FAQs on Violent Video Games and Other Media Violence (page 2)
1. For your 2003 article on The Influence of Media Violence on Youth (1), you and a distinguished group of media scholars selected by the National Institute of Mental Health reviewed 50 years of research on media violence and aggression. What have been the main research steps, and what are the main conclusions?
Most of the early research focused on two questions:
- Is there a significant association between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior?
- Is this association causal? (That is, can we say that violent television, video games, and other media are directly causing aggressive behavior in our kids?)
The results, overall, have been fairly consistent across types of studies (experimental, cross-sectional, and longitudinal) and across visual media type (television, films, video games). There is a significant relation between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior. Exposing children and adolescents (or “youth”) to violent visual media increases the likelihood that they will engage in physical aggression against another person. By “physical aggression” we mean behavior that is intended to harm another person physically, such as hitting with a fist or some object. A single brief exposure to violent media can increase aggression in the immediate situation. Repeated exposure leads to general increases in aggressiveness over time. This relation between media violence and aggressive behavior is causal.
2. What have researchers focused on in more recent years? How does exposure to media violence increase later aggressive behavior?
Early aggression researchers were interested in discovering how youth learn to be aggressive. Once they discovered observational learning takes place not only when youth see how people behave in the real world but also when they see characters in films and on television, many began to focus on exactly how watching such violent stories increases later aggression. In other words, more recent research really focused on the underlying psychological mechanisms. In the last 10 years there also has been a huge increase in research on violent video games. Based on five decades of research on television and film violence and one decade of research on video games, we now have a pretty clear picture of how exposure to media violence can increase aggression in both the immediate situation as well as in long term contexts. Immediately after consuming some media violence, there is an increase in aggressive behavior tendencies because of several factors.
- Aggressive thoughts increase, which in turn increase the likelihood that a mild or ambiguous provocation will be interpreted in a hostile fashion.
- Aggressive (or hostile) emotion increases.
- General arousal (e.g., heart rate) increases, which tends to increase the dominant behavioral tendency.
- Youth learn new forms of aggressive behaviors by observing them, and will reenact them almost immediately afterwards if the situational context is sufficiently similar.
Repeated consumption of media violence over time increases aggression across a range to situations and across time because of several related factors.
- It creates more positive attitudes, beliefs, and expectations regarding aggressive solutions to interpersonal problems. In other words, youth come to believe that aggression is normal, appropriate, and likely to succeed.
- It also leads to the development of aggressive scripts, which are basically ways of thinking about how the social world works. Heavy media violence consumers tend to view the world in a more hostile fashion.
- It decreases the cognitive accessibility of nonviolent ways to handle conflict. That is, it becomes harder to even think about nonviolent solutions.
- It produces an emotional desensitization to aggression and violence. Normally, people have a pretty negative emotional reaction to conflict, aggression, and violence, and this can be seen in their physiological reactions to observation of violence (real or fictional, as in entertainment media). For example, viewing physical violence normally leads to increases in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as to certain brain wave patterns. Such normal negative emotional reactions tend to inhibit aggressive behavior, and can inspire helping behavior. Repeated consumption of media violence reduces these normal negative emotional reactions.
- Repetition increases learning of any type of skill or way of thinking, to the point where that skill or way of thinking becomes fairly automatic. Repetition effects including learning how to aggress.
3. Is there a difference between the effects of TV/film violence versus Video-Games violence?
Most of the research has focused on TV/film violence (so-called "passive" media), mainly because they have been around so much longer than video games. However, the existing research literature on violent video games has yielded the same general types of effects as the TV and Cinema research. At a theoretical level, there are reasons to believe that violent video games may have a larger harmful effect than violent TV and film effects. This is a very difficult research question, and there currently is no definite answer. But, recent studies that directly compare passive screen media to video games have been tend to find bigger effects of violent video games.
4. Is that why there have been so many school shootings by kids who play lots of violent video games? Can such games turn a normal, well-adjusted child or adolescent into a school shooter?
No, that would be an overstatement, one that mainstream media violence researchers do not make. The best way to think about this is the risk factor approach. There are three important points to keep in mind.
- First, there are many causal risk factors involved in the development of a person who frequently behaves in an aggressive violent manner. There are biological factors, family factors, neighborhood factors, and so on. Media violence is only one of the top dozen or so risk factors.
- Second, extreme aggression, such as aggravated assault and homicide, typically occurs only when there are a number of risk factors present. In other words, none of the causal risk factors are "necessary and sufficient" causes of extreme aggression. Of course, cigarette smoking is not a necessary and sufficient cause of lung cancer, even though it is a major cause of it. People with only one risk factor seldom (I’m tempted to say “never”) commit murder.
