This should not be surprising: media violence is so pervasive in our lives, and comes in so many different contexts and styles, that it is impossible to make accurate generalizations about its real-world effects based on experiments in a laboratory, or on studies that simply find statistical correlations between media-viewing and aggressive behavior.
Of course, the First Amendment would be a significant barrier to censoring violent images and ideas even if social science had in fact produced statistical evidence of adverse effects. But it is important for the ongoing debate on this issue that the real facts about media violence studies are understood.
r No one seriously doubts that the mass media have profound effects on our attitudes and behavior. But the effects vary tremendously, depending on the different ways that media content is presented, and the personality, background, intelligence, and life experience of the viewer.
r Although many people believe that media violence causes aggression, it’s doubtful that this can ever be proved by the methods of social science. For one thing, violent images and ideas come in too many different styles and contexts for researchers to be able to make meaningful generalizations about effects.1
r Somewhere between 200 and 300 laboratory experiments, field studies, and correlational studies have been done on media violence (not thousands, as some activists have claimed), and their results are dubious and inconsistent. In some cases, experimenters have manipulated disappointing results until they came up with at least one positive finding; then proclaimed that the experiment supported their hypothesis that media violence causes aggression. Some experiments have found more aggressive behavior after viewing nonviolent shows like Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.2
r Professor Jonathan Freedman of the University of Toronto, an independent expert who reviewed the media violence literature in the 1980s, concluded that the research did not “provide either strong or consistent support for the hypothesis that exposure to media violence causes aggression or crime. Rather, the results have been extremely inconsistent and weak.”3 Updating his resarch in 2002, Freedman reported that fewer than half the studies support a causal effect.4
r For the minority of experiments that have yielded positive results, the explanation probably has more to do with the general arousal effect of violent entertainment than with viewers actually imitating violent acts. Laboratory experiments, moreover, do not measure real aggression but other behaviors that the researchers consider “proxies” for real aggression – popping balloons, giving noise blasts, hitting Bobo dolls, or other forms of aggressive play.5
r Laboratory experiments also suffer from “experimenter demand effect”– subjects responding to what they think the researcher wants. They know that behavior is permitted in the lab that would be unacceptable in the real world.6
r Because of the weakness of laboratory experiments in predicting behavior, psychologists have undertaken “field experiments” that more accurately replicate the real world. Freedman reported that the overwhelming majority of field experiments found no adverse effects on behavior from exposure to media violence.7
r Some correlational studies show a “link” or “association” between the subjects’ amount of violent TV viewing and real-world aggressive behavior. But a link or association does not establish causation. It is likely that a combination of factors (level of intelligence, education, social background and attitudes, genetic predisposition, and economic status) account for both the entertainment preferences and the behavior.8
r Some correlational studies do not even focus on violent TV but simply examine overall amount of television viewing. This reinforces the probability that people whose cultural and activity choices are limited and who thus watch excessive amounts of TV also may have a more limited range of responses to conflict situations.9
r Violence has been a subject in literature and the arts since the beginning of human civilization. In part, this simply reflects the unfortunate realities of the world. But it’s also likely that our fascination with violence satisfies some basic human needs. The adrenalin rush, the satisfactions of imagination, fantasy, and vicarious adventure, probably explain why millions of nonviolent people enjoy violent entertainment.10
r Because the mass media presents violence in so many different ways (news, sports, action movies, cartoons, horror movies, documentaries, war stories with pacifist themes), it is particularly difficult to generalize about its impact. Even social scientists who believe that violent entertainment has adverse effects don’t agree on what kinds of violent images or ideas are harmful. Some point to cartoons; others point to movies in which a violent hero is rewarded; others fault the gory focus of television news.
r Every federal appellate court that has addressed the issue has rejected the claim that social science research shows adverse effects from violent content in entertainment. In a June 2011 decision striking down a law that restricted minors’ access to violent video games, the Supreme Court noted that research studies “do not prove that violent video games cause minors to act aggressively (which would at least be a beginning).” Instead, “nearly all of the research is based on correlation, not evidence of causation, and most of the studies suffer from significant, admitted flaws in methodology. … They show at best some correlation between exposure to violent entertainment and minuscule real-world effects, such as children’s feeling more aggressive or making louder noises in the few minutes after playing a violent game than after playing a nonviolent game.”10a
r There have been instances where criminals or others engaged in violent behavior have imitated specific aspects of a violent movie or TV show. But the fact that millions of other viewers have not engaged in imitation suggests that predisposition is the important factor, and that if the bad actors had not seen that particular movie or show, they would have imitated something else. It is impossible to predict which episodes or descriptions will be imitated by unstable individuals, and equally impossible to ban every book, movie, magazine article, song, game, or other cultural product that somebody might imitate.11
r There is much that is pernicious, banal, and crude in popular culture — not all of it violent. The best ways to address concerns about bad media messages of all types are media literacy education, prompt attention to danger signs for violent behavior in schools, workplaces, and other venues, and increased funding for creative, educational, nonviolent TV programming.12
*This article previously appeared on the Free Expression Policy Project, which existed from 2000-2017.
