What do We Know About Media Violence?

It is difficult to set down in a definitive way what effect media violence has on consumers and young people. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main issue is that terms like “violence” and “aggression” are not easily defined or categorized. To a child, almost any kind of conflict, such as the heated arguments of some talk-radio shows or primetime news pundits, can sound as aggressive as two cartoon characters dropping anvils on one another.

The reality is that we have not yet successfully defined violence and aggression, whether when analyzing the content we consume, or investigating the potentially resultant aggressive behaviour. Because individual studies define these notions differently, the goal posts are constantly moving for anyone who is trying to get a big picture look at the situation. The difficulty of quantifying aggression and violence in a strict way makes it nearly impossible to accurately answer the question “Does media violence cause people to commit violence?”

Many studies, many conclusions

In 1994, Andrea Martinez at the University of Ottawa conducted a comprehensive review of the scientific literature on media violence for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). She concluded that the lack of consensus about media effects reflects three “grey areas” or constraints contained in the research itself. These grey areas still apply today.

Firstly, media violence is notoriously hard to define and measure. Some experts who track violence in television programming, such as the late George Gerbner, defined violence as the act (or threat) of injuring or killing someone, independent of the method used or the surrounding context. As such, Gerbner included cartoon violence in his data-set. But others, such as University of Laval professors Guy Paquette and Jacques de Guise, specifically excluded cartoon violence from their research because of its comical and unrealistic presentation. How they would view some of the increasingly realistic violence in many of today’s cartoons aimed at teens – such as the gruesome injuries suffered by many of the characters on Rick and Morty and Family Guy – is an open question.

Second, researchers disagree over the type of relationship the data supports. Some argue that exposure to media violence causes aggression. Some say that the two are associated, but that there is no causal connection (that both, for instance, may be caused by some third factor), while others say the data supports the conclusion that there is no relationship between the two at all.

Third, even those who agree that there is a connection between media violence and aggression disagree about how the one affects the other.

More than a decade later, the debate of whether media violence causes violence continues. In 2016, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement in the online issue of their journal entitled “Virtual Violence,” which found that “exposure to media violence is becoming an inescapable component of children’s lives.” The report’s overall conclusion, after looking at 400 reports about violent media, was that “there [is] a significant association between exposure to media violence and aggressive behaviour.” At the same time, the AAP report stressed that “no single risk factor consistently leads a person to act aggressively or violently. Rather, it is the accumulation of risk factors that tends to lead to aggressive or violent behavior.” As well, the report pointed out that “all violence is aggression, but not all aggression is violence.” While violent media may lead viewers or players to be more aggressive, it may only rarely make enough of a difference to provoke them to commit acts of violence they otherwise wouldn’t have.[1] 

Despite the apparent consensus shown in the AAP report, many studies have found no significant impacts of violent media on concerns such as bullying or antisocial behaviours;[2] aggressive behaviour;[3] reduced academic performance, depressive symptoms, attention deficit symptoms;[4] empathy[5] or violence.[6]

With that in mind, based on a number of recent studies published in peer-reviewed academic journals, there are some things we can say:

What’s the good news?

  • Violent video games are not directly linked to incidents like high school shootings.[7]
  • Video games are not directly linked to youth crime, aggression and dating violence.[8]
  • Violent video games have not led to an increase in violent crime; in fact, violent crime has decreased in the years since game playing became a common activity for youth.[9]
  • Even though consumers tend to gravitate towards violent media, we are generally more satisfied by or take more joy from non-violent media.[10]
  • Playing action video games results in increased basic visual sensory processing, selective visual attention and some higher cognitive skills.[11]
  • At low to medium levels, time spent playing video games – violent or otherwise – reduces violent behaviour among teens “by keeping them occupied and reducing opportunities and motivation to acquire guns” (however, this effect fades at high levels of playing time).[12]
  • Violent media, especially video games, have been used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems.[13]

What’s the bad news?

  • Youth and adults who plan mass shootings do look to media coverage of past shootings for models and, in some cases, are motivated by the notoriety brought by news coverage.[14]
  • Violent video games may desensitize players to other violent images and emotional stimuli.[15]
  • Violent media often portray violent acts and situations but rarely represent the consequences of violence.[16]
  • Violent video games may lead to increased aggression in some young children and youth by making aggression seem like a reasonable response to everyday conflicts.[17]
  • Exposure to violent media is affiliated with executive control impairments, which predicts high levels of impulsive aggression.[18]
  • For youth who are already involved in violent subcultures, such as gangs, media such as music and social networks may promote aggression as a social norm and can even incite violent acts.[19], [20]

Physical aggression

To date, most research on violent media has focused on its relationship with physical aggression – either aggressive attitudes or actually aggressive behaviour. Though this is the area that has attracted the most attention, it is also where researchers have most often found no relationship between media violence and behaviour.

