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How does media violence influence us?

Scholar George Gerbner’s conclusions indicate that watching television makes people more likely to think the world is a dangerous place.

While studies show children may imitate silly behavior in "The Three Stooges," they do not show the imitation was accompanied by violent intent, and thus likely to be repeated in non-play situations.
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Socrates predicted that reading and writing would devastate his community. He urged the students of Athens to avoid the written word, for fear their minds would go undeveloped and their baser instincts dominate. The contemporary analogues for Socrates’ admonition are the numerous warnings that we should limit exposure to violent television and video games for fear their effects might devastate us, if they have not done so already.

Jeffery L. Bineham
Jeffery L. Bineham

We’re as likely to unring the digital bell as Socrates was to unring the literary one. But it’s worth asking: Do violent images lead to a violent society? Are children who watch lots of television or play hours of video games more likely to be aggressive or to engage in violent crime? Answers to those questions are difficult to ascertain.

The St. Cloud Times editorialized recently that parents should control their children’s use of television and video games because these are controllable factors that affect behavior. The editorial cited a study reported in Forbes that claimed the risk of criminal conviction increased by 30 percent “for every hour of TV the kids watched on an average weeknight.”

As Forbes tells it, television is a drug, and heavier doses cause more pronounced reactions. The study itself, reported in Pediatrics, says its “findings are consistent with a causal association.” Joe Nocera of the New York Times makes a similar claim: Research demonstrates that violent television and video games cause people to be violent.

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In a January MinnPost article, however, Susan Perry cites numerous studies that show playing violent video games does not increase the probability of violent behavior. The Los Angeles Times, in one of its series of articles about “The Culture of Violence,” notes that research results on this topic are mixed. One study shows, for example, that watching violent media renders us less empathetic to the suffering of others, but not that it makes us more violent. Another project concluded that while someone prone to violence might imitate something they watched, “playing violent video games was not a predictor of criminal violence.”

Reviews question some research findings

Numerous studies claim a causal connection between media violence and real-world aggression, but comprehensive reviews of those studies question their findings. The reviews, published in 20042008, and 2012 in the journals Aggression and Violent Behavior and American Behavioral Scientist, identify numerous problems in decades of media-violence research.

Much research, for example, fails to distinguish between violent media content and energetic or high-action media content, and fails to provide an operational definition of aggression. So while studies show children may imitate adventuresome narratives in “Zorro” or silly behavior in “The Three Stooges,” they do not show the imitation was accompanied by violent intent, and thus likely to be repeated in non-play situations, or that the imitation was because of violent content.

Most research on media violence, in addition, demonstrates correlation rather than causation: Aggressive children do watch more violent television, but they are as likely to watch the violent content because of their aggressive traits as they are to behave aggressively because they watch violent programs. This problem is especially pronounced in the 2004 and 2008 reviews, but even the 2012 authors note a failure to control for intervening factors like violent parents and depression, and bemoan “that little effort appears to be made to employ more careful research designs, particularly when well-controlled multivariate designs with well-validated outcome measures appear to produce different outcomes than less-controlled studies.”

The reviews of media violence research express similar conclusions. From 2004: “There is little evidence in favor of focusing on media violence as a means of remedying our violent crime problem.” From 2008: “We really do not know what long-term clinical psychological effect, if any, media violence has had on this society.” And most pronounced, from 2012: “In decades of media violence research, where thousands of children and young adults have been shown violent programming and, more recently, asked to play violent video games, we have seen no direct evidence that even one truly violent act has been caused by television violence exposure, either alone or in part.”

Media effects are perceptual

Does this mean we should be unconcerned about the influences of television and video games? No. But we should reconsider how we think about those influences. George Gerbner was a media scholar most known for his studies of television violence. As I’ve noted elsewhere, his conclusions indicate not that watching television makes people more violent, but that it makes them more likely to think the world is a dangerous place. Media effects are not so much behavioral as they are perceptual: They provide us with the meanings by which we view the world.

Those who watch lots of violent media content, for example, when compared to those who do not, tend to believe their neighborhoods are more unsafe, that they are more likely to be victims of violence, and that crime rates in general are increasing. They are more likely to favor stricter laws and harsher sentences, and “to buy new locks, watchdogs, and guns” to protect themselves. The result might be a more violent world, but it’s not because viewers simply imitate the violence they see on television or in video games.

We should continue to study connections between media content and aggressive actions.  But we should also examine how television and video games might have effects other than to provoke criminal aggression. We should be more concerned about how the media convince us that we live in a scary world, and thus encourage us to behave and to make decisions based on a pervasive sense of fear.

Jeffery L. Bineham is a professor of rhetoric in the Department of Communication Studies at St. Cloud State University.

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