Does Violent Media Influence Violent Behavior?

Recent tragedies have reignited an ongoing dialogue about the influencing factors that lead individuals to commit acts of violence. While many U.S. citizens and advocacy groups blame the prevalence of violent crime in American on the easy availability of assault weapons, some have speculated that child and adolescent exposure to violent media is responsible for an increase in aggressive behavior. In particular, video games, which have been an extremely popular source of entertainment for more than 30 years, cause concern as they continue to grow increasingly violent, realistic and interactive. But there is also another side of this conversation that claims violent media is a safe outlet for aggression. While there are no easy answers and the issue is forever complex, we aim here to provide a cursory glance of both sides of this debate.

Hearing Both Arguments

In the field of behavioral psychology, researchers have sought to prove the hypothesis that children learn and behave from what they see (observational learning). In the classic “Bobo Doll” experiment conducted by famed behavioral psychologist Albert Bandura in 1961, he observed that children were much more likely to violently attack a doll if they had witnessed their parents do the same. Does contemporary psychology support Bandura’s initial theory? In a study conducted in 2006 by developmental psychologists L. Huesmann and Laramie D. Taylor of the University of Michigan, researchers were able to conduct a study of violent media exposure’s effect on both child and adult behavior. They concluded that “media violence poses a threat to public health inasmuch as it leads to real-world violence and aggression.”

Specifically, their data showed strong evidence that short-term exposure to media violence in younger viewers stimulates immediate aggressive behavior with their peers at school. Long-term exposure was significantly correlated with destructive behavior beyond childhood and into adulthood. Their conclusion was in accord with Bandura’s initial theory in that the researchers concluded the portrayal of “justified” violent behavior allows children to consider their own violent behaviors appropriate. The researchers agreed that media exposure is not the only factor that contributes to violent behavior, but asserted that it is an important one.

Numerous similar studies have been conducted and the psychological community overwhelmingly supports the notion that violent media exposure is harmful. The American Psychological Association suggests careful monitoring of media consumption in early childhood to avoid future destructive behavior.

While many developmental psychologists would disagree, there is a formative counter movement that states violent media does not cause violent behavior. Video-game-enthusiasts-turned-advocates argue that most gamers, no matter their age, have the emotional intelligence to discern between reality and virtual reality. Many argue that those who play violent video games experience a form of catharsis that enables them to reduce their level of aggression by engaging in role-playing. James C. Klagge, an associate professor of philosophy at Virginia Tech, suggests that exposure media—even violent media—plays an important role in young people’s lives in that it allows young people to viscerally release negative and angry emotions without harming others.

In addition, some psychologists attest that there is not a strong enough connection between violent media and destructive behavior to warrant concern. Dr. Cheryl Olson, cofounder of the Massachusetts General Hospital Center for Mental Health and Media, conducted a study in 2004 on 1,254 public school students in South Carolina. She observed children playing in a schoolyard and then examined their exposure to violent games. While Dr. Olson noted a correlation between playing violent games and what he called “delinquent behavior,” this was only true in a small percentage of children who already exhibited aggressive traits. The study concluded that violent media exposure has a merely correlative relationship with aggression and that there was not sufficient evidence to support a causal relationship between violent media and violent behavior.

Moving Forward

Despite the heated debate over the effects of media exposure on children, there is no clear answer as to how we can curb violent crime. As researchers continue to study the influences that contribute to destructive behavior, many continue to hope that we can bring about effective change that will end tragic instances of violent crime.