Media Violence IS Part of the Problem

Recent debates over the surge in horrific tragedies involving gun violence have rekindled the debate over media violence effects. Clearly, there are multiple contributors to the problem, especially the easy availability of guns, including assault-style weapons. But media violence is part of the problem, too, and neither of these influences should be ignored. Because I’ve  been thrown back into the center of the debate since being recently quoted in Joe Nocera’s column in The New York Times, I have updated an earlier essay on the topic here.

This article is pretty long for a blog. So I’ll summarize my conclusions up-front and then talk about the research on which these conclusions are based. Media violence cannot be pinpointed as THE CAUSE of any violent action. Clearly, when a tragedy occurs, it is the result of multiple unhealthy forces working together. But most forms of media violence  increase the probability of violent or hostile actions occurring and increase the risk that any violence that occurs will be more intense or extreme.

Let me make this clear at the outset: I do not advocate censorship of media violence. However, I do advocate truth-telling about the effects of media violence so that the public, the media, and the entertainment industry can be educated about the effects and take whatever actions are warranted.

Summary of What  Research Says about Media Violence

Media violence contributes to the following problems in children and adolescents:

  • Imitation and social learning of violent behaviors
  • Desensitization and reduced empathy for the victims of violence
  • Increases in feelings of hostility
  • Increased perceptions of the world as a hostile, dangerous place
Here are some of the specifics of these effects:

Imitation and Social Learning

Most of the research and public attention has focused on the important question of whether viewing violence in the media makes children and adolescents more violent. The question is not, of course, whether media violence causes violence, but whether viewing violence contributes to the likelihood that someone will commit violence or increases the severity of violence when it’s committed. The most direct and obvious way in which viewing violence contributes to violent behavior is through imitation or social learning. There is a wealth of psychological research demonstrating that learning often occurs through imitation, and, of course, most parents know that children imitate televised words and actions from an early age. Media apologists, who cannot deny that imitation sometimes happens, try to argue that the effects are trivial because children know better than to imitate anything that’s really harmful. We are all familiar with incidents in which criminal and lethal violence has had an uncanny resemblance to a scene in a movie. However, any crime is the result of many influences acting together, and skeptics and even researchers will point out that isolated anecdotes cannot be generalized to society at large. Because most children are so fully immersed in our media culture, it is usually difficult to link a specific media program to a specific harmful outcome, even though some similarities between media scenarios and subsequent acts seem too close to be considered total coincidences.

World Wresting Federation and Serious Playground Injuries

Once in a while researchers get the chance to conduct a “natural experiment” that makes a vivid and compelling point in a systematic and rigorous fashion. This happened in the mid 1990’s in Israel, shortly after World Wrestling Federation (now known as World Wresting Entertainment) was introduced to Israeli TV. Noting news reports that this program had resulted in a crisis of playground injuries in schools, Dafna Lemish of Tel Aviv University conducted a nationwide survey of elementary school principals, with follow-up questionnaires of teachers and students in selected schools. (1) What Lemish found was that more than half of the principals responding to her survey reported that WWF-type fighting had created problems in their schools. The principals had no trouble distinguishing the imitative behavior they were suddenly seeing from the martial-arts type behaviors that had occurred prior to the arrival of WWF. The new behaviors occurred during re-creations of specific wrestling matches that had aired, and included banging heads, throwing opponents to the floor and jumping onto them from furniture, poking their eyes with fingers, pulling their hair, and grabbing their genital areas. Almost half of the responding principals reported that these new behaviors had necessitated first aid within the school, and almost one fourth reported injuries (including broken bones, loss of consciousness, and concussions) that required emergency room visits or professional medical care. Although most of the children involved were old enough to know that the wrestling they were watching was fake, this knowledge did not stop many of them from trying out the moves themselves. The mayhem continued throughout Israel until programmers agreed to reduce the frequency with which WWF appeared, and until schools initiated media literacy programs designed to counteract the program’s effects.


