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Media violence research attempts to establish a link between consuming media violence and subsequent violent behavior. Although a majority of social scientists support this link, methodological and theoretical problems with the existing literature limit the conclusivity of its findings.
This is a general article. For more specific research see:
For several decades, particular since the advent of television, social scientists have engaged in research to determine whether violence displayed in the media is related to subsequent violent behavior among children and adults who view such media. This body of research is based on a psychological theory known as "Social Learning Theory" developed by Albert Bandura that suggests that one powerful way in which human beings learn is by watching other humans successfully accomplish various procedures that they wish to learn (an example would be a child learning to tie his or her shoes by watching an adult do the same thing.)
Although Social Learning Theory is not necessarily mutually exclusive to research suggesting that the pathway to aggression is primarily biological/genetic (see the work of Hare, 1993, Larsson, Andershed, & Lichtenstein, In Press, among others), media violence researchers typically focus on learning pathways to aggression rather than biological pathways. Models such as the General Aggression Model (Anderson & Dill, 2000) suggest that humans develop cognitive "scripts" for how to respond to stressful situations by watching individuals in the media (TV, movies, music and video games, primarily) respond to stressful situations. When potential models in the media respond violently, this activates violent cognitive scripts in the viewer's mind, increasing their subsequent aggression level. This model predicts both an immediate short-term increase in violent behavior immediately following a single viewing, as well as long-term increases in violent behavior following a pattern of viewing violent media.
Although organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have suggested that thousands (3500 according to the AAP) of studies have been conducted confirming this link, others have argued that this information is incorrect. Rather, only about two hundred studies have been conducted in peer-reviewed scientific journals on television, movie, music and video game violence effects. Critics argue that about half find some link between media and subsequent aggression (but not violent crime), whereas the other half do not find a link between consuming violent media and subsequent aggression of any kind (Freedman, 2002).
Media violence studies take two basic forms. Correlational studies measure exposure to media violence and associate these exposure levels with aggressive behavior or sometimes (but only seldom) violent criminal behavior. Experimental studies expose volunteers (usually college students, but sometimes other groups) to violent media and then measure their aggression in a laboratory setting. Famous studies include Bandura's bo-bo doll studies, Heusmann & Eron's cross national study, and Anderson & Dill's study of violent video game effects. Although these studies generally claim support for the social learning model, some cite a common set of flaws in these studies, leading some researchers to by skeptical of this literature (e.g. Savage, 2004; Olson, 2004; Freedman, 2002). The well-regarded cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker in his (2002) book, The Blank Slate criticizes this body of work for its methodological and theoretical flaws.
Models of a causal connection between media consumption and behavior include mechanisms underlying both short-term and long-term effects of media violence exposure. In the short term, it is theorized that media violence exposure increases arousal, primes aggressive scripts and cognitions, and activates the tendency to automatically imitate. When models in the media respond violently, this activates violent cognitive scripts in the viewer's mind, primes the individual's network of aggressive concepts, and increases the individuals level of physiological arousal; all increasing the likelihood in an increase in their subsequent aggression level (meaning an increase in aggressive thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors). It is hypothesized that as arousal increases, the ability to inhibit the imitative tendency decreases (Hurley, forthcoming). The process of excitation transfer is also theorized to play a role in short-term effects.
Such theories claim that in the long term, media violence exposure leads to the acquisition and elaboration of aggressive scripts, aggressive interpretational schemas, aggressive beliefs about the world and social behavior, and desensitizes individuals to violent stimuli . However critics contend that most effects demonstrated by media violence research have been inconsistent and small (see criticisms, below).
