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What is Wrong with Media Violence Reasearch


For many years, there has been much debate over whether or not there is a direct causal link between violence in the media and real life acts of aggression. This argument has been backed by some psychologists and representatives from health organizations who claims that scientific research proves that exposure to media violence is harmful to young people. In the 1950s, for instance following studies on the effect media violence had on young children, the United States Congress enacted strict guidelines on violence in movies, comics, and TV shows. Many researchers supported the claim that violent media is harmful to people, arguing that films such as “Natural Born Killers,” (Gordon, 1999) have influenced many people, including the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, into committing mass shootings and other acts of violence. Despite the research suggesting a link between violent media and aggressive behavior, studies show more correlation than causation.

Violent media is often the scapegoat when it comes to crimes. It's common in the aftermath of mass shootings for experts in the field of violent media to jump to conclusions over what piece of violent entertainment caused the person to act aggressively. For example, after the Columbine massacre, violent entertainment was immediately blamed for the actions of the two shooters. The press was quick to blame the violent video game, “Doom,” the Columbine shooters played, including “Doom” and the band “Marilyn Manson.” On the other hand, many well respected experts argue that violent entertainment linked to such acts is merely a coincidence, and that when it comes to real life, people tend to associate acts of aggression when the news media put too much focus on the suspect's connection with such media (Hill, 2007). As a result, studies conducted on mass shootings by the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime do not support the argument that there is a direct link between violent media and real life acts of aggression.

As video games, movies, and TV shows have evolved, the violence has been much more realistic and graphic. Research has shown how easy it is for people to see a direct link to acts of violence. Also, experts point out that violent media is just art imitating reality, and argue that such horrible acts will happen anyway with or without this form of media. Most people who watch violent media believe that it is not harmful towards them. In public opinion polls, 88% of those surveyed say they have not been affected negatively by violent media personally (Whitman, 1996).

As a result, imitation and copycat behavior affects the public the most when people start to think about protecting others from the negative influence of violent media (Potter, W. James, p. 36). When it comes to imitation and copycat behavior, many people look at violent media and connect it with violent crime. In studies on media violence, there are widespread beliefs that children are most vulnerable to the harmful effects of media violence. As a result, imitation and copycat behavior is more common in children than in adults (Bandura, et al., 1993b). Children are less experienced than adolescents and adults as their minds are not fully developed which makes it difficult for them to distinguish the difference between fantasy and reality (Van der Voort, 1986). Centerwall (1993b) says that children as young as 14 months “demonstrably observe and incorporate behavior seen on television” (p. 56). In a survey of young children, 60% said they frequently copied behaviors they had seen on television (Liebert, Neale, & Davidson, 1973). These claims are faulty because many people underestimate the ability for children to know the difference between reality and fantasy (Potter, p.71). Also, children who find it difficult to distinguish reality from fantasy have not been explained to understand the difference by adults. As a result, psychiatrists argue that violence is manifested by an individual's upbringing and that those who act out aggressively were already unstable to begin with, and are more likely to cause harm.

For filmmakers, when it comes to violence shown in their work, often address criticisms over aggression when someone copies an act seen in the film. For example, a scene in the film “Money Train,” showing a criminal attempting to rob a subway token seller by lighting the booth on fire with lighter fluid. The makers of this film claimed that this scene was depicting a real life crime method. When somebody copied the method depicted in the film, the movie makers defended themselves from criticism arguing that, “The copying of such fictional crime validated their claim that the movie was only reflecting real life” (Leland, 1995). Producers commonly argue that violence is just part of everyday life and that the media is only reflecting the violence.

When it comes to conducting experiments to determine the effect media violence has on people psychology laboratories have many weaknesses to support the argument on media violence (Freedman, p. 85). Flaws of these studies involve the failure to report any negative findings on the subject. Many scholars argue that much research that suggest positive findings regarding a link between media violence and aggression, have negative or inclusive results. For example, in an experiment by Anderson & Dill (2000) on video game, which measured aggression four different ways failed to find any significance that showed only positive findings. The main issue of finding a direct link is due to the failure of showing any negative findings to back this claim. With these studies it shows the lack of focus on the social problems effecting the person being experimented on.