1. See, e.g., Jeffrey Goldstein, ed. Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment (1998); Henry Jenkins, “Lessons From Littleton: What Congress Doesn’t Want to Hear About Youth and Media.” Harper’s, August 1999; National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, Understanding and Preventing Violence (A. Reiss, Jr. & J. Roth, eds.) (1993), pp. 101-02; Marjorie Heins, Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship, and the Innocence of Youth (2001), pp. 228-53.
2. See Jib Fowles, The Case for Television Violence (1999); Richard Rhodes, “The Media-Violence Myth,” Rolling Stone, Nov. 23, 2000, p. 55; Jonathan Freedman, Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence (2002). For studies examining the effect of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, see Kenneth Gadow & Joyce Sprafkin, “Field Experiments of Television Violence with Children: Evidence for an Environmental Hazard?” 83(3) Pediatrics 399 (1989); Joyce Sprafkin, Kenneth Gadow & Patricia Grayson, “Effects of Viewing Aggressive Cartoons on the Behavior of Learning Disabled Children.” 28(3) Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry 387 (1987).
3. Jonathan Freedman, Executive Summary, “Media Violence and Aggression: A Review of the Research,” University of Toronto Manuscript (March 2001).
4. Jonathan Freedman, Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence (2002).
5. See Jeffrey Goldstein, “Does Playing Violent Video Games Cause Aggressive Behavior?” Paper presented at U. of Chicago “Playing By the Rules” Conference, Oct. 27, 2001, p. 5; Stuart Fischoff, “Psychology’s Quixotic Quest for the Media-Violence Connection,” 4(4) Journal of Media Psychology (1999), http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/sfischo/violence.html (accessed 9/20/02) (question about grant termination used as measure of aggression); Craig Anderson & Karen Dill, “Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life,” 78(4) Journal of Personality& Social Psychology 772 (2000) (using as proxies noise blasts and recognizing “aggressive” words); Ellen Wolock, “Is There a Reasonable Approach to Handling Violence in Video Games?” Children’s Software Revue, July/Aug. 2002 (“aggressivity” measured through “increase in heart rate and blood pressure, negative responses on questionnaires, toy choice, etc.”); Craig Emes, “Is Mr. Pac Man Eating Our Children? A Review of the Effect of Video Games on Children,” 42 Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 409, 413 (1997) (reliability and validity of procedures used to measure aggression “are questionable”).
6. See Jonathan Freedman, Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression, supra, pp. 49-51, 80-83; Guy Cumberbatch, “Video Violence: Villain or Victim?” (Video Standards Council, UK, 2001), www.videostandards.org.uk/video_violence.htm (accessed 9/13/02) (quoting “one shrewd four year-old who, on arriving at the laboratory, … was heard to whisper to her mother, ‘Look mummy! There’s the doll we have to hit!”); Joanne Savage, “The Criminologist’s Perspective,” in Violence and the Media (Freedom Forum, 2001), p. 28 (“it is possible that showing subjects violent material creates an atmosphere of permissiveness and encourages them to be more aggressive”).
7. Jonathan Freedman, Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence (2002), pp. 106-107.
8. See generally Federal Trade Commission, Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children: A Review of Self-Regulation and Industry Practices in the Motion Picture, Music Recording & Electronic Game Industries, Appendix A – “A Review of Research on the Impact of Violence in Entertainment Media” (Sept. 2000); Jonathan Freedman, Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence (2002).
9. See Brandon Centerwall, “Television and Violence: The Scale of the Problem and Where to Go From Here,” 267 JAMA 3059 (1992); Sissela Bok, Mayhem – Violence as Public Entertainment (1998), p. 86; Franklin Zimring & Gordon Hawkins, Crime is Not the Problem – Lethal Violence in America (1997), pp. 133-34, 239-43; Committee on Communications & Media Law, “Violence in the Media: A Position Paper,” 52 Record 273, 292-93 (Association of the Bar, City of New York, 1997).
10. See, e.g., Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment – The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1975); John Sommerville, The Rise and Fall of Childhood (1982), pp. 136-38; Jean Piaget, Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood (1962), pp. 132-33, 158; Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (1950), p. 215; Henry Jenkins, “Lessons From Littleton: What Congress Doesn’t Want to Hear About Youth and Media,” Harper’s, August 1999; David Blum, “Embracing Fear as Fun To Practice for Reality: Why People Like to Terrify Themselves,” New York Times, Oct. 30, 1999, p. B11; Norbert Elias & Eric Dunning, Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process (1986), p. 89; Jeffrey Arnett, “The Soundtrack of Restlessness – Musical Preferences and Reckless Behavior Among Adolescents.” 7(3) Journal of Adolescent Research 328 (July 1992); Jeffrey Arnett. “Adolescents and heavy metal music: From the mouths of metalheads.” 23 Youth & Society 76 (Sept. 1991).
10a. See Why Nine Court Defeats Haven’t Stopped States From Trying to Restrict Violent Video Games and Requiem For California’s Video Game Law.
11. See John Douglas & Mark Olshaker, The Anatomy of Motive (1999), pp. 82-87; Stuart Fischoff, “Psychology’s Quixotic Quest for the Media-Violence Connection,” 4(4) Journal of Media Psychology (1999), http://www.calstatela.edu/faculty/sfischo/violence.html (accessed 9/20/02).
12. See Media Literacy: An Alternative to Censorship (Free Expression Policy Project, 2003).
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