Simply copying what is seen in the media is only one means by which viewing violence contributes to unhealthy outcomes among youth. Another commonly discussed psychological process is desensitization. Desensitization occurs when an emotional response is repeatedly evoked in situations in which the action tendency that is associated with the emotion proves irrelevant or unnecessary. For example, most people become emotionally aroused when they see a snake slithering toward them. The physiological response they are experiencing is part of what is called the “fight or flight” reaction — an innate tendency that prepares an organism to do what it needs to do when it’s threatened. But the individual who spends a good deal of time around harmless, nonpoisonous snakes, knows there is no need to retreat or attack the animal, and over time, the body “learns” not to experience increased heart rated, blood pressure, or other physiological concomitants of fear at the sight of snakes. In a somewhat analogous fashion, exposure to media violence, particularly that which entails bitter hostilities or the graphic display of injuries, initially induces an intense emotional reaction in viewers. Over time and with repeated exposure in the context of entertainment and relaxation, however, many viewers exhibit decreasing emotional responses to the depiction of violence and injury. Studies have documented that desensitization results in reduced arousal and emotional disturbance while witnessing violence. (2) More disturbingly, studies have reported that desensitization leads children to wait longer to call an adult to intervene in a witnessed physical altercation between peers (3), and results in a reduction in sympathy for the victims of domestic abuse. (4) Few people would argue that these are healthy outcomes. Today’s youth have greater opportunities for desensitization to media violence than ever before. We now have so many television channels, so many movies on video, and so many video- , computer-, and Internet-based games available, that media-violence aficionados have a virtually limitless supply and can play intensely gruesome images over and over, often in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

Increases in Hostility

A third common outcome of viewing violence is an increase in hostile feelings. Some people argue that the well-substantiated correlation between chronic hostility and violence viewing simply shows that people who are already hostile are more likely to choose violence as entertainment. Well, it’s true that violent, hostile people are more attracted to media violence (5), but research shows that the relationship goes both ways. A 1992 field investigation (6) is a good illustration of this process. Researchers in Quebec went to a theater and asked moviegoers to fill out the Buss-Durkee hostility inventory either before or after they viewed a film that they themselves had selected. The findings showed that both the male and female viewers who had chosen the Chuck Norris action movie, Missing in Action, were initially more hostile than the viewers who had selected the nonviolent drama, A Passage to India, demonstrating that people who were more hostile to begin with were more likely to be attracted to a violent than a nonviolent film. However, viewers’ levels of hostility were even higher after viewing the violent movie, but were at the same low level after viewing the nonviolent movie. This study once again disproves the sometimes-popular notion of “catharsis,” that violence viewing helps purge people of their hostile inclinations. To the contrary.

Viewing the World Through a Hostile Lens

What are the consequences of this increased hostility after viewing violence? Often, it interferes with the ability to interact in interpersonal settings. One aspect of this effect has been termed an increased hostile attribution bias. A 1998 study illustrated this outcome in an experiment in which 9- to 11-year-old girls and boys were asked to play one of two video games. (7) One was a nonviolent sports game called NBAJAM:TE; the other was a somewhat sanitized version of MORTAL KOMBAT II, a highly violent martial arts games. After playing the game, the children were read five stories involving provoking incidents in which the intention of the provoker was ambiguous. For example, in one story, a child gets hit in the back with a ball, but it is unclear whether the person who threw the ball has done this on purpose or by accident. In answering questions after hearing the stories, the children who had just played the violent video game were more likely than those who had played the nonviolent game to attribute bad motives and negative feelings to the perpetrator, and to anticipate that they themselves would retaliate if they were in that situation. Participating in violence in fantasy apparently cast a negative cloud over the children’s views of interpersonal interactions.

An Enduring Hostile Mental Framework

And this increase in hostility is not necessarily short-lived. A 1999 experiment looked at the interpersonal consequences of repeated exposure to gratuitous violence in movies. (8) Researchers randomly assigned both male and female college students to view either intensely violent or nonviolent feature films for four days in a row. On the fifth day, in a purportedly unrelated study, the participants were put in a position to help or hinder another person’s chances of future employment. The surprising results indicated that both the men and the women who had received the recent daily dose of movie violence were more willing to undermine that person’s job prospects, whether she had treated them well or had behaved in an insulting fashion. The repeated violence viewing apparently provided what the researchers termed an enduring hostile mental framework that damaged interactions that were affectively neutral as well as those that involved provocation.

