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What is the connection between media violence and real-world violence?

Posted on: April 14, 2021

Written by Christopher Kilmartin, an emeritus college professor, author, stand-up comedian, actor, playwright, consultant and professional psychologist. He is the author of The Fictions that Shape Men's Lives.

When I ask students in my General Psychology class if there is a connection between media portrayals of physical aggression and actual violent behavior, many, without hesitation, simply answer “no.” “What tells you that?” I ask. Generally, the responses take the form of stories about they and/or people they know who consume violent media and have never been violent.

Obviously, watching American Psycho or its ilk is not going to turn all viewers into serial killers. But does that fact mean that violent media has no effect at all on anyone? As my classroom discussion proceeds, I remind the students of two broad goals for the course:

  • To distinguish between a question that is merely a matter of taste or preference and an empirical question--one that can only be answered through careful scrutiny of research data. “Is violent television worthwhile entertainment?” is an example of the former—a question of preference. “Is there evidence of a connection between violent media and real-world violence?” is an example of the latter.
  • To think about behaviors as having multiple causes and multiple effects. Rarely do behaviors arise from singular sources. Rather, they more often come about from multiple influences.

Do we have research on the effects of violent media? Yes—at least 60 years of it. In the 1950s and 1960s, the United States began to see an exponential rise in the number of homes that had at least one television in them, and that increase has obviously continued, and beyond television, in much of the developing world. Shortly after television became nearly ubiquitous, behavioral researchers began to investigate the effects on exposure to aggressive programming. The body of research on violent media includes the following:

  • Television is remarkably violent. Although only one-half of one percent of crimes committed in the real world are murders, fifty percent of the crimes committed on television are murders. If real life were as violent as television, the entire population of the United States would be wiped out in fifty days.
  • The effects of violent media are subtle, cumulative, and indirect. For people who have other risk factors such as childhood trauma and exposure to violent role models, high levels of exposure to violent media has the effect of making it about ten percent more likely that they will cause physical harm to another human being. A parallel about the accumulation of adverse experiences: nobody is going to become obese from eating one fast food meal, nor to get lung cancer from smoking a single cigarette, and although there are undoubtedly people who eat fast food every day or smoke all of their lives and suffer no negative outcomes, clearly these unusual cases do not mean that there is no adverse effects from these unhealthy habits.

What’s the big deal about ten percent? Although violence is a low-frequency behavior, it is one with extreme consequences: physical and psychological injury, and even death. If media violence is associated with 1100 acts of physical aggression instead of 1000, the effect is small but very important.

So, what should we do about it? Ban all violent media?

I do not advocate banning anything, although we would do well to limit exposure to young children. At very early ages, they cannot even distinguish between a television program and the commercials that accompany it, and early exposure is another risk factor. But we can teach children media literacy by helping them to identify the stories being told and helping them to generate alternative narratives. More specifically, we can help children to:

  • Find low-probability outcomes in the story. James Bond is being shot at by 1000 people, and not only can nobody hit him, he is remarkably relaxed and cool while in extreme danger. One movie trope is the slow-motion walk of protagonists while there is an explosion taking place behind them, which they seem to not even notice. Ask yourself: if you heard something explode behind you, wouldn’t you at least turn around to see what has happened?
  • Generate alternative conflict resolution strategies by considering the question, “What else could have been done to solve the problem?” Like maybe instead of allowing a kid to bully a classmate during dodgeball, the school could take steps to help bullies to address their troubles more directly. As former NFL player and now coach Joe Ehrmann is fond of saying, “Hurt people hurt people.” And of course, I think we can do without dodgeball and other aggressive school activities.

Why is violent media so prevalent? Obviously, because it sells. Also, we live in an entertainment culture where stories must be mass produced, and every story needs an element of tension. A writer can produce instant tension simply by putting a gun in a character’s hand. There are many more creative ways to produce story tension, and in fact, viewers prefer stories that are well-told without the elements of violence.

The other thing we need to understand is that buying a movie ticket or turning on a certain television program is a political act. I can tell the difference between myself and a mean “professional wrestler,” but I am not sure that an 11-year-old can, and the more I watch this so-called sport, the more will be produced, and the more 11-year olds will see them. (I put “professional wrestler” in quotes because “professional wrestling” is not professional, nor is it wrestling.) We will see a sharp reduction in violent media when it becomes less profitable. It is incumbent upon all of us, the vast majority of whom are never violent, to take seriously what we are promoting with our money.