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.
9. But haven't other media violence experts also claimed that there is no valid scientific evidence linking media violence to aggression?
Yes, and no. The media industries seek out, promote, and support "experts" who will make such claims. There are several such "experts" who have made their careers by bashing legitimate research. Examining their credentials is quite revealing. Many do not have any research training in an appropriate discipline. Of those who do have advanced degrees in an appropriate discipline (for example, social psychology), almost none of them have ever conducted and published original media violence research in a top-quality peer-reviewed scientific journal.4 That is, they have never designed, carried out, and published a study in which they gathered new data to test scientific hypotheses about potential media violence effects. In other words, they are not truly experts on media violence research. Again, to get at the truth, one must distinguish between actual vs. self-proclaimed (and often industry-backed) experts.
10. Are there any evaluations of the media violence research literature done by groups who have the appropriate expertise but who are not themselves media violence researchers?
Interestingly, a number of professional organizations have asked their own experts to evaluate the media violence research literature. One of the most recent products of such an evaluation was a "Joint Statement on the Impact of Entertainment Violence on Children," issued by six medical and public health professional organizations at a Congressional Public Health Summit on July 26, 2000. This statement noted that "...entertainment violence can lead to increases in aggressive attitudes, values, and behavior, particularly in children." The statement also noted that the research points "...overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children." The six signatory organizations were: American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association. Along the same line, several reports by the U.S. Surgeon General have concluded that exposure to media violence is a significant risk factor for later aggression and violence. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have specifically addressed the violent video game issue; both concluded that playing violent video games is a causal risk factor for later aggression against others, and called for a reduction in exposure of youth to this risk factor.
11. The claim has been made that in terms of the general public's beliefs about media violence effects, we are currently in a situation that is very similar to where the public was some 30 years ago in the tobacco/lung cancer issue. In what ways are these two cases similar? Dissimilar?
The medical research community knew that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer long before the general public came to hold such beliefs. In fact, there are still sizable numbers of smokers who don't really believe this to be true. The tobacco industry was quite effective keeping the public confused regarding the true causal effect of tobacco on lung cancer. Among other tactics, they promoted "experts" who claimed that the research was badly done, or was inconsistent, or was largely irrelevant to lung cancer in humans. The media industries have been doing much the same thing, seeking out, promoting, and supporting "experts" willing to bash media violence research
The tobacco industry successfully defended itself against lawsuits for many years. There have been several lawsuits filed in the U.S. against various video game companies in recent years. As far as I know, none have been successful yet.One big difference between the tobacco industry case and the violent media case is that the main sources of information to the public (e.g., TV news shows, newspapers, magazines) are now largely owned by conglomerates that have a vested interest in denying the validity of any research suggesting that there might be harmful effects of repeated exposure to media violence
The tobacco industry certainly had some influence on the media, because of their advertising revenues, but the violent media industries are essentially a part of the same companies that own and control the news media. Thus, it is likely to be much more difficult for the general public to get an accurate portrayal of the scientific state of knowledge about media violence effects than it was to get an accurate portrayal of the tobacco/lung cancer state of scientific knowledge. Given that it took 30-some years for the public to learn and accept the tobacco/lung cancer findings, it seems unlikely that we'll see a major shift in the public's understanding of media violence effects. Indeed, a study that my colleague Brad Bushman and I published in 2001 suggests that the media violence/aggression link was firmly established scientifically by 1975, and that news reports on this research have gotten less accurate over time.5 Another big difference is in the proportion of people who were hooked on these risk factors as children. The vast majority of youth repeatedly consume violent media, well before they turn 18; this was never true of tobacco products. This is important in part because of the “third person effect,” a psychological phenomenon in which people tend to that they personally are immune to risk factors that can affect others.
12. The U.S. Senate invited you to deliver an expert's opinion on violent video games in March, 2000. Has anything changed in the video game research literature since then?
Yes, since that time a large number of new video game studies have been published. One of the most important developments is that now there have been several major longitudinal studies of violent video game effects on youth. In such studies, the research gathers information about a child’s video game habits and their typical level of aggressiveness at two separate points in time. The two time points may be separated by months or years. Sophisticated statistical techniques are used to answer a simple question: Do those who played lots of violent video games at the first measurement time show larger increases in aggression over time than those who played few violent video games? Such longitudinal studies from North America, Europe, and Japan have all found the same answer: Yes.
