Criticism of media violence is often mixed with concerns of racism, gender, ageism and class. Print and digital media news outlets, talk shows and evening news programs often feature stories in which hip hop and rap are held up to the viewer as the exemplars of contemporary culture’s slide into violent depravity.
Given the widely differing views about the effects of media violence held by both researchers and cultural commentators, it’s important to identify those effects that are well established by reliable research and to cast a critical eye on the things we think we know. Media violence is a very complicated subject and a question like “Does it cause violence?” ignores the complexity of the relationships, beliefs and economic imperatives that surround violent media content. From a media literacy perspective, what’s most important is asking key questions about media violence like:
- How is violence used in mass media?
- Why is it so common?
- Is it as common as I think?
- What effects does it have on our behaviour? On our attitudes? On how we see the world?
- How important is the context in which it appears?
- How can we deal with it?
- How can I teach my children or students to deal with it?
While there may be a more complex and subtle relationship between media violence and violent behaviour, the debate is dominated by one question—whether or not media violence actually causes real-life violence. This may be because the debate is at least partially a political one, between those who want to censor violent content to protect children and those who see regulation as the slippery slope to censorship or a smokescreen hiding the root causes of violence in society.
As technology has advanced and media have become more immersive – from the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrival of a Train to today’s “first-person shooter” video games—people have been concerned that viewers and players will lose the distance between themselves and the media and be driven to acts of violence. Given the focus of these games on weaponry, the paranoia-inducing corridors that are typical of game environments and the role of the player as lone judge, jury and executioner, it isn’t difficult to see the line of thinking that links these types of games to the idea of mass violence. In particular, recent attention has focused on the possibility that media violence (especially video games) has been a contributing factors in mass violence such as the shootings at Columbine High School (1999), Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (2007), Utøya Island in Norway (2011), the Walmart El Paso shooting (2019) and the Christchurch attack in New Zealand (2019). Despite these suggestive connections, however, no clear relationship has ever been established between media violence (including video games) and real-world violence. Recent research completed by Western Michigan University concluded that “playing video games, no matter how graphic, did not predict violent behaviour.”
One thing is certain: the issue of media violence is not going to go away. Increasingly, the debate is shifting towards “cultures of violence,” and on the normalization of aggression and lack of empathy in our society.
The realities of digital media complicate these issues in new ways. For instance, new media forms are everywhere and interactive, something that traditional narrative forms (such as books, film and TV) are not. As well, given the increased ability of consumers to access whatever media content they want, whenever they want, the prospect of censoring or even limiting access to violent media is becoming more and more remote. Therefore, “it is crucial that scientists conduct work with openness and rigour if we are to build a real understanding of the positive and negative dynamics and impacts of technology in people’s lives.”
 McWhorter, J. (2003). “How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back.” City Journal. Retrieved from http://www.city-journal.org/html/13_3_how_hip_hop.html
 (2008). “Swash, Rosie, Nas and Bill O’Reilly try to out-Fox each other.” The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2008/jul/29/nas.and.bill.o.reilly.go.to.war
 Chavez, N. (2020). The suspect in the El Paso Walmart shooting is now facing federal hate crime charges. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/06/us/el-paso-walmart-shooting-suspect-indictment/index.html
 Kaufman, E (2019) Fact Check: are violent video games connected to mass shootings. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/05/politics/violent-video-game-shooting-fact-check/index.html
 Warren, M (2019). These violent delights don’t have violent ends. The British Psychological Society. Retrieved from https://digest.bps.org.uk/2019/03/06/these-violent-delights-dont-have-violent-ends-study-finds-no-link-between-violent-video-games-and-teen-aggression/