Does Media Violence Cause Real Violence? A Definitive Guide


Editor's note: this article contains some violent imagery.

It seems like every time a mass shooting occurs, Americans develop a renewed interest in violent media.

This largely has to do with questions of responsibility. After the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and six teachers before committing suicide, the national conversation turned to gun control and mental illness. The Obama Administration advocated for stricter background checks on firearm purchasers, with the National Rifle Association as its primary opponent. Others focused on Lanza's psychological history, including allegations of a personality disorder and borderline autism. In both cases, the question was: what larger elements are responsible for this tragedy, and how can they be stopped?

Campbell Brown inevitably complicated the debate when he addressed the impact of media violence in an April Wall Street Journal op-ed. Entitled "The President Gives Hollywood a Pass on Violence," Brown argues that Obama's "stale" and ineffective focus on gun control also represents a missed opportunity to use his influence among Hollywood’s elite to "widen the discussion" about "increasingly graphic violence" in movies, TV, and video games. He cites studies from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, claiming, "The evidence is now clear and convincing: media violence is one of the causal factors of real-life violence and aggression."

But is this really true?

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It's hard to argue with science. The aforementioned studies, along with others by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the like, overwhelmingly indicate that prolonged exposure to violent movies and TV among young children yields negative effects: first, it preys on their relative inability to distinguish fact from fantasy, resulting in imitations of violent behavior. Second, it presents violence as a legitimate form of conflict resolution, leading children to try addressing real-life instances of perceived victimization through violence. And thirdly, it desensitizes them to the impact of violence, thereby normalizing it and making it easier to commit.

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Opposing voices do exist, especially in the comparatively under-examined study of violent video games. Dr. Vaughan Bell of King’s College in London has argued that violent action games actually have a positive impact on our ability to "pay attention" and react quickly, as well as heighten our sensitivity to images and help us accurately sort information. Psychologist Christopher Ferguson asserts that "delinquent peers, depression and an abusive family environment account for actual violent incidents, while exposure to media violence seems to have only a minor and usually insignificant effect."

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What emerges is a divide between the impact of video games and that of movies and TV, and how they affect children versus adults. There’s also a clear delineation between what violent media can do as opposed to what it inevitably does do. For example, Max Fisher of the Washington Post looked at the world's 10 largest video game markets and found no causal link between violent games and actual gun violence. Implicitly, this says more about gun access and other societal factors than media causing aggressive behavior.

In short, these studies elicit more questions than definitive answers.

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We're consequently left to enact policy that addresses these issues based on science that provides conflicting answers. Some argue for limiting the proliferation of violent media. Betsy Sharkey opposes this in an impassioned Los Angeles Time op-ed, and many would agree with her that censorship is not the answer. Campbell Brown argues for stricter FCC and MPAA ratings systems that treat violence as seriously as they do sex and foul language. This seems more reasonable: by providing guidelines, it gives parents and guardians the power to regulate what their children see.

In the end, media literacy is key. Nothing preserves free expression while also helping positive child development quite like knowing the potential impacts of violent media, and being present with a child in front of the TV. That way, if onscreen violence occurs that requires explanation or contextualization, you are there to provide it.

Giving people the tools to counteract violent media and its impact on children can be as effective as it is empowering. But so far, it seems few are willing to explore this as a serious option.