There is also reason to think that violence in media has different effects on different people and may interact with other risk factors. A 2017 study from Dartmouth College, assessing 24 studies and looking at 17,000 participants, concluded that playing violent video games is associated with greater levels of physical aggression over time. The research showed some disparity between ethnicities with the highest percentage of observation being among white participants, then Asian participants and hardly any at all among Hispanic participants.[21] Another meta-analysis found a relationship between violent video games and physical aggression with youth aged 14-16.[22]

It may also be that because some young people are more interested in violent media than others, a spiral effect occurs in which those who are consume a progressively higher amount of violent media relative to their peers, leading to greater and greater impacts.[23] Media violence can also have an influence on social norms around violence among teens, but its effect depends on how common they believe real-world aggression to be. Exposure to media violence made teens more likely to think their peers approved of it if they already thought there were high levels of aggression in their peer group, while those who thought there were lower levels were actually less likely to think their peers approved of violence after seeing it in the media.[24]

It’s important to note that even those researchers who have found a relationship between media violence and physical aggression consider it only one of a number of variables that put children at risk of aggressive behaviour. For example, a Norwegian study that included 20 at-risk teenaged boys found that the lack of parental rules regulating what the boys watched was a more significant predictor of aggressive behaviour than the amount of media violence they consumed. The study also indicated that exposure to real world violence, together with exposure to media violence, created an “overload” of violent events. Boys who experienced this overload were more likely to use violent media images to create and consolidate their identities as members of an anti-social and marginalized group.[25] Similarly, the Ontario government report Roots of Youth Violence identified a number of other risk factors that may interact with media violence in increasing the risk of aggressive behaviour, including “poverty, racism, community design, issues in the education system, family issues health, lack of economic opportunity for youth, issues in the justice system and lack of youth voice.”[26] Other research has identified as risk factors “parents’ low media literacy, limited social skills, male gender [and] availability of audiovisual media in the bedroom.”[27]

Relational aggression

Numerous studies have also found a relationship between media portrayals of relational aggression – including non-physical relationship violence[28] and “social” forms of bullying such as name-calling, ostracism and spreading rumours – and engaging in these behaviours or seeing them as acceptable,[29] leading some researchers to conclude that “social aggression on television poses more of a risk for imitation and learning than do portrayals of physical aggression”[30] and has a more powerful influence on behaviour than physical violence.[31] Relational aggression may also be more common in youth-focused media than physical aggression: researchers have found that nine in ten of the 50 most popular programs among 2 to 11-year-olds contain it.[32] Similarly, a worrying amount of pornography features sexual violence. One study found that one in eight videos shown to first-time visitors of popular porn sites featured content such as sexual assault, voyeurism, coercion and physical violence[33] – which may promote a ‘sexual script’ that normalizes aggressive and abusive sexual activity.[34]  

As with physical aggression, the relationship between media and behaviour is complex. Some studies have found that girls are more heavily influenced than boys[35],[36] while research on relational aggression in reality TV found that viewers who believe it to accurately reflect reality are more heavily influenced.[37]

Attitudes towards violence

Violence in media can also influence our views and attitudes. Some studies have found that exposure to media violence can make teens feel less concern for people who are in distress[38] or are victims of crime,[39] though some other researchers have found media violence does not reduce empathy.[40] Here, too, the details matter: research has found that representations of female victims of crime that depersonalize them make viewers less empathetic towards them and more prone to blaming the victims for what happened to them.[41]

In some cases, of course, attitudes can influence behaviour. One study found that playing violent video games made men more confident of their own fighting ability, less likely to see other men as tough and less able to recognize anger on others’ faces.[42] Similarly, research has found that whether or not violent media leads to aggression may depend on how much it fosters moral disengagement in players and viewers.[43]

Media may also have an impact on our views of violence as a desirable or acceptable solution to problems, even if it does not lead directly to aggression. One study found that boys who played violent video games were significantly more likely to have pro-violence attitudes than those who played non-violent games.[44] This is particularly true when it comes to the use of violence by military or police. Viewing violence on television is associated with higher support for using force to resolve social or political issues.[45] More specifically, viewers of crime shows are more likely to believe that police only use force when necessary and that ‘bending the rules’ will produce positive results rather than false confessions[46] and to support the use of the death penalty.[47]

A related phenomenon, “Mean World Syndrome,” coined by researcher George Gerbner, suggests that heavy TV viewers tend to perceive the world in ways that are consistent with the images on TV. Gerbner’s research found that those who watch greater amounts of television are more likely to:

  • overestimate their risk of being victimized by crime;
  • believe their neighbourhoods are unsafe;
  • believe “fear of crime is a very serious personal problem”[48] and
  • assume the crime rate is increasing, even when it is not.[49]

Research has consistently confirmed that media representations of crime influence how people perceive it, which can also lead to an exaggerated fear of crime or to worrying more about crimes that are less frequent but more newsworthy.[50] Media can also influence how we perceive specific types of violence. News coverage of domestic violence, for instance, can promote misconceptions about how common it is and encourage excuses for the perpetrator’s behaviour,[51] while coverage of gun violence can lead people to overestimate the number of mass shootings relative to other gun deaths.[52] However, as with other media forms, there are important differences between different kinds of news coverage. Local news has the biggest impact on perceptions of crime,[53] while in ‘news deserts’ (areas not served or underserved by local news) social networks, such as Nextdoor or Facebook groups, sometimes spread inaccurate information both about crime rates and specific incidents, sometimes even falsely accusing community members of committing crimes.[54]