Jonathan L. Freedman, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, (2002) conducted a study comparing the effects the media had on communities with and without a television set. The study showed how complicated it is to determine the role violent media plays in people's lives. Comparing those who had televisions to those without, showed that the content they choose to watch on TV was mainly based on their personalities and preferences (Freedman, p.136). Thus, showing that any difference between them in their behavior and/or aggression could not be due to the content people watch on television but because of the differences between them as people or their backgrounds, life situations, and so on. In contrast, those without TVs tend to live in third world countries such as Somalia and some countries in the Middle East and Africa, where access to television is only limited to a few individuals, are more unstable and dangerous than other countries with a TV set.

Experts on violent crime, Zimring and Hawkins (1997), analyzed data about television ownership and homicide rates in France, Germany, Italy, and Japan. In their analysis, Zimring and Hawkins, refuted claims by Centerwall (1989, 1992) that the availability of televisions caused an increase in crime and note: “They [the data from these four countries] the casual linkage between television set ownership and lethal violence for the period 1945-1975” (1997). As a result, these studies show that as violent media and crime are happening at the same time, how inconsistent and unlikely it is that households with and without a TV somehow are effected in a negative way.

As the effects of violent media underlie their misperceptions, beliefs have shown how researchers and the general public regard over what is considered violence (Potter, p. 85). As a result, these two groups of people have very different definitions over what it is considers as violence. This shows that an analysis of media content do not always seem relevant, and sounds silly. For example, when researchers report that the most violent shows on television include Tom and Jerry, Road Runner, The Three Stooges, and America’s Funniest Videos, the public cannot easily relate to such findings as they would not regard any of these programs as violent (Potter, p. 85). According to Morrison (1993), “Some critics look at this situation and conclude that social scientists must be using poor definitions of violence.” For some people when they see violence in the media like in a “Bugs Bunny” cartoon where a character is intentionally shot in the heart, many would say that is not an act of violence because it takes place in a cartoon. As a result, researchers would say this is an act of violence that takes place in the context of humor (Potter, p. 99). With the many ways people define violence, show that people are not consciously seeing what of violent media.

In conclusion, violence has existed ever since the beginning of time, long before any media. So the media cannot be held responsible for creating the concept of violence. If people continually spread the myth that media violence causes real acts of violence, it only makes matters worse and does nothing to solve the issue of real life violence.


Centerwall, B. S. (1993b). Television and violent crime. The Public Interest, 111, 56-71.

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Centerwall, B. S. (1989). Exposure to television as a cause of violence. In G. Comstock (Ed.), Public communication and behavior: Vol. 2 (p.58) San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Centerwall, B. S. (1992). Television violence: The scale of the problem and where to go from here. Journal of American Medical Association, 267, 3059-3063.

Freedman, J. L. (2002). Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression: Assessing the Scientific Evidence, University of Toronto Press, Inc.

Gordon, C. (1999, May 24). Much ado about violence. Maclean's Magazine, p. 13.

Leland, J. (1995, December 11). Violence, reel to real. Newsweek, p. 16.

Liebert, R. M., Neale J. M., & Davidson E. A., (1973). The early window: Effects on television on children and youth. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon.

Morrison, D.E. (1993). The idea of violence. In A. M. Hargrave (Ed), Violence in factual television, annual review 1993(pp. 124-129).

Potter, W. J. (2003). The 11 Myths of Media Violence, Sage Publications, Inc.

Van der Voort, T. H. A. (1986). Television violence: A child's-view. Amesterdam: North-Holland.

Whitman, D. (1996, December 16). I'm ok, you're are not. U.S News & World Report,pp. 24-30.

Zimring, F.e.,& Hawkins, G. (1997). Crime is not the problem: Lethal violence in America.New York: Oxford University Press.

© 2020 Nathan Neel

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