Does Violent Media Cause Aggression?

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

A national study in 1999 reported that the average American child spends about 40 hours per week viewing media (television, movies, video games, etc). Think about the lost potential of children spending the equivalent of a full-time job, passively viewing entertainment. No wonder childhood obesity is considered the fastest growing health problem in America today. Alarmingly, American children consume a toxic dose of media violence. By the time the average American child completes elementary school he or she has seen 8000 murders and over 100,000 other acts of violence on television. These figures are even higher if the child watches cable television or has a DVD or videocassette player.

Many researchers have tried to determine why the rate of violent crime in the United States is so high compared with the rate of violence in other industrialized nations. They discovered a link between media violence and real violence. Historically violence in the United States increased dramatically in 1965, when the first generation of television watchers became old enough to start committing violent crime. Studies in several countries show a similar pattern. As television is introduced into a new country, the rate of violent crime increases.

An argument in support of violent media claims that just because there is a link, does not mean that violent media causes violence in the real world. However, in July 2000, six major professional associations signed a joint statement reporting “at this time, well over 1,000 studies point overwhelmingly to a causal connection between media violence and aggressive behavior in some children.” (American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association).

If the evidence linking violent media with violence in the real world is so strong, why isn’t it being reported in the news media? A recent Newsweek magazine article even claimed that there was no reliable evidence showing that viewing violent media caused aggression (Newsweek, Dec. 11, 1995). Scientists were told that Newsweek would not publish their rebuttal. The New York Times also refused to print a scientific rebuttal to an op-ed piece criticizing media violence research (American Psychologist, June/July, 2001, page 486). Bushman and Anderson from Iowa State University have outlined a few reasons why the news media have failed to accurately report on the dangers of media violence:

1. Multi-national, multi-media corporations have a huge financial interest in promoting the consumption of violent media around the world, and in suppressing evidence that would discourage people from consuming violent media.
2. Newspapers get a lot of their advertising revenue from the makers of violent media who advertise films and television programs.
3. Print news media may not wish to print controversial stories potentially offensive to their readers, thus losing subscriptions or advertisers.
4. Scientists are not good media spokespersons. They do not produce quick, dramatic sound bites on the 6 o’clock news. Scientists are trained to convey the limitations of their research, to speak in qualified, measured, moderate tones. This style of communicating can appear unconvincing and boring to the average consumer of media. Also, scientists do not typically have the time and money to lobby and promote their findings.
5. Journalists, in their desire to appear objective and fair, may promote contrary views, even those lacking scientific scrutiny, in a misguided attempt to present more than one side of a controversial issue.
6. Those with a financial motivation to suppress information that discourages the consumption of violent media have a lot of money available to hire writers, attorneys, and others to confuse and mislead the public.

What can the average person do about this serious problem? First, get an education about the strong link between violent media and aggression. The American Psychological Association website is a good place to start. Second, limit the content and the time both you and your children consume media. One way to limit this is to set a family rule that for every hour of television watching, or video games, you have to do one hour of exercise or outdoor activity. Third, encourage your children to engage in confidence building activities such as: athletics, art, music, dance, and science, instead of passively viewing entertainment. Fourth, share this information with family and friends. Finally, support legislation that allows consumers access to information about the content of the media, allowing parents to monitor and control what their children watch. We can reduce violence, one child at a time.