Some scholars argue that, in the past few decades, violence in media, especially on television, has not only become more frequent and extreme but also more actively hostile to compassion. Perhaps the best example of this is The Walking Dead, which – along with being a breakout hit for its network, one of the last remaining “water-cooler” shows (i.e. those that most viewers can expect their friends and co-workers to have watched, or at least be aware of) and a pioneer in portraying gruesome violence on U.S. basic cable – also represents a change from the traditional portrayal of violence in American TV as being committed by ‘good guys’ in the name of maintaining the social order to “a repeated pattern of brutal killings of characters who are moral inspirations.”[55] Violence against characters that have been dehumanized, such as the zombies in The Walking Dead, may encourage moral disengagement.[56] Though some degree of moral disengagement is necessary to enjoy a violent media text,[57] especially one like a video game in which players are performing the violent acts,[58] under normal circumstances our moral sense is never entirely disengaged and seeing or performing violent acts that seem extreme or unjustified can provoke a strong moral reaction.[59] While othering and dehumanization are the intentional goals of much hate propaganda, portraying enemies as fundamentally inhuman – whether as literal zombies, in fiction, or as metaphorically ‘othered’ monsters in crime coverage – can also unintentionally promote greater moral disengagement, encouraging us to see their killing as morally neutral or even desirable and making us less likely to question the use of force against them.[60] For example, the group most influenced by crime dramas and news coverage of crime is white people with Black neighbours.[61]

Theories of violent media impact

One theory of how violent media may influence behaviour is priming, which holds that media, particularly interactive media such as video games, serve as teaching tools, demonstrating to us which behaviours are punished and which are rewarded. Its impact, then, does not come from a single exposure to a violent media text but from repetition.[62] According to priming theory, exposure to violent media will increase aggressive attitudes and behaviour,[63] while prosocial media will prompt empathy and more prosocial behaviour.[64] Some longitudinal studies have found support for this idea: a Canadian study of high school students found that high levels of playing violent video games was associated with a steeper increase in aggression over time compared to those who played less often.[65] 

Priming effects have been found most powerfully in connection with images of weapons. Experiments have found that seeing images of guns primed aggressive thoughts, regardless of whether the gun was being used by a criminal, a soldier or a police officer.[66] Similarly, seeing gun violence in media made children more likely to play with and practice firing a (disabled) handgun, though seeing violence committed with a sword did not.[67] Other studies have found that just images of guns – even in the context of a sign prohibiting guns – can make people who see them more aggressive.[68]

However, other research has shown that context can be key to the impacts of violent media, with very different effects depending on who is committing it. For example, one study found that while watching heroic characters commit violent acts increased aggression, violent villains did not have the same impact.[69] Unfortunately, recent research has found that heroes in films popular with youth commit more violent acts than the villains.[70]

In video games, by contrast, committing violent acts while playing as a heroic character is not associated with being more aggressive, while playing as a violent villain or antihero is associated with aggression.[71] Therefore both the specific content (whether the violence is committed by a hero or villain) and the form (whether you are watching the violence or virtually committing it) influence the impact violent media may have. Similarly, some studies have found that while single-player video games may be related to aggression, violence in multiplayer games is not[72] – suggesting that the effect depends on players perceiving it as a story rather than simply a game.

Both of these theories may be partly true. Even in experiments that found priming effects, context was found to be important: images of athletes firing guns during Olympic shooting competitions, for instance, did not prime aggressive thoughts in the way that images of police, soldiers or criminals did.[73] Conversely, some studies have found that the key to whether or not seeing media violence leads to aggression is not simply whether the character is heroic or villainous, but whether or not the viewer identifies with them, suggesting that both priming and cultivation are at work.[74] Here, too, the relationship seems to be different for interactive media such as video games, where research found that identifying with a character did not influence media impact.[75]

Portrayals of relational aggression, similarly, had different impacts depending both on the content – in particular, whether or not the character engaging in the behaviour and whether or not the viewer thought the behaviour was funny[76] – and on elements of the particular medium or genre, such as whether or not the behaviour was followed by “canned laughter” from the laugh track.[77]

What should be apparent when we look at these all of these studies and data conclusions is that media violence is a highly complex and nuanced issue. There are clearly concerns with regards to violent media content such as age-appropriateness, saturation, desensitization and instilling fear or unease in viewers. At the same time, many of the media products through which we are exposed to violent imagery provide benefits as well. Games and movies may expose young people to some violent content, but studies increasingly show that they also offer positive benefits. There is no way to completely shut out violent content, to guarantee that children will never play video games that are rated for an older audience or to make certain that everyone’s feelings on what is inappropriate content will coincide with industry self-regulation practices. What concerned adults and parents can do is promote critical engagement with the media that young people and children consume, monitor children’s media use and discuss and establish rules at home to let young people understand what is or is not appropriate. More on how to talk about media violence with children can be found in the subsection Critically Engaging with Media Violence. If you are interested in legislation and industry tools that can help you to understand laws or give you a better idea of what to look out for, see our Government and Industry Responses to Media Violence.



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