Meta-Analyses Confirm the Consensus on Media Violence

These are just a few studies that illustrate some of the unhealthy effects of media violence. But how representative are these studies? Although media spokespersons argue that the findings are inconsistent, meta-analyses, which statistically combine the findings of all the studies on a particular topic, show otherwise. A widely quoted meta-analysis was conducted by Paik and Comstock in 1994. (9) This meta-analysis combined the results of 217 empirical studies appearing between 1957 and 1990, and included both published and unpublished studies that reported on the relationship between viewing violence and a variety of types of antisocial behavior. Using the correlation coefficient (r) as a measure of association, Paik and Comstock reported an overall r of .31. Although the size of the correlations varied depending on the age of the participant and the genre of programming, a significant association was observed for viewers of all ages and for all genres of programming.

A meta-analysis conducted in 2001 (10) confirmed and updated Paik and Comstock’s conclusions. Bushman and Anderson’s analysis included studies that appeared between 1956 and 2000. The sample of studies was smaller because it included only published studies and only studies involving aggressive behavior (eliminating measures of self-report of aggressive intent and nonviolent antisocial effects). The meta-analysis, which included 202 independent samples, found an overall correlation of .20 between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior. Anderson and Bushman also published a meta-analysis of the effects of violent video games on aggression and found a similar effect size (r = .19, based on 33 independent tests). (11) A 2010 update, expanded to nonwestern countries as well, produced similar outcomes. (12)

Confronted with the meta-analytic results that the findings on the relationship between media violence on aggressive and hostile behaviors consistently show an effect, media partisans often claim that the effects are very small. However, Bushman and Anderson (13) have compared the results of media violence meta-analyses to those of well-documented relationships in nine other areas. Their data showed that Paik and Comstock’s media-violence effect was second in size only to the association between smoking and lung cancer. Even using the smaller effect sizes associated with Bushman and Anderson’s own meta-analyses, the media violence effect sizes are still among the largest — larger, for example, than the relationship between exposure to lead and low IQ in children, and almost twice as large as the relationship between calcium intake and bone density.

What Can Be Done to Reduce Media-Violence Effects?

The research I’ve described provides overwhelming evidence that growing up with unrestricted access to media violence is, in the least, very unhealthy for young people. Nonetheless, media violence comes into our homes automatically through television, and is actively marketed to children and adolescents (even when the content is labeled as appropriate only for “mature” audiences). (14) Moreover, it is extremely difficult to disseminate the message of media violence’s harms. An important component of this difficulty is the fact that violent entertainment is a highly lucrative business and the entertainment industry is loath to communicate information suggesting that its products are harmful. An intriguing analysis by Bushman and Anderson, comparing the cumulative scientific evidence to the way the issue has been reported in the press, revealed that as the evidence for the aggression-promoting effect of media violence has become stronger, news coverage has implied that the relationship was weaker and weaker. (15) Parents have been given tools, such as media ratings and filtering devices like the V-chip, but publicity for these tools has been so sporadic that parents have little understanding of what they are or how to use them. (16) Parents need to receive better information about the effects of media violence, and they need more convenient and reliable means of understanding what to expect in a television program, movie, or video game.

Parents also need information on parenting strategies that will help them counteract some of the negative effects of media violence on their children.  As for reducing the aggression-promoting effect of media violence, research is just beginning to explore intervention strategies that can be used by parents and teachers. (17)  In a study published in 2000 (18), my colleagues and I tested means of counteracting the effects of classic cartoons, a genre involving nonstop slapstick violence that trivializes the consequences to the victim. This study showed not only that watching a Woody Woodpecker cartoon could increase boys’ endorsement of aggressive solutions to problems, but that empathy-promoting instructions could intervene in this effect. Second- through sixth- grade boys were randomly assigned to one of three groups: (i) a no-mediation group, who watched the cartoon without instructions; (ii) a mediation group who were asked, before viewing, to keep in mind the feelings of the man in the cartoon (this was the tree surgeon who was the target of Woody’s attacks); and (iii) a control group, who didn’t see a cartoon. As is usually found in such studies, the children who had just seen the violent cartoon without instructions scored higher on pro-violence attitudes than those in the control condition (showing stronger agreement with statements like, “Sometimes fighting is a good way to get what you want”). However, the children who were asked to think about the victim’s feelings showed no such increase in pro-violence attitudes. As a side-effect, this empathy-promoting intervention reduced the degree to which the children found the cartoon funny. An empathy-promoting intervention may therefore have a dual benefit — intervening in the direct effect of viewing and perhaps reducing future choices of similar fare. More research is needed to explore other ways to intervene in the negative effects of media violence.