According to McQuail’s theory (2002), violence from media, especially television is encoded in the cognitive map of viewers, and subsequent viewing of television violence helps to maintain aggressive thoughts, ideas and behaviours.  Boyatzis, Matillo and Nesbit (1995, in Gunter and McAleer, 1997) investigated the children’s reaction to the popular series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to prove that children became more aggressive in their styles of play after watching an episode from this program. The research was as follows: "Fifty-two elementary-school girls and boys, aged between 5 and 11 years were randomly assigned either to watch an episode of Power Rangers or to a control group which did not see the episode. All the children were observed both before and after the programme while playing in their classroom. The researchers reported that children who had watched the Power Rangers episode exhibited a greater number of aggressive acts the next day at play than did children who had not been shown the episode. Indeed, children who had watched the episode committed seven times as many actions classed as aggressive as did the other children." (p.104) Those children displayed aggressive acts after watching the Power Rangers and tried to act certain scenes from the television program out while being the hero and carrying a gun because it is “cool” to fight against enemies. It is worth noting however that this study, like many others did not distinguish between aggression meant to harm others, and "aggressive play" in which children mutually enjoy acting out scenes from a show. Although skeptics claim that such research does not give enough evidence to indicate a direct causal connection between media and violence, it demonstrates the creation of the aggressive social scripts that are then available for use in actual future decisions and behaviors. Although the relevance of socio-cultural contexts wasn't evaluated in this sort of study, some like Flew and Humphreys (2005) believe that it can not be easily demonstrated that media violence causes aggression. 
Media violence research methods include laboratory experiments, correlational studies, and longitudinal studies. Experimental studies expose volunteers to violent media and then measure their aggression in a laboratory setting. However, some critics cite methodological flaws in these studies, leading some researchers to be skeptical of the literature which demonstrates a causal effect (e.g. Savage, 2004; Olson, 2004; Freedman, 2002). The cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker in his (2002) book, The Blank Slate criticizes this body of work for its methodological and theoretical flaws. Correlational studies measure exposure to media violence and associate these exposure levels with aggressive behavior but rarely with serious violent criminal behavior. Findings from longitudinal studies have been inconsistent in correlating early exposure to media violence with later aggressiveness beyond what is predicted from early aggressiveness alone (Huesmann & Miller, 1990; Huesmann, Moise, & Podolski, 1997; Eron, Huesmann, Lefkowitz & Walder, 1972; Johnson, et al., 2002; Huesmann & Taylor, 2002). Within these studies some measures are "statistically significant" whereas others are not (or results may vary between groups of participants) making interpretation difficult and often subject to who is interpreting the findings (people advocating a causal link versus skeptics of a causal link).
Court cases regarding media violence (most recently regarding video games) have generally not been positive regarding the convincing nature of the findings (see the summary by the Entertainment Software Association provided in external links). Most court cases find that such research does not meet standards of admissibility (e.g. Daubert standard) or fail to convincingly show harm. Similarly a recent Surgeon General's report minimized the importance of media effects in contributing to youth violence. By contrast however, most American scientific organizations such as the American Psychological Association and American Academy of Pediatrics are supportive of a link between media violence and aggression.
Criticisms of Media Violence Research
Although organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have suggested that thousands (3500 according to the AAP) of studies have been conducted confirming this link, others have argued that this information is incorrect. Rather, only about two hundred studies (confirmed by meta-analyses such as Paik and Comstock, 1994) have been conducted in peer-reviewed scientific journals on television, movie, music and video game violence effects. Critics argue that about half find some link between media and subsequent aggression (but not violent crime), whereas the other half do not find a link between consuming violent media and subsequent aggression of any kind.
Criticisms of the media violence link focus on a number of methodological and theoretical problems including (but not limited to) the following (see Freedman, 2002; Olson, 2004; Tedeschi & Quigley, 1996; Pinker, 2002):
- Failure to employ Standardized, reliable and valid measures of aggression and media violence exposure. Although measurement of psychological variables is always tricky at best, it is generally accepted that measurement techniques should be standardized, reliable and valid, as demonstrated empirically. However, a read of the studies involved notes that the measurement tools involved are often unstandardized, sloppily employed and fail to report reliability coefficients. Examples include the "Competitive Reaction Time Test" in which participants believe that they are punishing an opponent for losing in a reaction time test by subjecting the opponent to noise blasts or electric shocks. There is no standardized way of employing this task, raising the possibility that authors may manipulate the results to support their conclusions. This task may produce dozens of different possible ways to measure "aggression", all from a single participant's data. Without a standardized way of employing and measuring aggression using this task, there is no way of knowing whether the results reported are a valid measure of aggression, or were selected from among the possible alternatives simply because they produced positive findings where other alternatives did not. However, developing newer, valid measures of aggression has proven difficult.
