April 28, 2001 -- Violence, verbal abuse, and alcohol -- that's what professional wrestling depicts today. And lots of high school kids are watching it. Now a new study finds that the more kids watch, the more likely they will be involved in fights, dating violence, and other potentially dangerous behaviors -- especially girls who watch.
"[Kids] see the violence between men and women, they see body types of women that are very unrealistic, and they see women as people you can beat up and call derogatory names," says Robert H. DuRant, PhD, a professor and vice chair of pediatrics at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. He presented his study findings today at the Pediatric Academic Societies' Annual Meeting.
"We know that the more kids are exposed to [wrestling], the more it affects them," he tells WebMD.
In the study of more than 2,200 public high school students -- 51% female and 38% ethnic minorities -- each was asked a number of questions about the professional wrestling matches they had watched on TV during the previous two weeks. They also were asked whether they use tobacco, alcohol, and other substances, carry weapons, and fight, and whether alcohol or drugs were involved during their last fight with a date, girlfriend, or boyfriend.
DuRant found that more than 60% of adolescent males -- and 35% of females -- watched wrestling during a two-week period. In fact, some were watching very frequently: 25% of males and 9% of females watched six or more times.
"Basically, they're watching every time it comes on," DuRant tells WebMD.
And it's that repeated exposure that affects behavior.
More frequent viewers were more likely to engage in substance abuse and violence and were more likely to instigate dating violence. "Especially the girls -- even though they are watching less wrestling," says DuRant.
In a follow-up survey of the same kids six months later, DuRant found that kids were still watching the same amounts of wrestling. But boys were involved in less risky behaviors, while girls had increased their dangerous behaviors.
Risk of violent behavior increases by 16-18% with each wrestling episode girls watch, says DuRant. For boys, the risk increases by 11% with each episode.
Why the greater impact on girls?
For one thing, girls who watch wrestling are in the minority, explains DuRant. "It doesn't appeal to most. But those who are watching probably already have social risk factors in their lives -- adults who drink, abuse drugs, carry weapons, and fight. What they see in wrestling reinforces these messages."
Late childhood and adolescence is a particularly vulnerable time for kids to be absorbing these messages, he tells WebMD. "Children are still formulating what is appropriate behavior for them to resolve conflicts, solve problems, acquire goals, and command respect," he says.
His previous research shows that among sixth graders, those who are exposed to more violence -- and who have been victimized through bullying, fighting, or threats -- are more likely to use violent means to resolve conflict, says DuRant.
"The more you expose kids to violence, ... the more likely they are to be violent or use a weapon," he tells WebMD.
Wrestling has changed dramatically in recent years, creating a different impact on this generation, DuRant adds. "When I was growing up, the same type of wrestling was on television, and we knew it was fake," he tells WebMD. "But the level of violence today has escalated 100-fold in the last 10 years. What we're seeing is a tremendous amount of violence without appropriate consequences. Actions that would kill or maim someone in wrestling occur without the consequences."
The level of meanness and vulgarity also has increased significantly, says DuRant, as have the negative messages about women. "One message is that it's acceptable for a man to hit a woman -- that it's a way to resolve any difference, that he can use violence against her," he tells WebMD.
Violence is indeed learned behavior, says Deborah Prothrow-Stith, MD, professor of public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health and author of Deadly Consequences. "The more you experience it, the more you learn it. If you are witnessing violence or being victimized by violence, then you are at greater risk of becoming violent," she tells WebMD.
When violence found in television, music, and video games is all factored in with family and environmental influences, "then you begin to get an accumulation that is daunting, really," Prothrow-Stith says.
"In other shows that young teens watch, you don't see the intensity of violence and vulgarity and sexual innuendo that you do in wrestling," DuRant says. "Adults understand it's fake, that it's fantasy, and the wrestling industry says that kids know the difference. The thing is, kids may know the difference, but whether it's fantasy or not, wrestling still has an effect on kids' attitudes and behaviors. It still has a negative effect."
DuRant's study and others to come "will show over and over again that victimized children who are hurt -- and then turn to hurt others -- are children who witness aggressive behavior at home and in the community," Prothrow-Stith tells WebMD. "The socialization in America is toward aggressive use of intimidating and violent strategies to solve problems."
Wrestling is "cartoon-ish," she says. "It almost takes the worst of cartoons and makes it worse by humanizing it. Instead of the roadrunner getting bumped on the head, it's a woman. It's supposed to be funny, supposed to be entertaining. Kids learn to laugh at it."
"There are few or no messages in this society that encourage forgiveness, celebrate empathy, teach negotiation and compromise and getting along to our children," she tells WebMD. "For parents, who are expected to buffer and mitigate and counter all the junk that's out there, it's overwhelming."