In conclusion, media violence has many unhealthy effects on children and adolescents. Even though violence has been and will continue to be a staple of our media environment, it is appropriate to speak out when especially problematic presentations are aired in contexts in which children are likely to see them and when inappropriate programming is actively marketed to vulnerable young people. Although the entertainment industries are mostly concerned with profits, they sometimes react to large-scale criticism, and sponsors and local television stations prefer to avoid public censure.

Beyond complaining about media practices, researchers and advocates for the welfare of children can work to diminish the negative influence of media violence by providing better public education about media effects, by developing and promoting more useful content labels and filters, and by exploring effective intervention strategies based on research findings. We also need to expand media literacy education for children, including helping them place what they see in perspective, and encouraging them to engage in a critical analysis of their own media choices.

References on Media Violence Effects

(1) Lemish, D. (1997). The school as a wrestling arena: The modeling of a television series. Communication, 22 (4), 395- 418.

(2) Cline, V.B., Croft, R.G., & Courrier, S. (1973). Desensitization of children to television violence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 360-365.

(3) Molitor, F., & Hirsch, K. W. (1994). Children’s toleration of real-life aggression after exposure to media violence: A replication of the Drabman and Thomas studies. Child Study Journal, 24, 191-207.

(4) Mullin, C.R., & Linz, D. (1995). Desensitization and resensitization to violence against women: Effects of exposure to sexually violent films on judgments of domestic violence victims. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69, 449- 459.

(5) Goldstein, J., Ed. (1998). Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment. New York: Oxford University Press.

(6) Black, S.L., & Bevan, S. (1992). At the movies with Buss and Durkee: A natural experiment on film violence. Aggressive Behavior, 18, 37-45.

(7) Kirsh, S. J. (1998). Seeing the world through Mortal Kombat-colored glasses: violent video games and the development of a short-term hostile attribution bias. Childhood, 5 (2), 177-184.

(8) Zillmann, D., & Weaver, J. B. III (1999). Effects of prolonged exposure to gratuitous media violence on provoked and unprovoked hostile behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 29, 145-165.

(9) Paik, H., & Comstock, G. (1994). The effects of television violence on antisocial behavior: a meta-analysis. Communication Research, 21, 516-546.

(10) Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2001). Media violence and the American public: Scientific facts versus media misinformation. American Psychologist, 56, 477-489.

(11) Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2001). Effects of violent video games on aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, aggressive affect, physiological arousal, and prosocial behavior: A meta-analytic review of the scientific literature. Psychological Science, 12, 353-359.

(12) Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B.J., Sakamoto, A., Rothstein, H.R., & Saleem, M. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: A Meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin,136, 151-173.

(13) Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2001). Media violence and the American public: Scientific facts versus media misinformation. American Psychologist, 56, 477-489.

(14) Federal Trade Commission (2000). Marketing violence to children: A review of self-regulation and industry practices in the motion picture, music recording, & electronic game industries. Washington, D.C.: Federal Trade Commission.

(15) Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2001). Media violence and the American public: Scientific facts versus media misinformation. American Psychologist, 56, 477-489.

(16) Bushman, B. J., & Cantor, J. (2003). Media ratings for violence and sex: Implications for policymakers and parents. American Psychologist, 58 (20), 130-141.

(17) Cantor, J., & Wilson, B. J. (2003). Media and Violence: Intervention strategies for reducing aggression. Media Psychology, 5, 363-403.

(18) Nathanson A.I., & Cantor, J. (2000). Reducing the aggression-promoting effect of violent cartoons by increasing children’s fictional involvement with the victim. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 44, 125-142.

Media Violence Archive

If you’re looking for more research on this topic, check out the Media Violence Archive, which has posted the abstracts of relevant articles that were search for using the same methods used in the meta-analyses cited above.


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