- Failure to report negative findings. Many of the articles that purport positive findings regarding a link between media violence and subsequent aggression, on a closer read, actually have negative or inconclusive results. One example is the experimental portion of Anderson & Dill (2000; with video games) which measures aggression four separate ways (using an unstandardized, unreliable and unvalidated measure of aggression, the Competitive Reaction Time Test mentioned above) and finds significance for only one of those measures. Had a statistical adjustment known as a Bonferroni correction been properly employed, that fourth finding also would have been insignificant. This issue of selective reporting differs from the "file drawer" effect in which journals fail to publish articles with negative findings. Rather, this is due to authors finding a "mixed bag" of results and discussing only the supportive findings and ignoring the negative findings within a single manuscript. The problem of non-reporting of non-significant findings (the so-called "file cabinet effect") is a problem throughout all areas of science but may be a particular issue for publicized areas such as media violence.
- Failure to account for "third" variables. Media violence studies regularly fail to account for other variables such as genetics, personality and exposure to family violence that may explain both why some people become violent and why those same people may choose to expose themselves to violent media.
- Failure to adequately define "aggression." Experimental measures of aggression have been questioned by critics (Mussen & Rutherford, 1961; Deselms & Altman, 2003). The main concern of critics has been the issue of the external validity of experimental measures of aggression. The validity of the concept of aggression itself, however, is rarely questioned. Highly detailed taxonomies of different forms of aggression do exist. Whether or not researchers agree on the particular terminology used to indicate the particular sub-types of aggression (i.e. relational versus social aggression), concepts of aggression are always operationally defined in peer-reviewed journals. However many of these operational definitions of aggression are specifically criticized. Many experimental measures of aggression are rather questionable (Mussen & Rutherford, 1961; Berkowitz, 1965; Bushman & Anderson, 2002; Deselms & Altman, 2003). Other studies fail to differentiate between "aggression" aimed at causing harm to another person, and "aggressive play" in which two individuals (usually children) may pretend to engage in aggressive behavior, but do so consensually for the purpose of mutual enjoyment. (Goldstein)
- Small "effects" sizes. In the research world, the meaning of "statistical significance" can be ambiguous. A measure of effect size can aid in the interpretation of statistical significance. In a meta-analysis of 217 studies by Paik and Comstock (1994), effect sizes for experiments were r = .37 and r = .19 for surveys, which are small to moderate effects. Most of these studies however did not actually measure aggression against another person. Paik and Comstock note that when aggression toward another person, and particularly actual violent crime is considered, the relationship between media violence and these outcomes is near zero. Effects can vary according to their size (for example the effects of eating bananas on your mood could very well be "statistically significant" but would be tiny, almost imperceptible, where as the effect of a death in the immediate family would also be "statistically significant" but obviously much larger). Media violence studies usually produce very small, transient effects that do not translate into large effects in the real world. Media violence researchers often defend this by stating that many medical studies also produce small effects (although as Block and Crain, 2007, note, these researchers may have miscalculated the effect sizes from medical research).
- Media violence rates are not correlated with violent crime rates. Ultimately the biggest problem for this body of literature is that for this theory to be true, media violence (which appears to have been consistently and unfailingly on the rise since the 1950s) should be well correlated with violent crime (which has been cycling up and down throughout human history). By discussing only the data from the 1950s through the 1990s, media violence researchers create the illusion that there is a correlation, when in fact there is not. Large spikes in violent crime in the United States occurred without associated media violence spikes during the 1880s (when records were first kept) and 1930s. The homicide rate in the United States has never been higher than during the 1930s. Similarly, this theory fails to explain why violent crime rates (including among juveniles) dramatically fell in the mid 1990s and have stayed low, during a time when media violence has continued to increase, and saw the addition of violent video games. Lastly media violence researchers can not explain why many countries with media violence rates similar to or equal to the U.S. (such as Norway, Canada, Japan, etc.) have much lower violent crime rates. Huesmann & Eron's own cross-national study (which is often cited in support of media violence effects) failed to find a link between television violence and aggressive behavior in most of the countries included in the analysis (including America, and even in studies on American boys).