In addition, my colleagues and I have done several meta-analyses of all of the video game studies. It is even clearer today than it was at that earlier date that violent video games should be of concern to the general public. That is, even stronger statements can now be made on the basis of the scientific literature.
13. What is your advice concerning public policy towards violent entertainment media, particularly violent video games violence managing?
My colleagues and I try very hard to restrict our role in public policy debate to that of an expert media violence researcher. After all, that's what our training is in, and what we have
devoted our careers to doing. So, when the U.S. Senate (or anyone else) asks what the current scientific research literature shows, I tell them as plainly and clearly as possible. There is a "correct" answer to such a question, and I do my best to convey that answer. When asked what society should do about it, well, that's a political question that should (in my view) be publicly debated. There is no single "correct" answer to this public policy question because a host of personal values are relevant to the debate, in addition to the relevant scientific facts. In addition, there are legal issues that differ for different countries.
Nonetheless, I am willing to give a vague answer to the public policy question. Given the scientific evidence that exposure to media violence (and video game violence) increases aggression in both the short-term and the long-term, and given my belief that the level of aggression in modern society could and should be reduced, I believe that we need to reduce the exposure of youth to media violence. My preference for action is to somehow convince parents to do a better job of screening inappropriate materials from their children. It is not always an easy task for parents—in part because of poor ratings systems—and perhaps there are appropriate steps that legislative bodies as well as the media industries could take to make it easier for parents to control their children's media diet. But of course, as long as the media industries persist in denying the scientific facts and persist in keeping the general public confused about those facts, many parents won't see a need to screen some violent materials from their children. Ironically, the industry's success in keeping parents confused and in making parental control difficult is precisely what makes many citizens and legislators willing to consider legislation designed to reign in what they perceive to be an industry totally lacking in ethical values. My colleagues and I recently published several pieces on the complexity of the public policy issues.
14. Does violence sell?
Clearly, violence does sell, at least in the video game market. But it is not clear whether the dominance of violent video games is due to an inherent desire for such games, or whether this is merely the result of the fact that most marketing dollars are spent on promoting violent games instead of nonviolent ones. One great irony in all of this is the industry belief that violence is necessary in their product in order to make a profit. One result of that belief is that most of marketing efforts go into marketing violence. In fact, the media has seemingly convinced many people in the U.S. that they like only violent media products. But nonviolent and low violent products can be exciting, fun, and sell well. Myst is a good example of an early nonviolent video game that sold extremely well for quite some time. More recent examples include The Sims, many sports and racing games, and many simulation games. Interestingly, in some of our studies college students have to play nonviolent video games. Some of the these students report that they have never played nonviolent games, and are surprised to learn that they like some of the nonviolent ones as much as their violent games.
Even more intriguing is recent research on the psychological motivations that underlie judgments about which games are the most fun and worthy of repeat business. Scholars at the University of Rochester conducted six studies on game players’ ratings of game enjoyment, value, and desire for future play. They found that games that give the player a lot of autonomy (lots of choices within the game) and feelings of competence (for example, success in overcoming difficulties with practice) were rated much more positively than games without these characteristics, regardless of whether or not the games included violence. In other words, violent games are so popular mainly because such games tend to satisfy both autonomy needs and competence needs, not because they contain violence.
15. So are video games basically bad for youth?
No, a better summary statement is that a well-designed video game is an excellent teaching tool. But what it teaches depends upon its content. Some games teach thinking skills. Some teach math. Some teach reading, or puzzle solving, or history. Some have been designed to teach kids how to manage specific illnesses, such as diabetes, asthma, and cancer. But all games teach something, and that “something” depends on what they require the player to practice. In short, there are many nonviolent games that are fun, exciting, and challenging. Children and adolescents (and adults) like them and can learn positive things from them. Some even get you to exercise muscles other than those in your hands. In moderation, such games are good for youth. But parents and educators need to check the content of the games they are considering for the youth in their care. You can’t simply use the game ratings, because many games rated by the industry as appropriate for children and for teens contain lots of violence. But with a bit of parental effort, and some household rules about game-playing, the youth’s gaming experience can be fun and positive.
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