- Third, consumption of media violence is the most common of all of the major risk factors for aggression in most modern societies. It also is the least expensive and easiest risk factor for parents to change. In sum, playing a lot of violent games is unlikely to turn a normal youth with zero or one or even two other risk factors into a killer. But regardless of how many other risk factors are present in a youth’s life, playing a lot of violent games is likely to increase the frequency and the seriousness of his or her physical aggression, both in the short term and over time as the youth grows up.
5. Are some social groups more susceptible to the negative effects of violent video games than others? Are some groups immune to these effects?
There is some research suggesting that individuals who are already fairly aggressive may be more affected by consumption of violent video games, but it is not yet conclusive. Similarly, video game effects occasionally appear to be larger for males than females, but such findings are rare. Most studies find that males and females are equally affected, and that high and low aggressive individuals are equally affected. One additional point is worth remembering: Scientists have not been able to find any group of people who consistently appear immune to the negative effects of media violence or video game violence.
6. How important is the distinction between realistic violence versus fantasy violence?
This is an extremely important question because it is so frequently misunderstood. Many people, including psychiatrists and psychologists, tend to think: "Well, it is just a game, this boy (girl) is able to make the difference between it and reality. Let us not worry about it." One of the great myths surrounding media violence is this notion that if the individual can distinguish between media violence and reality, then it can't have an adverse effect on that individual. Of course, the conclusion does not logically follow from the premise. And in fact, most of the studies that have demonstrated a causal link between exposure to media violence and subsequent aggressive behavior have been done with individuals who were fully aware that the observed media violence was not reality. For instance, many studies have used young adult participants who knew that the TV show, the movie clip, or the video game to which they were exposed was not "real." These studies still yielded the typical media violence effect on subsequent aggressive behavior.
7. Aren't there studies of violent video games that have found no significant effects on aggression?
Yes, such studies do exist. In any field of science, some studies will produce effects that differ from what most studies of that type find. If this weren't true, then one would need to
perform only one study on a particular issue and we would have the "true" answer. Unfortunately, science is not that simple.
As an example, consider the hypothesis that a particular coin is "fair," by which I mean that upon tossing it in the air it is equally likely to come up "heads" as "tails." To test this hypothesis, you toss it 4 times, and it comes up heads 3 times (75% heads). I toss it 4 times and get 2 heads (50%). My two graduate students toss it 4 times each, getting 4 tails and 2 heads (0% heads, 50% heads, respectively). Is the coin fair? Why have different people gotten different results? Well, part of the problem is that each of us has conducted a "study" with a sample size that is much too small to produce consistent results. We each should have tossed the coin at least 100 times. Had we done so, each of us would have had about 50% heads (if the coin was truly a "fair" coin). But we still wouldn't have gotten the exact same results. Chance plays some role in the outcome of any experiment. So even if all the conditions of the test are exactly the same, the results will differ to some extent. Of course, in the real world of science, the situation is much more complex. Each study differs somewhat from every other study, usually in several ways.
Given that scientific studies of the same question will yield somewhat different results, purely on the basis of chance, how should we go about summarizing the results of a set of studies? One way is to look at the average outcome across studies. This is essentially what a meta-analysis does. And when one does a meta-analysis on the video game violence research literature, the clear conclusion is that the results are quite consistent. On average there is a clear effect: exposure to violent video games increases subsequent aggression. This has been found for each of the three major research designs (experimental, cross-sectional, and longitudinal), for youth and for young adults, and for youth in North American, Japan, and Western Europe.
Some of the few contradictory studies can be explained as being the result of poor methods. For example, one frequently cited that failed to find a video game effect did not actually measure aggressive behavior; instead, it measured arguments with a friend or spouse. That same study also failed to show that participants in the “high video game violence” condition actually played more violent games than participants in the “low video game violence” condition. In fact, when you separate studies into those that were well conducted versus those that had major flaws, you find that the well conducted studies found bigger average effects of violent video games on aggression than did the poorly conducted studies. Some well-conducted and some poorly-conducted studies suffer from a too small sample size. But the main point is that even well conducted studies with appropriate sample sizes will not yield identical results. For this reason, any general statements about a research domain must focus on the pooled results, not on individual studies.
8. But what about the claims made by the media industries and by some other media violence experts, who say that the existing research evidence shows no effects of violent media?
The various entertainment media industries have lots of money to spend on trying to convince the general public and political leaders that there is nothing to worry about. And they do spend large sums on this. Unlike the research community, which has no vested interest in the topic, the media industry is very concerned about profits and will do almost anything to protect those profits. A recent book by James Steyer titled "The Other Parent: The Inside Story of the Media's Effect on Our Children," reveals much about how this works in the U.S. 3 I suspect that most people would be shocked by many of the revelations contained in this book. I personally have witnessed media industry lobbyists lie about a factual issue, watched them get caught in that lie, and then seen the same lobbyist deliver the same lie to a different group a year later. So, one must distinguish between real vs. industry supported experts.