Media Violence Researchers' Response to Criticisms
- Regarding instruments used to measure aggression, media researchers note that better measures are often not readily available and most critics of media violence research do not appear to offer alternatives. That is, a type II error may be made in denying the importance of research findings that suggest a connection. Also measuring "violent criminal behavior" in laboratory studies would clearly be unethical, much the same way as experimental studies of smoking and lung cancer would have been unethical (Bushman & Anderson, 2001).
- Regarding the inconclusive nature of some findings, media researchers often contend that it is the critics who are misinterpreting or selectively reporting studies (Anderson et al., 2003). It may be that both sides of the debate are highlighting separate findings that are most favorable to their own "cause".
- Regarding "third" variables, media violence researchers acknowledge that other variables may play a role in aggression (Bushman & Anderson, 2001) and that aggression is due to a confluence of variables. These variables are known as "third variables" and if found, would probably be mediator variables (which differ from moderator variables). As of yet, no third variable has been shown to explain away media violence effects, although this may be because media violence researchers have consistently failed to control for variables such as family violence, genetics or personality. Confusion commonly arises among non-scientists in the interpretation of mediaional versus moderational(interaction) effects. A mediator variable could 'explain away' media violence effects, whereas a moderator variable cannot. For instance, trait aggressiveness has been demonstrated to moderate media violence effects (Bushman), but is commonly misunderstood as a variable that 'explains away' the causal link between exposure and behavior, although in some studies "trait aggression" does appear to account for any link between media violence exposure and aggression. Other variables have also been found to moderate media violence effects (Bushman & Geen, 1990). Another point of confusion in understanding the media violence literature is the way researchers deal with potential confounding variables. Researchers use random assignment to neutralize the effects of what commonly are cited as third variables (i.e. gender, trait aggressiveness, preference for violent media). Because experimental designs employ random assignment to conditions, the effect of such attributive variables on experimental results is assumed to be random (not systematic). However, the same can not be said for correlational studies, and failure to control for such variables in correlational studies limits the interpretation of such studies. Often, something as simple as gender proves capable of "mediating" media violence effects.
- Definitions of aggression have improved with time. Most researchers agree that aggression, as a construct involves willful intent to cause harm or intent to another person who would wish to avoid the same. As such the problem may have less to do with the definition of aggression, but rather how aggression is measured in studies, and how aggression and violent crime are used interchangeably in the public eye.
- Much of the debate on this issue seems to revolve around ambiguity regarding what is considered a "small" effect. Media violence researchers contend that effect sizes noted in media violence effects are similar to those found in some medical research which is considered important by the medical community (Bushman & Anderson, 2001), although medical research may suffer from some of the same interpretational flaws as social science. Also Block & Crain (2007) recently found that social scientists (Bushman & Anderson, 2001) had been miscalculating some medical effect sizes. The interpretation of effect size in both medical and social science remains in its infancy.
- More recently, media violence experts have acknowledged that societal media consumption and violent crime rates are not well associated, but claim that this is likely due to other variable that are poorly understood. However, this effect remains poorly explained by current media violent theories, and media violence researchers may need to be more careful not to retreat to an unfalsifiable theory - one that cannot be disproven (Freedman, 2002).
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- Wartella, E., Olivarez, A. & Jennings, N. (2002). "Children and Television Violence in the United States", in Denis McQuail (ed.), McQuail’s Reader in Mass Communication Theory, Sage: London ISBN 978-0761972426
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- Flew, Terry and Humphreys, Sal (2005) "Games: Technology, Industry, Culture" in Terry Flew, New Media: an Introduction (second edition), Oxford University Press, South Melbourne 101-114. ISBN 978-0195550412
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