be other factors in the lives of people that lead them to be violent.

The Truth

In my research, I found that causative data does exist. Visual media has been isolated as a variable in at least one major study, and is a very significant variable in another. Not only that, there are over 3,500 correlative studies on the effects of violent media alone, and 98% of those showed a strong correlation between that and violent behavior. 

This means the relationship is as strong as the link between cancer and smoking, which is accepted as a “cause” by the medical community. Here’s what the causative studies found:

In 1973, researchers studied a small Canadian town that had not yet received TV reception. They gathered data on this town, referred to as “Notel” in the research, just before receiving access to TV and then again two years later. This study allowed them to isolate TV media as a variable, giving them the ability to claim their data as “causative.” 

What they found was this:

  • The children were twice as aggressive after television was introduced. 
  • Adults also showed a significant increase in physical and verbal aggression.
  • Both more often used aggressive behavior as an acceptable method for achieving goals.
  • Children began to see increased gender differences between boys and girls after watching television.
  • Children became less creative.
  • IQ scores dropped slightly.

Let’s Do This in Reverse

We may not be able to find another town without television to study, but what would happen if we did this study in reverse? That’s the question Stanford University researchers were asking when they set out to do what’s now referred to as the Stanford S.M.A.R.T. Study

Stanford partnered with schools, getting them to commit to teaching a media literacy curriculum and supporting students to reduce “screen time.” When taking screen time away, the benefits were numerous:

  • Double-digit percent increases in 4th-grade Math and Writing test scores over one year
  • A 66-80% reduction in 7th graders who’ve tried smoking
  • A 56-82% decrease in overall alcohol consumption and an 81-86% decrease in binge drinking among 7th-graders
  • A 72-93% reduction in marijuana use
  • A reduction in playground aggression by over 30%
  • An over-50% reduction in negative classroom behaviors
  • An almost-50% reduction in aggressive behaviors among high school students. 

The other exciting point about the Stanford study, and others that have been done on media literacy education, is that it supports the fact that people can “re-sensitize” their brains to negative behaviors. So, if media can desensitize us to violence and sexual behavior, once we remove it, our brains have the power to heal and be re-sensitized. Now, imagine if we only took in media that encouraged positive behaviors? (Mind explosion-—I know!)

Putting the Figurative Gun in Their Hands

For me, these two studies convinced me to do whatever I can to keep kids from negative media and make better choices when it comes to my own intake. While we do have a mental health crisis in our country, and it’s obvious that people who resort to lethal violence have some deep-seated issues, these studies made clear to me that negative media teaches and influences us to handle our issues in more destructive ways. 

And as a media professional with an in-depth knowledge of media psychology, I have a duty to share what I know about what influences us to be violent. I have a duty to those parents whose children did not come home from school on Tuesday. If you want change, it starts with YOU. We need to be the change we want to see in the world. 

Challenge: Try to Prove Me Wrong

If you don’t accept what I’m telling you as fact, there’s only one way to really figure out what the truth is for yourself and prove me wrong: make yourself and your family the guinea pigs. Choose to “unplug” or significantly reduce screen time for a period of 35 days, and measure the effects. 

Before your fast, jot down things like the number of arguments you have with your children or your spouse in a week, or the number of names your kids call each other in a week. Then do it again the last week of your fast and compare the results.

Why 35 days? It takes about 21 to 28 days to form a new habit, which is why initial stays in rehab are typically 28 days. You not only need to “detox” from screens, but then you need at least a week after that to bask in the effects of your detox so you can understand the results. 

Share Your Experience

For those of you who are in agreement, you can try this challenge too and gauge the impact on yourself and your family. When you see the difference, it’ll help you evaluate how to have a healthier relationship with media in the future. Consider it an opportunity to “be the change” and do your part to “unplug for peace.”

If you get a lot out of your research, I ask that you pay it forward and share what you’ve learned with others, encouraging them to take the challenge. I challenged my own students to unplug for only one day and journal about it, and their writings astounded me every semester. It astounded their parents, too, some of whom decided to make a 24-hour media fast a weekly occurrence for the whole family. 

And if you don’t experience any positive results, feel free to drop me a line, tell me I’m wrong, and call me a big hippie—I’ve heard it all already.